If you are a jazz aficionado and have never been to Sous La Terre, you owe it to yourself to go downtown one Friday or Saturday night and listen to Henry Pugh, Jr. play at this “Downtown-Underground” jazz club. For a quarter of a century, this Jazzman has entertained Montgomery’s jazz fans.
Henry Pugh began playing at this club during an earlier era. Then it was the Keyhole Club and later named Quinns. The spiral staircase that Henry and his fellow dark hued musicians used to enter the club remains at the rear of the stage, as a crude reminder of this segregated past.
A few weeks ago, Margaret and I returned to the basement of 82 Commerce Street. For us; it was a step back in time. Our last night at Sous La Terre, nearly six years ago, the late great trumpeter, Erskine Hawkins of “Tuxedo Junction” fame, played to a full house.
On that night, I remember Chick Cleveland, the former Air War College commander, being there. He told me that he became a fan of Hawkins in the late 1940s, while attending West Point. He said, he often went into New York City’s Harlem District and listened to Hawkins play at the Apollo Theater.
There were other occasions that Margaret and I were at Sous La Terre. We would go there with our friend Mike Land, an entertainment reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser. Mike would go there with actors and actress after the Saturday night performance at the Alabama Shakespeare Theater. Mike is no longer at the paper, he is in Columbus, Missouri attending graduate school and teaching at the University of Missouri. I wonder who introduces the new folks at the theater to Sous La Terre these days?
Enough reminiscing, back to our recent visit to the club. As we approached Commerce Street shortly after 1:00 a.m., I noticed several couples walking across Bibb Street. They had been at Sous La Terre earlier and walked over to the Brew Pub on Jefferson Avenue and were returning to claim their car on Commerce Street. I couldn’t help but think what a rare sight, watching couples walk around downtown Montgomery after dark.
Upon entering the club, shortly after midnight, we found little had changed. That distinctive musk created when tobacco smoke combines with an array of whiskey odors greeted us at the top of the stairs leading to the club’s basement lounge. I remembered the rest rooms being to the right at the foot of the stairs.
After paying a three dollar cover charge, that included a stamp of florescent ink on the back of the hand, we took a seat at a table in the front of the lounge. While we were getting comfortable in our seats, our eyes adjusting to dimmed lights, long time waiter, Reginald Brady, took our order for cocktails. With time to look around before the next set, Margaret and I reminisced about other visits to the underground.
Our first visit to Sous La Terre was in the early 1980’s when Margaret was on active duty in the Air Force. Then, as now, we found the club to be a place where Montgomerians of every hue were comfortably entertained by good music and dancing.
Several years ago when Wynton Marsalis played at the Davis Theater, he visited Sous La Terre. While there, the euphonic ambiance of the club spurred the celebrated trumpeter to entertain a fortuitous crowd with an impromptu jam session.
Henry Pugh, Jr. keeps a seat on the bandstand near his keyboard for the ladies in the house. During the evening (more correctly, morning; he does not start playing until after mid-night) he summons select female guests to this seat for a song. This is a tradition that the club’s clientele enjoys.
As an observer or a dancer, you are bound to enjoy the dance floor. I must confess, while sitting, I found the thought of dancing a bit intimidating. But, as the evening wore on and pleasant memories from times past began to merge with a few cocktails and songs like “Unforgettable” and “Further On Up The Road,” I found myself leading Margaret to the dance floor.
The dress code at Sous La Terre is decidedly relaxed, with variations from blue jeans to the avant-garde to traditional evening wear. I was comfortable in a jacket with open collar, as was Mark Jackson, who took to the stage and sang ‘Hello Dolly’. Judging from the crowd’s reactions, most guests thought he did a fair rendition of the late-great Louis Armstrong’s theme song.
By 3:00 a.m., every table in the club was full and the dance floor was hopping. (Reginald told me later, 75 people were in the club) I don’t know where all those folks came from, but they all seemed to be having a good time. And that was the way it was the last time Margaret and I went to Sous La Terre. We had a good time.
It is not necessary for you to be a jazz aficionado to enjoy a euphoric night out at Montgomery’s downtown jazz club. Sous La Terre is open on Friday and Saturday nights from 11:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. the follower morning. Guests park on Commerce Street in front of the club
Originally Published: 1997, Montgomery Living