The inside of the Elks Lodge on the corner of Dixwell Avenue and Webster Street was already nearly full when Mo Pleasure and friends — Morris Pleasure himself on keyboard, Rohn Lawrence on guitar, Ralph Rolle on drums, Dave Livolsi on bass, and Brent Carter on vocals — hit an energetic take on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”
What was going on was a party to raise money for the Stetson branch of the New Haven Free Public Library as it prepares to move to its new home in the new Q House, soon to be built across the street from the library’s current location on Dixwell Avenue.
Or as Diane Brown, Stetson’s branch manager put it, what was going on was a reunion.
Morris “Mo” Pleasure was in Atlanta when he got the call asking if he would play a benefit for Stetson. He was glad to do it. Born in New Haven, he spent the first seven years of his life on Shelton Avenue and had fond memories of the original Q House.
“I used to go in there all the time as a child,” he said. Later his family moved to Guilford. He went to high school there and went on to UCONN, where he graduated with a fine arts degree and a lot of experience as a musician — enough to land himself a job playing bass with Ray Charles after sending him an audition tape.
“I had a little bit of luck,” he said. “Next thing I know, it was the man himself calling me on the phone.”
That was 32 years ago. He’s been touring and working as a musician ever since. He has recorded with a long list of names that includes George Duke, Natalie Cole, Chaka Khan and Mary J. Blige. From 1994 to 2001 he was the music director for Earth, Wind and Fire. In 2001 he played trumpet, keyboards, and guitar in Janet Jackson’s touring band. In 2009 he played keys in Michael Jackson’s final touring band, put together before the superstar’s untimely death. Last year saw him playing with Maceo Parker (of James Brown and P. Funk) and the Ray Charles Orchestra. He went to Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
But “I always come home,” he said, three or four times a year.
With a band composed of old friends who’ve played together for years, Pleasure put together a set that moved from Michael Jackson to Earth, Wind and Fire to an instrumental jazz-funk jam to Al Green. It also moved the crowd, bringing several to their feet to shake it on the Elks Lodge dance floor. The event brought all the library staff to the Elks Lodge on a Sunday, along with Mayor Toni Harp — and, most important, a couple hundred of the library’s closest neighbors, who sold out the event, raising $2,500 and counting halfway through the evening.
“It’s beautiful,” Brown said. “99 percent of the people I see here are born and raised in New Haven.” It was “the coming together of the community that I like…. it’s a blessed day. I couldn’t be happier.”
In between band sets, the party was marked by lively conversation and peals of laughter, with a couple hours still to go. Brown observed that the event felt as much like a reunion as a party, a chance for the people of the neighborhood to catch up, including with neighbors they might not have seen in a while. She was already planning two more Stetson fundraisers. The next one, on May 6, will take place at the Knickerbocker Golf Club on Sherman Parkway and will feature Jesse “Cheese” Hameen II with Ed Fast and “Conga Bob” playing swing and jazz. After that, Brown is planning another one. Recording artist Ricky Alan Draughn and the Slammin Band have agreed to play, at a venue to be announced.
But “it’ll be in the village,” Brown said.
“I think it’s important for the people in the community to have buy-in,” she continued — to be able to support the library for $25, pass by the new Q House building when it’s complete, and be able to say “I was a part of that history.”
Or as Brown’s 100-year-old mother might say, Brown added, “it’s nice to know I put a nickel in that quarter.”
Click here for more information on Stetson Library’s fundraising campaign, the library’s history, and its future home at Q House.