Soul Sessions Podcast: Malcolm White
On today's episode, Malcolm White is the visionary and cultural provocateur behind Hal & Mal's restaurant and the Hal's St. Paddy's Parade founded alongside his late brother, Harold White.
Today, White serves as a cultural ambassador from Mississippi and proudly tells the story of his adopted hometown, here in Jackson.
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PAUL: This is Soul Sessions, conversations on culture from Jackson, Mississippi.
I'm your host, Paul Wolf, bringing you a look at the people, the places and the events that make us the City With Soul. And on today's show, Malcolm White is the visionary and cultural provocateur behind Hal & Mal's restaurant and the Hal's St. Paddy's Parade founded alongside his late brother, Harold White. Today, White serves as a cultural ambassador from Mississippi and proudly tells the story of his adopted hometown, here in Jackson.
Malcolm, Thank you so much for being here today.
PAUL: Always glad to hear from you. I call you a cultural provocateur. You're the guy that makes things happen in the City With Soul and the state of Mississippi. Of course, most folks know you from your restaurant. Hal & Mal's, many may know you from your past stint as the director of Mississippi arts commission. And of course the Hal's St. Paddy's Parade.
MALCOLM: I was also the state tourism director once upon a time.
PAUL: Yes, you were. I do want to know from you, a little more about you and about the work that you do.
MALCOLM: I grew up near the coast. I grew up in a culture that was affiliated with New Orleans and Mardi Gras and parading and celebrating culture, so that's something that's always been intuitive to me. And when I moved to Jackson in 1979, I realized quickly there wasn't any of that. And so I began to have Mardi Gras parties, St. Patrick's parties, celebrating all sorts of music. Promoting the blues, promoting Mississippi's story. And the St. Patty's thing really caught on, I was at that point working at George Street grocery, or working with George Street grocery. And so I went to the owner and I said, "Hey, I want to stage of parade". He said, "Fine". I was also booking Jubilee Jam, Zoo Blues. I had created WellsFest and a lot of other things I had begun my career in special events as a cultural provocateur, as you say.
PAUL: The music man, I call you. I mean, you're responsible for so many great acts who have come through Jackson and you continue to bring great acts to Jackson through your restaurant and through the Hal's St. Paddy's Parade and festival. We had a couple of off years, obviously, everyone knows COVID has been a thing for the past couple, but this year parade on!
MALCOLM: Yeah. We've had a pause but so has the rest of the globe, so there's nothing unique about us. We are ready to go. Right about now I think we could use a parade.
PAUL: Yes, sir.
MALCOLM: And that's what we intend to do, is to have a parade on March the 26.
PAUL: I totally agree with you. A point of personal privilege I'll mention for the first time I get to march with your clan, your group, the O'Tuxers. I'm very excited about this.
MALCOLM: Oh, great, welcome. We started in year two, marching as the O'Tux Society. It was an idea that I knocked off from New Orleans. New Orleans St. Patrick's day is really a bunch of people dressed up in tuxedos marching through the French quarter, handing out flowers for kisses. Ours of course is much more kin to Mardi Gras than it is St. Patrick's day. But I did pick up some elements from this parade or that. St. Joseph's in New Orleans is very similar to the St. Patrick's.
So I took the guys in tuxedo and we were celebrating the 100th year of the tuxedo, the year we started this organization. So we got the flowers, we got the tuxedos, and then we began to hire marching brass bands from New Orleans to come to Jackson and play. And now things have changed to the point where we have two or three working brass bands in Jackson, which I see as a key indicator of how the city has changed in many ways, but certainly in this way. Whereas I used to have to bring up Dirty Dozen, Rebirth Brass Band to play at a parade in Jackson. Now we have a choice of two or three local brass bands to pick from.
PAUL: Embracing that New Orleans culture, we definitely have a kinship with the Crescent City don't we?
MALCOLM: Oh, absolutely. We're between Memphis and New Orleans and those two cultures, permeate parts of our state, and certainly influence who we get to book in terms of bands. We pick bands up going between those two cities, lots of people move here from those places. And I think we play off of that though. We have a very authentic and original story. We have certainly benefited by the cultural centers of New Orleans and the cultural center of Memphis.
PAUL: Malcolm, what can we expect on March 26, this year in downtown Jackson?
MALCOLM: A lot of jubilation and a lot of celebration of the coming of spring and the rebirth, the after COVID rebirth of this event that people look so forward to every year, depending on the weather, you'll see between 50,000 and 70,000 people convene in downtown Jackson and take over the Streets and you'll see 50 or so floats and thousands of marchers handing out flowers and throwing beads and merrymaking and celebrating. And then there'll be live music and there's a children's festival, a children's parade the pet parade and lots of things for the whole family. But it is a celebration of the coming of spring, the rights of spring, I like to call. It's Jackson's own Mardi Gras and St. Patrick's day. And it is the people's parade, which means that really anyone who wishes to get involved in March or be on a float or enter or something into the parade are all welcome. You don't have to be in a club. You don't have to be a member of any particular society group. It is the people's parade and I think that is one of the reasons that it has become so incredibly popular.
PAUL: And The Sweet Potato Queens' can't forget Jill Conner Browne and her wannabes.
MALCOLM: Jill rejoined us about four years ago, she had splintered off and was doing her own event, the Zippity Doo Dah Parade, and then came back and reunited with us, which of course we were delighted to have her back because she was there in the first parade just as I was. And so her success has certainly been critical to the success of this event, this parade, this particular celebration. And we moved to the fourth Saturday, because that was the Saturday that Jill had. We had long been on the third, but when she came back, the Queens came back. We took the fourth and we had moved on from there.
PAUL: Hard to get marching bands when everybody's out for Spring Break, right?
MALCOLM: Correct. And a lot of families are obligated to do things other than being in Jackson during Spring Break. So I have long been criticized for being on Spring Break and now there's nothing anyone can say regarding the scheduling. Scheduling is free now.
PAUL: Come one, come all. Okay Malcolm, if you had 24 hours to show off your hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, I want to know, where would you take people? Where would you go? The sites, the food, the experiences of Jackson, Mississippi?
MALCOLM: First of all, it's not a hypothetical question because I do that every day. People come here all the time. They come to Hal & Mal's and they ask me, where else should we go? And it depends on their field of interest. It depends on how long they have. But some of the really important things are Lemuria Book Store, Walker's Drive In. Everybody needs to go to the Two Museums, The Mississippi Museum of Art, the Old Capitol. We have great museums. We have great architecture. You need to go to see Eudora Welty's birthplace in her home. You need to know that Richard Ford and Eudora Welty grew up across the Street from each other, on Congress Street. And you can actually go to this place where these to Pulitzer prize winning writers grew up, not the same time, but grew up right across the Street from each other.
I think that is a sacred literary spot. You can go to miss Welty's grave. If you're into that sort of thing. You can go to the home where Medgar Evers and Myrlie and their family live, where he was assassinated and his driveway. And you can see that horrific piece of our story. You can go down to Farish Street and see the historic black section of our community go to Bully's and eat great soul food. There are so many great restaurants, so many great venues. It's almost impossible. But I do this all the time. And it's been, because people ask me, "We're interested in this, where should we go?" And the truth is there are many options. There's so much here to show and such a vast story to tell it's really a piece of cake for someone to come here and say, "What do I do next?"
PAUL: Malcolm, you've kind of alluded to this in some of what you've already said throughout our interview, but what makes Jackson, Mississippi so special to you?
MALCOLM: It's our story, the Mississippi story is unique. It is challenging. It encompasses literature, music, food, architecture, history. It is complicated, but intriguing. If you're interested in American literature and you haven't been here, then you're missing the boat. If you're interested in the civil rights struggle or the civil war, and you haven't been here, you haven't done your research. This is the part of the American story that we in Jackson Mississippi, sort of represent. Some of it wonderful and creative and some of them it very difficult, but it is nevertheless a place with a deep and storied past, a fascinating culture, very diverse, very fascinating. And it's a good story to tell. And so I think that's why those of us who live here find it so easy to stay and to welcome others to come.
And part of the theme of the parade, this year's homecoming, it's the 200th year of our city. It's our bicentennial. And we've embraced this homecoming concept and we invite people to come and see Jackson and see Mississippi and travel to the Delta and go to the coast and go to the Hills. Our story is complicated. Our landscape is complicated. There's something for everybody. There are trails that we have worked hard, whether they're writer's trails or blues trails or country trails or mound trails. We have the trails and we invite people to come and we are ready to entertain guest and so we welcome that.
PAUL: We'll put links to a lot of this information Malcolm, that you've given us today. And of course, to the Hal's St. Patty's Parade and festival March 26th, there in downtown Jackson. Malcolm White, thank you so much for being here today.
MALCOLM: Pleasure. Thank you, Paul.
PAUL: Soul Sessions is a production of Visit Jackson. Our executive producers are Jonathan Pettus and Rickey Thigpen. To learn more about our organization and mission, head to visitjackson.com. I'm your host Paul Wolf, and you've been listening to Soul Sessions.