Hitting a High Note
Amro and Memphis: In tune since 1921.
photograph by Jonathan Postal
It was 1921 and everywhere in Memphis was the sound of jazz and blues music mixing with the music of travel — train whistles and the riverboats’ calliope. Enter into this symphony Mil Averwater and Frank Moorman, passing through on the way from Cincinnati to Los Angeles. They must have heard it all, and seen the throngs of people shopping, working, eating, and playing downtown.
In a time when bigger began to be better — Clarence Saunders’ Piggly Wiggly chain of grocery stores was bagging revenues of $60 million — Averwater and Moorman had simpler dreams. They were musicians with an urge to teach others.
The partners opened Amro Studios — the “A” of Averwater and “M” of Moorman with an “RO” as a fill line — in October 1921 on the second floor of 166 South Main Street. On what is today’s Tri-State Bank’s parking lot at the corner of Main and Peabody Place, the two would open the windows wide to play piano and, when the inevitable passerby wandered in to see what was going on, they would offer a 30-lesson course.
Business grew, built on diversification and immersion into the popular music of the day. Averwater wrote and copyrighted the book The Amro System of Popular Jazz in 1923. When WMC Radio went on the air that same year, he played and arranged talent for the city’s inaugural waveband.
When cotton prices plummeted in 1930, the Great Depression struck Memphis like a mallet. People did what they could to stay afloat as jobs were lost and families condensed into single, bulging households. Nonessentials were cut from budgets everywhere, and music lessons, it would seem, would be doomed. Frank Moorman had left the business early on to return to Cincinnati, but Averwater remained committed to the notion that music is good for the body and soul. Over much of those depressing years, he worked with a system of bartering. He traded a lesson in scales for a basket of eggs, a medley of standards for a gallon of milk.
In 1927, the big band leader Jimmie Lunce-ford came to Manassas High School and began what would become the first public school band program in the city. As the popularity of school bands grew, so did Amro’s business, and the two would meld when Averwater, who had begun offering instruments for sale, would eventually begin supplying those programs in the 1940s and ’50s.
The work consisted of putting boots on the ground then, with Mil and his staff traveling the dirt and gravel roads of Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Missouri. It was a familial industry, with the salesmen often staying overnight in the band directors’ homes.
Today, Amro supplies instruments to nearly all the schools within a 250-mile radius of Memphis, and the Averwaters are still conducting the show with Pat Averwater, Mil’s grandson, as president, and great-grandson CJ Averwater as vice president. Great-grandson Nick Averwater who recently graduated from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, has joined the business as well.
It’s a multi generational business serving a multigenerational clientele, CJ Averwater says. “One of the coolest experiences working the floor is when someone comes in and says, ‘I got my first instrument here.’ That’s touching, that lets you know you’re doing something that benefits the community.”
Over time, Amro has grown and contracted with the city. Locations have included Madison Avenue, Monroe, Union, Austin Peay, Elvis Presley Boulevard. and near the corner of Poplar and Highland where Buster’s Liquor now stands. In the 1970s, the operation was moved to its current location at 2918 Poplar, with an addition to the west of the original building in the ’90s doubling the space to its current 25,000 square feet. Housed within are showrooms, repairs workshops, executive and accounting offices, and an auditorium that seats a hundred.
“As business has grown, we’ve been more successful out of one location because a lot of our operation is not necessarily retail itself but in the service we provide outside of the city,” CJ says.
There are more than 50 employees, including 18 dedicated to instrument repair onsite. In fact, repairs make up such a large part of the business a sign is posted as to how many are done within a certain amount of time. A recent tally showed 45 repairs in a day, and more than 14,000 in the past year.
CJ says he owes the success of the business to the expertise and dedication of the people who work for Amro, most of whom are musicians themselves. “I think last time we counted, [Amro had] more than a dozen former music educators, former band directors, and teachers,” CJ says. “More than 50 percent of our folks have been here 10 years or longer. Plus, look at the community we’re in: It’s a music-rich community.”
The showroom floor is a breathtaking array of gleaming horns and stringed pieces that look as much like art as musical instruments. These are the products that have made Amro the go-to store for schools, organizations, and individuals for more than 90 years. But if you can take your eyes from the curves of a French horn or that elegant Steinway piano and allow your gaze to fall on the simple framed portraits that line the upper walls, you’ll see the true reason behind the success. It is there you’ll find the faces of band directors and music teachers who have trusted and worked with the professionals at Amro for so long. These are the men and women who find an arts education as important as any other education, and who have made a career of passing the beauty and message of a Mahler symphony or Jelly Roll rag on to our city’s children.
“We don’t want a band director to worry about the quality of their students’ instruments or where they are going to get their accessories or when they will arrive. We do our best to answer all those questions so they can focus on teaching,” Nick Averwater says. “We want the band directors to teach, and we do our best to eliminate some of those peripheral activities that can be a distraction to them.”
As times change and the leaps and bounds of technology make it easier to order goods online and shipped from any place in the world, it’s a great service that Amro provides. The younger Averwaters take a page from Mil’s example of dealing with people face to face, from a time when the greatest technological advance was the paving of roads in nearby Mississippi and Arkansas.
“We’ve tried to embrace technology as much as we can,but at the same time recognize that we’re a service provider,” CJ says. “You can buy a horn wherever you want, but we’re going to make sure that that horn plays well and that the child has a great start and has every advantage that they can in learning to play music.”
Amro is not only a premier shop for band instruments of all caliber but, since 1964, it has been the exclusive provider of Steinway & Sons pianos to the Mid-South. The showroom looks more museum than retail, and to hear one played in person is to understand why they are so revered among the world’s best musicians.
In the home of Sun, Stax, Ardent, and Hi, there have naturally been the famous who pass through the doors and test their chops on Amro instruments: John Mayer (alto saxophone, surprisingly), McCoy Tyner, Prince, Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, Furry Lewis, B.B. Kin,g and Liberace among many, many others. A receipt from 1967 shows that Elvis Pres-ley purchased a Gibson SG guitar for $165, a case for $15, and a chord book as well.
For a family so steeped in music, certainly there must be some leaning towards fame onstage, wielding a saxophone or tinkling the ivories. “We’re a family of dabblers,” Nick says. Music was never pushed on the Averwater offspring, just as the business hasn’t been. Nick and CJ both studied business in college and have chosen, of their own accord, to continue the family legacy.
What resonates with the Averwaters is the passion they and their dedicated employees have for what they do and who they serve. “We all believe in the benefit of music,” CJ says, “and we go out there and do what we do best.”
For more information, go to amromusic.com.