It’s seconds before show time, and Benny Goodman is about to explode. Talent scout John Hammond has already wasted much of the clarinetist’s day by promoting a badly dressed Texan who plays, of all things, an electrically amplified guitar. Yet as Goodman takes the stage, there sits the same guitarist—yellow shoes, purple shirt, amplifier and all—in place with the rest of the band. Fuming at Hammond for his impetuousness, the quick-tempered bandleader calls the challenging tune “Rose Room,” knowing this kid will fall flat on his face. Goodman signals the guitarist to solo and braces for the worst. Instead, a melodic rush of perfection follows, and an astounded Goodman lets him go. Some twenty choruses and forty minutes later, Charlie Christian’s star was born.
Christian would live only another two and a half years after this 1939 appearance, but the influential guitarist would join a vast number of Texans who figure prominantly in the development of jazz, the unique creation that is universally accepted as our nation’s greatest artistic achievement. In a state musically identified with the no-nonsense country of Willie Nelson, jazz is rarely thought of as the soundtrack to take you home with the armadillo. Yet the state boasts an impressive array of jazz pioneers, ranging from Scott Joplin and Ornette Coleman to Jack Teagarden and Illinois Jacquet. “Texas musicians were instrumental in creating a different kind of sound, synonymous with the size of the state, broad, rugged, with all the cultural attributes of the state itself,” says Dallas tenor saxophonist Marchel Ivery.
But don’t just take his word for it. This month, when the ten-episode documentary Jazz airs on PBS, filmmaker Ken Burns will highlight some of the genre’s most important innovators—and pay his respects to several Texans, most of whom are black. As in his previous documentaries on the Civil War and baseball, Burns has tackled another subject tied inexorably to race. “How ironic that the only art form that Americans have ever created was first developed in the African American community,” Burns told me. “These are people who had to improvise more than anybody else, because they had the peculiar experience of being unfree in a supposedly free land. As you deal with the ongoing narrative of jazz, you are constantly dealing with questions of race.”
Charlie Black certainly didn’t have jazz on his mind when he paid his 75 cents to attend a dance at Austin’s Driskill Hotel. He was looking for girls. It was 1931, and the University of Texas freshman’s racial attitudes reflected the times. Yet before him stood Louis Armstrong, and the music flowing from Armstrong’s trumpet was the work of unmistakable genius. For Black, nothing would ever be the same. More than twenty years later he would play a role on the legal team that persuaded the U. S. Supreme Court to end segregation in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. As Burns’s film illustrates, Black would credit his epiphany about race directly to Louis Armstrong.
“Jazz creates a magic at a very difficult time in American race relations,” explains Bruce Raeburn, the curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University, in New Orleans. “Music was so important to some people that they would risk the problems associated with the color line to interact.” In fact, Austin’s Teddy Wilson, playing with Benny Goodman’s band, was the first to break the live-performance color barrier and is but one of an uncountable number of Texas jazz trendsetters.
“Texas is right up there. I would put Texas in the top three [states],” says Bobby Bradford, the Dallas-raised trumpeter whose playing has graced the work of Fort Worth mainstays John Carter and Ornette Coleman. “I don’t think that if I’d had my upbringing anywhere else, this would have happened,” says tenor giant Illinois Jacquet. “It would have to have been Houston. If I’d been in a faster city, I wouldn’t have had the time to concentrate on growing up. [In] New York, if you don’t get off of the subway in time, your foot gets caught in the door. You got to be movin’. We had plenty of time in Texas. We could move slow and we could learn.” Dave Oliphant, the author of Texan Jazz, marvels at the numbers. “When I started working on the book, I had a vague notion there were quite a few people, but I kept finding more and more,” he says. “I’m still finding them.”
In fact, in every key moment in the evolution of the music, from ragtime and blues to swing and the Kansas City sound, from bebop to the avant-garde, an all-but-forgotten group of Texans has led the way. With Burns’s documentary placing jazz in the forefront of the American vision, Texans have a long overdue opportunity to stand up and honor their own jazz heritage. And they should make the most of it: It’s time to correct this oversight, shed new light on these forgotten heroes, and shout out their successes to the world.
It’s time to build a Texas Jazz Hall of Fame.
Though jazz is a compendium of everything from the European classical tradition to early American rural and minstrel music, its primary origins rest in two genres, ragtime and the blues. Both had important roots in East Texas. Ragtime’s greatest practitioner, Scott Joplin, was born near Texarkana in 1868. Joplin was a gifted and serious composer. His ability to write down his music in an era that predated recording helped him to earn the first-ever million seller, “Maple Leaf Rag.” Though New Orleans’ Buddy Bolden is credited with bringing ragtime to horn players—thus becoming the first official jazz musician—Joplin’s influence was more apparent in the work of early jazz star Jelly Roll Morton. Unlike Bolden or Joplin, Morton lived long enough to record his improvisations of Joplin’s rags for the world to hear.
The other side of the East Texas experience sprang from the dire poverty of the region, as typified by an amazing turn-of-the-century singer and guitarist. Blind Lemon Jefferson had an emerging raw