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 country-blues sound and a talent for composing. His prolonged guitar breaks preceded the jazz guitar of Charlie Christian by decades, yet the similarities are clear. And his prolific output of songs, such as “Matchbox Blues” and “Black Snake Moan,” would find their lyrical way into the big-band blues shouters of future years. The Texas blues tributaries run deep: Sippie Wallace, Henry Thomas, Blind Willie Johnson, Leadbelly, Texas Alexander, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sammy Price, and T-Bone Walker would all maketheir influence felt. Jazz’s harmonic sophistication came from ragtime, but the blues are what gave the music its emotive power and spirit, what Wynton Marsalis characterizes in Jazz as “the roux in the gumbo.”
Jazz grew slowly out of the New Orleans area, aided by the railroads that carried a young Louis Armstrong to Chicago and a trumpet player from Texarkana, Lammar Wright, to a teeming Kansas City, where he joined pianist Bennie Moten’s group. Kansas City mayor Tom Pendergast saw to it that the city’s Eighteenth and Vine section kept the music, liquor, and graft flowing 24 hours a day, and Wright was the first of a rash of migrating Texas talent that would soon forge an entirely new sound.
At about the same time, two dominant bands were developing in Texas, Troy Floyd’s in San Antonio and the Alphonse Trent Orchestra in Dallas. Dallas’ Deep Ellum red-light district was also operating around the clock, attracting jazz and blues players, including a talented young saxophonist named Buster Smith. In 1925 Smith joined two other Texans, Oran “Hot Lips” Page and Eddie Durham, in the Blue Devils. Based in Oklahoma City, the band also included a young pianist by the name of Bill Basie. But just as they hit their stride, Moten began to raid the group. Soon everyone, including a new saxophonist named Lester Young, departed for Kansas City, spelling the end of the Blue Devils and the birth of the Kansas City sound. Moten would lead the band until his death, in 1935, when Bill “Count” Basie would take the reins.
By this time, despite the Depression, big-band swing was everywhere, accounting for 70 percent of the nation’s record sales. Yet the movement itself was in trouble. “Texas helped keep the swing alive when it was beginning to teeter under the commercial weight of sameness,” says Burns. “It was the roadhouses and juke joints of Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas that helped make Kansas City the mecca and allowed Count Basie to come out and resuscitate a kind of stale thing, with his blues-based, riff-based sound.”
The 1935 Basie Band, the first of an epochal string of great ensembles, was crawling with Texans. Trumpeters Joe Keyes (Houston), Carl “Tatti” Smith (Marshall), and Hot Lips Page (Dallas), along with trombonist Dan Minor (Dallas), made up four-fifths of the brass section; Buster Smith and a tenor player from Denton, Herschel Evans, joined Lester Young on the saxes.
Evans and his successor in the Basie tenor chair, Sherman’s Buddy Tate, would join with three other impressive talents in the fabled ranks of what would come to be known as the Texas Tenors. Albert “Budd” Johnson had already recorded with Louis Armstrong and would prove to play an important role in the transition of swing to bop. Two other rambunctious tenors came from Houston’s Milton Larkin Band, Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet. Though the five were joined in name only, they did share the ability to create quite a ruckus. What caused this sound to develop? “When we would play dances,” theorizes Jacquet, “we’d take solos without microphones, so if you couldn’t blow your brains out, you just wasn’t going to be heard.” Whatever the reason, as Bobby Bradford observes, the Texas Tenor sound took over: “It got to a point that if you didn’t have that big sound like the Texas guys, man, you might as well put the tenor saxophone down.”
Thankfully, Texans never have. The lineage of Texas Tenors is long and impressive: Red Connors, Tex Beneke, Jesse Powell, John Hardee, Booker Ervin, David “Fathead” Newman, Dewey Redman, King Curtis, James Clay, Marchel Ivery, and Billy Harper are among those who have carried on the tradition.
Beyond the Tenors and the Kansas City sound, Texas swing stars Jack Teagarden, Harry James, Teddy Wilson, and Charlie Christian would astound everyone with their virtuosity. As the post-war years saw the big bands give way to the rise of bebop, Texans Kenny Dorham and Gene Ramey were on the front lines. Dallas’ William “Red” Garland would ride the post-bop wave manning the keyboard with the Miles Davis Quintet, a group that included a young John Coltrane.
But the greatest influence was yet to come. Fort Worth’s Ornette Coleman threw out the book on improvisation, abandoning chords for an entirely new theory called harmolodics and setting the already divided jazz world on its ear in the late fifties (see “Unsentimental Journey,” page 102). He’s left it there. Time has proven Coleman to be one of the most important musical figures not only in Texas but also the world, as his influence has become immeasurable.
Another saxophonist from Texas didn’t get too far with his professional career, yet he left a more profound legacy on young players than any single musician could accomplish. M. E. “Gene” Hall, while teaching at Denton’s North Texas State University from 1947 to 1959, was the first educator in the nation to place jazz instruction on a formal college credit basis. To this day the university (now the University of North Texas) remains one of the nation’s most respected music institutions and has seen such talent as Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Dorough, and Harry Babasin go through its doors.
While cities build symphony halls, sports stadiums, and monuments to important figures, some of the greatest artists in American history still go unrecognized—and not just in Texas. Jazz has all but vanished from the mainstream media, and in 1999 it accounted for only 3 percent of all music sales. Musicians are finding it harder to make a living in the U. S. “When you go abroad, you see that people have great respect for the music,” says Fathead Newman. Fort Worth’s Dewey Redman laments that he can’t get a job in his hometown. Perhaps that explains why there are currently only a few permanent museums devoted to jazz in America, which include the modest American Jazz Museum in the Eighteenth and Vine district in Kansas City and the smaller collection at the New Orleans Jazz Club. In New York the block of Fifty-second Street that once housed the bebop revolution is now aflame with the glass and neon of retail chain stores. Harlem’s Lenox Avenue even boasts a Starbucks, but just down 125th Street is an enormous Con Edison building that a group including Leonard Garment, a former jazz musician and lawyer for Richard Nixon, hopes to transform into the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. This is just the sort of effort needed to correct the country’s myopia toward one of its great cultural achievements.
But what of a Texas Jazz Hall of Fame? “I wish that there were more than just one [hall of fame],” says jazz critic Gary Giddins. “I think that it is a major disgrace that we have this huge rock and roll hall of fame [in Cleveland] that gets all this attention and there’s nothing comparable for jazz. And I think the major reason is racism. Look what they did with country music in Nashville. If there was ever a one-horse town, it was Nashville. And they built the Opry and made that the center, and it’s a major tourist attraction. Now the obvious Nashville for jazz was New Orleans, and what did they do? They got rid of Basin Street because they were embarrassed by it; they took the signs off for ten to twelve years. They wanted nothing to do with it, and what do they have there? They’ve got this little sweatbox called Preservation Hall. It’s just a disgrace.”
Meanwhile, former Microsoft executive Paul Allen has erected an elaborate new music museum in Seattle. The Experience Music Project is a high-tech wonder housed in a 140,000-square-foot building designed by architect Frank Gehry. It features bought-and-paid-for artifacts and honors Jimi Hendrix and all manner of popular music (mostly rock, very little jazz). Jim Fricke, one of the EMP’s senior curators, says Paul Allen has “always been a Hendrix fan, but not a weird obsessive fan.” Just one who could single-handedly fund the $240 million project.
Other ventures should be so lucky. Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which opened its $92 million, I. M. Pei-designed doors in 1995, was pushed through by a coalition of influential businessmen including Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner, who wrung funds from private donors and staged several high-profile fundraisers. Yet the financing was troubled, embroiled in city politics. And the hall, despite its best efforts, has seen attendance level off in recent years. The oldest and most successful venture has been the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which opened a small exhibit hall (spurred by Tex Ritter) at the end of Nashville’s Music Row in 1967, expanding in 1976. The powerful Country Music Foundation helped raise the funds, and they are now spearheading a multifaceted fund drive for a new $37 million, 137,000-square-foot facility, which is scheduled to open in May.
A Texas Jazz Hall of Fame could learn something from these ventures. Though at least two serious efforts are under way to build Texas music museums (one in Houston, the other in Austin), the Jazz Hall should be devoted exclusively to its subject. This should be a place to celebrate and appreciate a unique and sadly neglected art form.
So where should it be? Dallas and Houston both lay claim to onetime thriving jazz scenes, yet the nod should go to the Fort Worth area. First, the city’s arts scene exploded during the nineties, and the downtown now boasts an impressive entertainment district. Second, the University of North Texas is in nearby Denton. And most important, it’s the hometown of Texas’ most famous jazz musician, Ornette Coleman.
The building itself should include a modestly sized but beautifully designed gallery, studios and classrooms for visiting speakers, a small research facility, and an attached medium-sized concert hall named for Coleman, where jazz can again take center stage in Fort Worth. Maintaining a realistic eye on the design and scope of the project should keep it within an affordable range. (Georgia opened a 43,000-square-foot Music Hall of Fame in 1996 using only $6. 6 million in public funds.)
Community leaders with a passion for jazz should form a commission to set up a statewide series of fundraisers, persuading Texas jazz musicians, along with big-name touring talent, to donate their time and effort. A benefit concert, starring Coleman and other Texas jazz stars, should be held in Fort Worth. The city should donate land in the museum district for the project. Since the hall will also be a lure for young jazz hopefuls, UNT should be involved as a natural crossover to the academic realm. And, of course, the commission should search for all sources of donations. All it would take is one major corporate sponsor to get the ball rolling. Who knows which CEO might be a jazz enthusiast? Target the broadcast giants (Tom and Steve Hicks of Clear Channel), the automobile barons (Red McCombs), and the high-tech mavens (Michael Dell, are you listening?). Once the project is announced, the faithful will come forward. With underwriting, the Hall of Fame would be an important stop for all jazz touring talent. Allowing aspiring musicians the chance to experience the music that now passes them by will in turn fill our clubs with future hall of fame hopefuls. And Texas will carry on its proud jazz heritage.
Fortunately there are some indications that Texas jazz is already moving in some encouraging directions. Artists such as Waco’s Roy Hargrove and Houston’s Jason Moran are playing in rock halls, feeding on contemporary influences, and drawing large, youthful audiences. The Burns historical documentary will surely initiate new jazz fans. But the Texas Jazz Hall of Fame would declare the music alive and well and help inspire new talent for many future generations. For a state that has never been shy about trumpeting its achievements, some serious bragging rights are being ignored. Here is an opportunity whose time has come. Illinois Jacquet couldn’t agree more. “I think the Hall of Fame would be a great thing for the people who don’t know what really happened there,” he says. “Someone should let the world know what came out of Texas.”
Heads of the Class
Jeff McCord’s picks for the Texas Hall of Fame.
William “Red” Garland
His fat block chording and superior rhythmic stance found him work with Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins, but it was his days as the consummate piano stylist in the first great Miles Davis Quintet that made the Dallas keyboardist a household name. previous page,
“The first name when Americans talk about the avant-garde and alternative jazz. He still pretty much defines the vanguard,” says Bruce Raeburn, the curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University. The Fort Worth native’s genius is unparalleled, his recorded output to date indispensable.
The trombonist was the most famous of a large musical family from Vernon. “He had amazing technique,” says jazz critic Gary Giddins. “One of the very few people who could improvise on a level with Armstrong. As a singer, he’s the guy who proved it was possible for white people to sing the blues.”
In the less than five years this Dallas native played professionally before dying of tuberculosis, he revolutionized modern electric guitar. “It’s impossible to even imagine the state of not just jazz but American popular music without Christian,” says Giddins.
The Austin pianist made history by breaking jazz’s live-performance color barrier, but the startling originality of his work was idolized by fans and players alike.
Henry “Buster” Smith
Smith was a major voice in the Kansas City era (who probably wrote “One O’Clock Jump,” though Count Basie claimed credit) and subsequently became a big influence on Charlie Parker. Unfortunately, the Ennis alto saxophonist was sadly underrecorded.
Albert “Budd” Johnson
Gary Giddins calls Johnson the Zelig of jazz for his ability to turn up in so many diverse but crucial settings. The Dallas tenor’s long career encompassed Kansas City in the twenties, Louis Armstrong in the thirties, and the first major bebop session in the forties, as well as work in the big bands of Boyd Raeburn, Gil Evans, and Woody Herman. A great player with a rich, voluminous sound.
His single-note electric guitar solos predated Christian’s by a year, but the real strength of this San Marcos guitarist and trombonist lay in his arrangement and composition skills. As much as anyone else, Durham defined the Basie Band and the Kansas City sound.
If ever a single song defined a career, it was Jacquet’s hair-raising solo on the Lionel Hampton classic “Flying Home.” Born in Louisiana but raised in Houston, the Texas Tenor still toots his own horn. “I sold millions of records with the ‘Flying Home’ solo,” he says. “Even Arnett Cobb played it so much he thought he’d made it. I’d have to tap him on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, Mother, I made that.'”
A critical favorite, Cobb is an overlooked Houston tenor giant who never quite emerged from bandmate Illinois Jacquet’s shadow, even after replacing Jacquet in Lionel Hampton’s orchestra. Yet during and after his stint with Hampton, he continued to make music of passion and intensity.
The yin to Lester Young’s yang (or is it the other way around?). This Denton saxophonist became the first proponent of the Texas Tenor sound, and his unrefined technique served him well throughout his days with Lionel Hampton, Buck Clayton, and of course, in Basie’s band alongside the silky smooth Young.
Because Kenny Dorham played with stars like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, and Dizzy Gillespie, the remarkable talent of the Fairfield bebop trumpeter remains almost the definition of underrated, but he had a gorgeous sound and was a first-rate improviser.
Also, early influences awards should go to Blind Lemon Jefferson (c.1880-c.1930), Coutchman’s “King of the Country Blues” and an architect of early jazz; and Texarkana’s Scott Joplin (1868-1917), who was ragtime’s greatest composer. In addition, a nonperformer award should go to M. E. “Gene” Hall (1913-1993), the Whitewright native who was the first in the nation to set up an accredited jazz program, at Denton’s University of North Texas.
Tune in to KUT from the University of Austin (or listen online at www.kut.org) on Wednesday January 10th from 8pm-midnight to hear Jeff McCord play music by artists mentioned in this story.