V3N5: June - July 1997
June - July 1997
Volume 3 Number 5
Table of Contents
Oooh, Lord! This boy can play!
In a year when the trumpet, violin and piano will be featured by legendary and soon-to-be-legendary jazz musicians at the Clarksville Jazz Festival, the annual honors of induction into the Austin Jazz Hall of Fame will go to two local guitar heroes.
He told me where he came from, how he learned to play, and how he learned from and developed a relationship with his mentor and long-time friend, the infamous jazz violinist Joe Venuti.
More than just a stage with its appropriate players, the KwikWash is a true microcosm of one of Austin's most diverse neighborhoods.
I worry that one more year will come and go and I'll still not have a good enough clue as to what Austin will do to support a an annual cultural event that is very broad in its programming, yet based in the culture of African America.
We look to performance art to break the rules, to present the taboo, to stretch the boundaries of contemporary theatre and performance.
Case study: the female jazz singer. Sultry, just under boiling over. The queen of the smoke-filled room. Still dazzling, still mysterious.
Dreaming Habana Sunshine by Manuel Gonzales
You will have to forgive me if I break any rules of conduct, protocol and all that. A tornado just recently hit the Austin area and, considering how late I am writing this article, I'm sure it was sent for me; but fortunately, I escaped, unscathed. Considering, then, the enormous pressure now hanging (in a dark, hail-filled cloud) over my head, I am willing and ready to break any and all rules of conduct concerning this small profile/CD review. First, in addressing you, my audience, most likely wasting countless precious words, I have, in my first paragraph, failed to report to you, my audience, any factual information (a motif, dare I say, which will definitely continue in the following paragraphs as well) about who I am profiling or what I am reviewing. Second, I will not review the entire CD. I will instead review one song from said (unsaid) CD. Third, most of what will be written this day (with few exceptions) may sound, to your ears, like fiction. Made up. Fabricated. A yarn, spun, not in haste, yet with total disregard for what might or might not be true. Mainly because most of what will be written (spun, not in haste, but in fear of the journalism gods watching above) is in fact and will in truth be fiction. And, if in reading this article, you believe some of the words used, some of the emotions expressed, some of the sounds heard and sights seen appear over done, I must then blame an impending sense of poetic urgency weighing heavy on my shoulders (but should you doubt the intent of my words, the force with which they are delivered, then, my friends, I suggest you check out said (unsaid) CD for yourself, or better yet, listen to (see, touch, taste) said (unsaid) artist in person at the upcoming Clarksville Jazz Festival, where he (Roy Hargrove) and his fellow artists (collectively: Crisol) will grace Austin with sounds, not of heaven nor angels' voices, but of Cuba, that other side of life.)
And so, without further adieu, my story.
A heart beat. You can hear it -- strong, steady, sweet. Rhythmic. That's how it begins. Angelic. That's how it ends. Everything in between is life. Living, breathing. Music as life. Jumps off the drums, falls out the horns, rolls off the keys, and lands, newly born, it's head up, heart still beating. And as you start believing, sound walks clear out of your speakers and shakes your hand. Grabs your wrist, and you go for a spin. A whisper in your ear, that's Roy Hargrove's voice: Nothing wrong with livin', that's what it boasts, nothing wrong with dancin'. Nor a little singin'. Nothing wrong with life, as it were in the beginnin'. Nothing wrong with my life, or my heart beat. Listen real close, you can hear it on the street. Music. Music to my ears.
Finds himself strolling through Cuba after a few years. Bag in one hand, horn in the other. Sweating, maybe, under the sun. (Without his umbrellar). The hot sun, Cuba hot, people hot. Music hot. Almost as hot as the music he plays. But not. Oh, no, not today. Not quite.
Not quiet, but LOUD. His pulse, pounding his temple, and in his head -- a crowd. Their voices -- a chorus. Angels (cielito lindo) hum in their crying-deep voices. Lowly. Sing-me-to-sleep voices. Softly. Ringing in his ears, their music, their love, stealing his fears. The voices, and they're speaking to him. Sing, they say. Sing. And, together, they sing, best they can, they sing. Spinning, they sing. His lips pressed together, they sing. In the middle of the square (they sing), back of a bar (they sing), he don't care (they sing), where or how far. They sing. And we hear him. Wanna' go near him. Don't want to miss him. And they sing. His voice (its voice) heard, pure, clear. Flying high, soaring with the birds, nearly shedding a tear with its sweet golden melody. And all of us can't help but say, Oooh, Lord! This boy can play! He and his horn, lifting our hearts (at one time, forlorn) and taking us away. God damn, that boy can play. And they gathered around, everyone, the whole town, and they beat on their drums, and they plucked their thumbs, fingers rolling down the keys, all doin' just as they please.
And then in France, a festival of jazz, doin' its dance, and all that razz-matazz. And there they are, playing in a small, smoke-filled bar, they get the idea, This might go far. In a cathedral, they are recording, the smoky, dark Cuba they are exporting. And now the story's been tol', the continuing story of Roy Hargrove and his mystical Crisol.
In case you somehow missed this information in my (eloquent) article, Roy Hargrove is the trumpet-man's name. His band: Crisol. The CD: Habana. The song: "Mr. Bruce," track number five, featuring Chucho Valdes on piano. Buy it, get it, hear it, taste it.
In a year when the trumpet, violin and piano will be featured by legendary and soon-to-be-legendary jazz musicians at the Clarksville Jazz Festival, the annual honors of induction into the Austin Jazz Hall of Fame will go to two local guitar heroes. Mitch Watkins and Henry "Blues Boy" Hubbard will be recognized this year for their contributions to Austin jazz music.
Watkins has been a very busy man of late, having produced wife Abra Moore's latest CD as well as leading her touring band. When able to stay in town, he still gigs regularly at the Elephant Room where, along with fellow jazz guitarist Russ Scanlon, he churns out the electric jazz with bemused abandon.
After an educational period of going to UT and playing with James Polk and other established local players, Watkins came into his own with the plugged-in combo Passenger, which also featured Roscoe Beck and Paul Ostermeyer. Passenger provided the city's first contemporary funked-up electric jazz combo, fanning the local flames for what bands like Weather Report were creating nationally. They also did a stint as the touring band with Leonard Cohen, helping to establish the connection between Cohen and Austin that continues with Steve Zirkle and others.
Everyone's favorite sideman, one hell of a jazz guitarist, Mitch Watkins will be inducted at the Jazz Awards show on Wednesday June 11th.
Henry "Blues Boy" Hubbard, as you might expect, plays blues. The intrinsic link between the blues and jazz music necessitates that blues musicians be included in this ceremony: to exclude blues players would be to inhibit and make incorrect the historical record that this awards project cites as one of its aims. Without inclusion of previous inductees like T.D. Bell and W.C. Clark, in addition to Hubbard and many others, the timeline would be gapped beyond legitimacy. So, Blues Boy Hubbard will also take his place in the lineage of Austin's renowned guitar greats.
Though his touring these days is mostly limited to annual invitations to travel abroad to the Utrecht Blues Festival, local shows keep him plenty busy. Hubbard and his band, the Jets, play in town at Antone's just about every Friday night, and their sets are wonderfully boisterous trips through classic R&B and blues catalogs.
While working at Bergstrom Air Force Base in the early '50s as a jet mechanic (hence the band's name), Hubbard began to come into town to places like the Victory Grill and the Show Bar (which became Charlie's Playhouse). He quickly established himself as a guitar force to be reckoned with, and gained the attention of local musicians like T.D. Bell and Bill Campbell, as well as becoming a source of inspiration and information for up-and-comers like Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Hubbard will be inducted into the Hall at his performance in Pease Park on Sunday June 15th.
Sebastian Campesi: Hidden Treasure by Lisa Schneider
One gray afternoon in January, I had a reunion with my "adopted grandfather" and former fiddle teacher, Sebastian Campesi in San Antonio. He doesn't like to talk about himself, but at 76, he still expresses all he needs to through his sweet jazz fiddle.
We talked. We played. We reminisced. We listened to some of his recent session recordings and played along with them. He talked a lot about letting the music speak for him. And when you have the chance to hear him at the 1997 Clarksville Jazz Festival, you'll understand. It does, beyond the shadow of a doubt, communicate soulfully the honesty and love in his heart for what he does best -- that old-time jazz.
He told me where he came from, how he learned to play, and how he learned from and developed a relationship with his mentor and long-time friend, the infamous jazz violinist Joe Venuti.
"Campi," as he's called by those who know and respect him, is definitely a master at his craft. But he's one of those Central Texas hidden treasures yet to be discovered by most of the rest of the world.
He played for a long time with the San Antonio Symphony and taught in the San Antonio ISD for many years. He was also the concertmaster for the orchestra at Fiesta Texas until health problems forced him to quit the rigors of theme park work a few years ago.
But he's taught, played, and recorded with most of the best musicians in the state (and the country, for that matter) from the Grey Ghost and Mary Anne Price, to bluegrass musician Hank Harrision with Tennessee Valley Authority in San Antonio.
When I studied with him in the early '80s, he was a pipe-smoking, second-generation Italian with an equal love for classical and jazz. He wouldn't teach me jazz, though, because he stressed the benefits of a good foundation in classical technique. And it's that classical technique that still holds him to this day: playing luscious melodies and improvised phrases with a tone beyond compare, and a passion that belies his seven decades of fiddle playing.
What follows are some excerpts from our Sunday afternoon meeting, in his own words.
I was born March 2, 1921 which makes me 76. I started playing when I was 4. I was playing on the radio when I was 8, but no one knew I was a kid 'cause I was playing with adults. Some of them had played with my father who played clarinet. He was my first teacher. He taught me to read music and everything.
I grew up in Jamestown, New York in a very musical neighborhood. The people next door to me played. The people across the street played guitar. My father played, my uncle played. It was a very musical environment and they played everything... Italian music, jazz...that's when jazz was just starting, too. And I was just fascinated by it. I'd ask them if I could sit and listen. And I'd just sit and listen and take it all in. They were very kind to me, very nice. I was just a little kid. I thought everyone lived like that until I got to junior high and high school and found out that people don't do that.
I never practiced too much until I started playing out. My first gig I must've been about 8 years old, but I don't count that because I was playing with adults all the time. But when I was about 14, I started playing in this one place that wasn't too far from my house. My folks didn't even know I was playing there. They'd see me take off with the clarinet (couldn't play fiddle there cause it was too noisy). I had a working knowledge of clarinet, you know. So, I asked my father for his, but he wouldn't give it to me. So I went out and rented one for five bucks, got the job, and then I went and bought a cheap little second-hand one for twenty-six bucks. And I played clarinet there for two and half to three years. It was a saloon, really. But at least they had a stage and everything. When they got their sound system in (a cheesy microphone) then I could start playing fiddle there because I could be heard. I was playing jazz, of course. They didn't want to hear Strauss waltzes in there! They weren't drinking beer, you know, they were drinking boilermakers and everything else. And the guy used to feed us at the end of the night, too, that was another nice thing about it.
And then finally, one night the police came to my house, and my mother was home. They told her that I was playing there. Since I was only 14 and they were selling alcohol over there, I couldn't play there anymore. My mother had to tell them she didn't even know that I was playing there. No one knew. She was wondering where I was getting all that money from. 'Cause I brought it home to help the family. I was brought up that way...you're the oldest, you have to help the family.
And so, they put a stop to that. So I took other things. But they weren't as nice as playing the saloon ... 'cause there I could really cut loose. The others you had to read and everything.
I met Joe Venuti when I was about 14. Where I lived on Chautauqua Lake, one side of the lake had a ballroom overlooking the lake and it was called the Casino. These big bands would come. And I knew that every time they'd come, they'd rehearse. So I used to go up there and listen to them. And I was 14, you know, and I got the world where I wanted it, and I just walked up to them and talked to Venuti's manager and said "I want to meet Mr. Venuti." And he said, "Well, Sure!" I never had anybody tell me no or chase me out. They were very nice.
Then I met him and he asked me if I was practicing my scales and my etudes. And I said, yeah, I'm playing etudes....I played (something) for him and it impressed him ...He really liked that. In those days kids didn't improvise. Even adults didn't. And that impressed him. After that, every time I knew he was going to be here or there, I'd go see him again. And we'd work up in the room and he'd show me this or that. But the one thing he insisted on -- he'd say, "Don't imitate me." And I'm glad of that.
With me, my experiences with him were all the direct opposite [of most people]. ..knowing him as a child. In those days, he was known as a boozer and a gambler. But he never drank in my presence. He had a filthy mouth, but he never cussed in my presence. And the last time I saw him, I was in my late 50s and he was still that way with me.
Like I said, I saw him as a wonderful old man who took an interest in me when someone should've taken an interest. He inspired me. Who could ask for anything more than that?
Now I'm just a tired old man that loves music. And I would like for others to love it as much as I do. I wanted to play the violin since I was three. I didn't start till I was four. The reason I wanted to play was I loved the sound. I used to listed to Ellman and Kreisler records. I loved what the sound did to me. That's why I'm playing now. I like what the music does to me. How it makes me feel. And if I could in any way make other people feel like that...because that's a message from God. You know, you have the music in here. You use the violin as the medium for that expression. To get it out. The music's dying to come out. And how's it going to come out of you? Through improvisation. The spirit wants to be free."
Campi performs Sunday night, June 8th at 8pm for the Clarksville Jazz Festival at the Victory Grill. You certainly shouldn't miss him.
Today's Clarksville by K. Marie Black
Perhaps a lesser known Austin institution is the KwikWash on West Lynn in Clarksville. With more intrigues than a Louisiana Senate House, this speed-o-mat is a-wash with activity. It helps combats those wash-day blues by providing an atmosphere as rich in character as the proverbial full-bodied coffee. At any given time, one might see:
- the occasional shady deal involving grown men, their dogs, and narcotics of some sort;
- the intellectual, as deep in books and thought as he is in laundry;
- yuppie designer hangers;
- regular folk, invoking CIA-type covert activity to find the dryer that has broken the shackles that bound it to capitalism and now offers itself up for quarter-free use;
- the pinball machine, clinging and dinging its way onto our nerves;
- the money changer, releasing from its bowels quarters so warm they feel just baked;
- washer leakages so large and vile they give new meaning to the phrase "avoiding the wet spot";
- the local drunk, complete with ever standing-by beer, staring far too longingly at my dirty underwear.
But more than just a stage with its appropriate players, the KwikWash is a true microcosm of one of Austin's most diverse neighborhoods, Clarksville. Clarksville runs the gambit of housing some of the most prestigious homes in the city, to playing host to some of our dingiest crack dens. And it's in this little three block stretch, from 9 1/2 Street to 12th that Clarksville lays down all its glory for the local folk. Take a walk with us and see.
From the KwikWash, look out across West Lynn to see the local antique shop, its objects d'art gracefully and expensively dipping and curving their way into our purchasing hearts. Contrast this with the rugged lines of the lattice-backed chairs of El Interior, all lined-up also waxing coy for to be purchased. Down the street is Nau's Drugstore, one of the only places in town with a drug-store counter at the back, serving food so greasy, meat-driven, and delicious it makes you weep. (Try the club sandwich with a malt!!) And as every point has its counter point, there's the West Lynn Café, serving food so grease-free, decidedly unmeat driven, and also delectable. (Try the mushroom enchiladas!) Move back down West Lynn to find the Quix convenience store. Quix acts as supplier extraordinaire to the KwikWashers, where said neighborhood drunk buys his beer; where kids buy the candy that will later hurl them into an sugar-induced orbit; and where even the yuppy-esque folk find themselves partaking in the occasional bag o' beer to help while away that long hour that passes between dirty and clean. All of these are landmarks familiar enough, but perhaps more than any of these, the KwikWash acts as community center for all those washer/dryer-challenged in the hood, a kind of utilitarian melting pot, where children, adults and dogs alike ebb and flow in and out like the water in the washing machines themselves. The Coin Operated Laundromat: where everybody comes out to the wash...
This happens to be one of those times that the name of this column is fairly accurate.Yes, I'm up all night. The second time this week, up all night doing a mixture of getting work done and worrying about the work that I know needs to be already done. Once again it's Jazz Fest time in Austin. As hard as I might try, I still can't deal with it as "just a job." It's my baby and sometimes I worry that it looks too much like me -- other times I worry that there is no resemblence at all. Truth of the matter is I worry. Period.
I worry that one more year will come and go and I'll still not have a good enough clue as to what Austin will do to support a an annual cultural event that is very broad in its programming, yet based in the culture of African America. The accompaning worry is my fear that I'll not know if that even matters in the New Austin in which we find ourselves. And, like it or not, I am convinced that it is a New Austin.
I know that this is a New Austin because I used to live in the Old Austin (I've come to find that there are actually about five even Older Austins that I really don't know anything about. They say I'm just not old enough). And realizing that, I guess, makes me an old Austinite. Yes, this New vs Old thing has been going on for years. Maybe the truely old folks are even tired of the references that we younger folks make about "the old days when Austin was really cool."
Truth be told, I am over that "good - old - days - were - the - best - days" argument myself. I really think it's different this time.....it's now a post-redneck-rock, post '80s boom-bust, post-new-sincerity, post-new-whirled-order, post-sixth-street-reality. I've loved Austin for a long time now, but there have always been some things about this Hill Country Haven that bother me. Not enough to make me actually get up and go, but enough to make me really question why it is not as "cool" as we tell everybody it is. I feel the need to hang out and work on it, stay and worry about it, for some reason.
What's missing? What's the problem with our quaint little city? If we truly are in a transition period -- a historical/cultural watershed period -- what is it that we need now to become the city we'd like to be?
Now, I've come to the point where I think I can put my finger on some things I want in the New Austin. The first on my list is: PEOPLE. Before you get all riled, let me explain what I mean. You see, we are going to continue to get new people in here. It's too late to close the flood-gates, they're coming. As long as there is UT and the other colleges, high tech firms, the music scene, the government, clean air, those Highland Lakes, and a strong econoomy, folks will continue to come here by the thousands. Good or bad, that's it. It is built, they will come. And since they are gonna come anyway, we need to reconcider how we look at the new comers. It's gonna take a better mix of native, naturalized, and transitional Austinites to get us to where we need to be in the coming century.
Who we will attract, and what kind of Austinite they will become once they are here, has a lot to do with what's happening when they get here. If Austinites trash our environ, value ecomonic development at the risk of destroying historic neighborhoods (and the families who live there) and promote cultural conflict for the sake of politcal advancement, you can bet folks will come from miles around to get in on the action. If the word gets out that, for instance, Austinites would feel just fine about losing an important downtown playhouse to make room (and money) for a tacky theme bar -- another corporate bar on a block whose scene would not exist today were it not for that theater -- you can guess what kind of folks are going to come poking around downtown Austin. In truth, you and I know that they are already here. There will be others who follow. Fortunately they will not be the only kinda folks who will come.
So what makes this a transitional period for our fair town? Maybe it really isn't. Maybe that's all about how I view our current cultural socio-economic political situation. But see, for some folks I too am a newbie. I've only been here 17 years. How do you think the old-old hippies feel about all of this? How do you think the former Brown Barets feel about the end of the "Hispanic seat on the Council and the gentleman's agreement," how do you think the black Citizens' Task Force feels about the new strenght of the S.O.S.'s political clout, how do you think the "progressive liberal community" thinks about the riff between environmental groups and Austin's "minority comunities?"
What do you think Austin's small arts groups (without any space at all) think about the current space/facility crisis of the Symphony and Lyric Opera? What do you think Clarksville natives feel about the gentrification of their neighborhood? What do you think former Clarksville residents feel now that they can no longer afford to live in the 'hood? Do you think that perhaps Austin is in the midst of a transtional period that will have major implications for the near and distance future?........I do.
If we are to seriously look at Austin's future as a growing regional cultural, population (and econmonic) center, the connections between downtown development, public arts policy, neighborhood integrity and preservation, tourism and enviro-racial politics may not be obvious, but I really think all of this needs to be in the same conversation. Having asked you to take that small intellectual leap, I now need you to go a bit further. For the moment the extension of all of this for me (I can't help it) evolves into a discussion of Clarksville and our little Jazz and Arts Festival.
Just as the newest Austinite's will react to the current cultural and political climate (in whatever way they are moved to respond), 10 years ago I reacted. I wanted to inaugurate a cultural celebration in West Austin that would spotlight the African American roots of the Clarksville community. I also wanted to produce a music festival showcasing the tradition and players of jazz, blues, world music and gospel. For me, tying these concepts together seemed to be a natural fit. And that fit was not just an idea to consider, it was a need to address.
Yes, I am one of those folks who believe that each of us has a responsibility to work to improve our communities. And, I actually thought the Festival would address a need, fill a void, do something good for the cultural life of Austin. I still beleive that and that has most everything to do with why we continue in this experiment to show harmonious connection between human relations, culture, art and commerce: just plain old family values that most of us believe in.
Because of the person I am, the neighborhood in which I lived, and the political climate of the Austin music scene I stepped into, I was compelled -- nay, driven -- to address cultural issues that to some degree remain with us today. The good old days were old for everyone, but not so good for a lot of folks in Austin. And a lot of the folks for which those days were not so good were (are) black folks. Like jazzologist Martin Banks says, "...the blues is a suffering music,and a lot of the people who suffer in America are black. So, blues is black American music. You dig?" Likewise, Clarksville was an African American neighborhood, established by former slaves, that for years existed as a thorne in the backside of the political establishment in West Austin. We are not talking about some distant history here, we're talking about the last 20 years of so. I am talking about city folks with no indoor plumming, I am talking about unpaved streets and allys, I'm talking about Mopac paving over the homesteads of fourth generation Clarksville families.
We celebrate the living history, we celebrate the people, the culture and community that has survived in spite of adverse odds. And we do this with pride and a sense of sharing that has nothing to do with divisivness. You see, for us, African American history, culture, and music are attributes of this city that are significant to the lifeblood of our little town as a whole. We think it important to point out that Austin black folks really do play jazz, blues and gospel. We think it is significant that all of these new Austinites who have found homes in fashionable Clarksville know something of the history of their now upscale address. We think it is important to promote education, understanding, respect, tolerence and appreciation of what has come before. And we think its ok to have a good time while attempting to address these issues.
I mention all of that as preface to another glimpse of the good old days -- the good old days that we don't ever want to see again in Austin. When I arrived here in the late 1970's the folks in the Clarksville community were busy fighting city hall to get streets paved on one front and trying to avoid unfriendly development on all sides. In the late seventies there was not one business in Downtown Clarksville (the West Lynn area) owned by black folks. That remains true today. Although there was (and is) a great grocery store right in the neighborhood where most of the black folks shopped every day, that grocer was (is?) unable to stock, for instance, hair care products for black folks. The good old days?
When I first came to Austin I was impressed with so much live music going on. I was especially interested in checking out the festival season in the summer. There was, as there is now, a lot of activity in the spring and summer months for outdoor concerts. The thing is, I quickly noticed that the music most often connected to African American culture was almost never performed by black folks at these concerts. The were blues festivals with no black folks involved. There were jazz clubs where you rarely heard black folks play. The only reggae bands in town had no black folks involved. Now, for me all of that was a bit weird, good old days or not!
To this day, the Clarksville Jazz Fest is the only annual festival held in West Austin to celebrate the culture of African Americans. To this day, the Clarksville Jazz Fest is the only "major" music festival in Austin directed by a black man. To this day, those of us who work on this Festival find it difficult to get a lot of Austinities to understand that this celebration of African American music and cultural heritage is, also, simply a celebration of life in Austin. The music scene has grown and changed, mostly for the better. When I suggest that we need more people, I mean that the scene needs an infusion of fresh blood, new ideas, different kinds of venues and players. The New Austin is already addressing that need, and thanks to Keith Winking and James Polk at the Southwest Texas State University jazz program the will continue to be that infusion of fresh young ideas.
The importance here is that we celebrate the New Austin as much as offer cynical reminders of the past. The good old days were pretty groovy for a lot of things Austintaious. But, much had to (and still needs to) change for us to get better. As far as the Clarksville community is concerned, the urban revitalization efforts of the recent past have created a mixed bag of results. New energy is needed in the community right now to continue the work of folks like the late Mary Baylor. And whatever it is that the City of Austin needs to now do to re-open the neighborhood center should be made a priority. Clarksville will survive, but the new neighbors in the 'hood really should work more on preservation and less on re-invention of this historic district.
As I have muddled through this trying to communicate some things more felt than thought, I should close with a point or two that are crystal clear to me. As this New Austin fills up with more folks from the outside world, we should work diligently to find our kindred souls among them. Austin needs new ideas, new people to help us accomplish some of the tasks that we have become too closed minded and territorial to see. Many of the problematic cultural issues here have been maintained by entrenched provincial hometown folks who simply refuse to let go of a past that should never have occurred.
I was a newbie, just as most of you were at one time or another. Austin is now my home and I care for this community dearly.
Now if I could only afford to move back to the Clarksville area, I'd be happy.
What Ever It Is, It's Magic: The Heather Woodbury Report Becomes an American Odyssey in 8 Acts by Courtenay Nearburg
We look to performance art to break the rules, to present the taboo, to stretch the boundaries of contemporary theatre and performance. However, all too often, the desire to create something out of bounds results in rather weak presentation of vague and bizarre material with no meaning, save for the creator. This is not the case with New York artist Heather Woodbury. She doesn't just break the rules, she invents new ones.
On a dare, Woodbury created 20 hours of material over a period of nine months. The birth of the performance novel, a novel idea in stage performance that has put Woodbury in the spotlight of alternative theatre, a relatively incredible accomplishment considering that perhaps only two or three other performance artists have earned the recognition of the mainstream press and theatre communities. Laurie Anderson, perhaps the best known of these artists, has invited Woodbury to take What Ever: An American Odyssey in 8 Acts to Europe this summer, for what may become the beginning of a world tour for the unique show. Adaptation of What Ever for radio is in progress, and Woodbury would even like to see it presented on television, the nemesis of performance artists everywhere. No wonder she calls herself a philistine.
But what is What Ever? Well, it's a one-woman show consisting of eight episodes and over 100 characters, presented in a marathon session of two episodes per night over four nights. It might sound like an ingenious way to earn a lot more money, sucking people into more than one show a weekend, but it could only backfire if each episode were not capable of standing alone, and if the story were not good enough to entice the audience into another night of visitation. But Woodbury's characters are rich and inviting, comic and poignant, and she is earning devotees every step of the way. After the culmination of the nine month installment in a bar in New York City, The Heather Woodbury Report had attracted writers from the Village Voice and the New York Times, and artists like Anderson and Johnny Depp. Audiences loved the serial nature of the show, and despite the exhaustive process of writing and rehearsing new episodes each week, Woodbury found herself caught up in the lives of her characters, and allowed them to develop and grow with the show, as shadows of herself.
"The characters were my palette. The story was created impromptu, and it is really a mockery of myself, topically speaking. I really like working improvisationally, there's so much possibility in it. I would write each week, then rehearse up until the night of the show, then sometimes do what I call on-stage rewrites, just feeling how it's working, and changing it if something came to mind that flowed better," Woodbury says.
Woodbury has been a performance artist for 13 years in New York City. A dedicated performer, she got her start in Berkeley, California, where she was raised by middle-class bohemian parents. " 'A little too bohemian to be middle-class, a little too middle-class to be bohemian,' my mother is fond of saying," she says of her upbringing, during which she decided unequivocally at age 7 that she would be a writer. When a friend's mother encouraged her to take an acting class when she was 11, she wasn't interested. But she was convinced finally and signed up for Robin Roof's Young Actor's Performance Workshop, where she fell in love with theatre and particularly improvisation.
"She had us doing a lot of improvisation, and then comedie de l'arte, really. It was comedie de l'arte definitely, using a lot of stock characters and scenarios that she would create for us to perform," Woodbury says of her training. Her fascination with improvisation led her to study the history of performance art, including the work of Marcel Duchamp. Her tastes in performance became specialized. "Theatre bored me. I mean, the fourth wall. What's the point? I find it very oppressive. My problem with theatre is that it portrays reality rather than lives it."
But performance art, that was human, lively and engrossing. "It's incendiary. Not meant to be repeated," Woodbury explains.
By May 1995, her nine month gig at the bar had ended, bringing her to a deadline for a grant she had received from Franklin Furnace to create a performance piece called Ecstatic Woman. She took material from the Report and reworked it for the grant. "It became ecstatic man, woman, and poodle," she says laughing. Immediately after that performance, the formidable Performance Space 122 had commissioned Woodbury to present the Report in the current eight episode format, which required an immense amount of editing and rehearsing by Woodbury and her director and collaborator Duncan. In this form, the Report became the performance novel. "It's like the story around the campfire. It's packaged succinct entertainment, like TV. Television replicates ritual in the 20th century. The family gathers and participates every day," Woodbury says, adding that she believes TV would be the ultimate place for her piece.
"It's like Maupan's Tales of the City. It's definitely a mini-series," she explains, discussing plans for the audio tapes that are to be tailored for radio play. "I would like to see actors playing the characters. There are things a young man could bring to the characterization of Skeeter that I could never do."
Woodbury's characterizations are certainly rich, including two female nubiles, Clove and Sable, the young man caught between them, Skeeter; his mother, a forty-something New Age witch, Linda, and her chain-smoking sister, who is having an affair with a retired CEO, Paul, recently divorced from environmentalist Sheila's mother, who left Paul for the black gardener, and so on. Probably one of the most delightful of characters is Violet, the aged New York bohemian socialite, accompanied by her faithful poodle Balzac; and perhaps the most poignant is Bushy, the Irish lesbian prostitute in love with her best friend, Magenta Rush, in Hell's Kitchen.
"This is not a fantasy, it's magic. I do believe in the miraculous in life, and most certainly in art. New Yorkers are so full of jaundice and cynicism. It's really provincial, even. It can be a flattened, clenched reality, that modern theatre tends to portray. This is a magic realist novel," Woodbury says.
"I love the 19th century. Particularly Latin American fiction of the late 19th and early 20th century. There's the element of the fantastic, the mystical. I like a happy ending," Woodbury says.
What Ever is a study of language, and Woodbury's considerable skills as a writer shine through the dialogue between the various characters. If anything, the language is the star of the show. She is fascinated by the bardist tradition, the oral and aural traditions of Celtic storytelling. "I love the Shakespaeran conceit. Using rhyme to convey an altered state of reality or presence in a magical realm. It hard to tell with Clove, whether she is on extasy or if she is ecstatic..."
Woodbury claims her youth on the West Coast built in an appreciation of the "West Coast stoner eloquence" as almost Elizabethan, and that black urban dialect fascinates her as well, that it is almost archaic in its tradition and amazing in its development as it's own language. Her own experiences at a rave in Santa Cruz on the beach, a cross-country jaunt on the Green Tortoise hippie bus, and her 17-year old niece combined to help her create characters like rave queens Clove and Sable, and their Romeo, Skeeter. But Woodbury is not a raver, although she describes her first and only experience with the rave as transcendentally important. She is a jazz fan, listening to WKCR, Columbia University's radio station. What Ever is a jazz jam; the characters are instruments creating a melody of universal and benevolent truths about life and the ever-changing rhythm of living.
"I love jazz players' courtly and articulate manner. Sammy is based on my friend CJ, a bongo player who taught James Dean how to play bongos. When I lived in Hell's Kitchen, I lived in Manhatten Plaza, a sort of artist slum. There were these 3 guys who held forth there, commenting all the time on the coming and going of all the young artists, and I loved their conversation. All the stories they had to tell. And CJ did have love affairs with women like Violet, upper class white bohemians who were so romanced by jazz in that age. It was a case of sympathy between subcultures, and I am very interested in that. Different types of people coming together," Woodbury says.
Violet represents a certain kind of woman who inspires awe with her connosieur's knowledge of jazz and art, her independence and yet, anonymity, as the patron and not the artist. She represents women who had a free life, depending on their husbands for identity, for money and class, but who could have been influential artists in their own right. All the things that could be, but couldn't because of the roles women were expected to play.
"There used to be all-girl swing bands in the forties, when the men were away at war. That's the poignancy in Violet. When she talks of the kind of artist she would have been, she talks of creating a room that doesn't just hold jazz, but that actually is jazz. She had considerable talent, but no outlet in which to express it, save appreciation," says Woodbury.
The characters in What Ever find relief in the voice of despair, and hence the appearance of Cobain, the Friendly Ghost, who visits with Violet and haunts Clove. According to Woodbury, Kurt Cobain is a "psychic vessel" for the frustration of youth, and the perfect voice for the deification of youth that is so prevalent in society. "I was profoundly affected by the deaths of Cobain and River Phoenix. Is this to say, this is what happens to our best and brightest in today's world? They can't handle it because it's too much for them, their sensitivity gives way?" she asks. "It's the exorcising of the wounded male. Cobain created melodies that heal and resurrect. And yet, he could not heal himself."
Woodbury is following her dream, like Clove. In her own words, she has created a minimalist epic; thus, an American Odyssey. She enriches the tradition of theatre with a new conceptualization of performance, the serial performance novel. What can be next? Why, a Broadway play, of course. "It's a deconstructionist South Pacific in the grand tradition of Broadway musicals, with a contemporary twist. There's a Terrence McKenna-like character, a female surfing champion, and lots of indigineous people. I don't want to talk about it, because if you talk about something too much, it takes the place of doing it," she says. Somehow, that doesn't seem to be a problem for Heather Woodbury.
Women in Jazz by Marie Black
Case study: the female jazz singer. Sultry, just under boiling over. The queen of the smoke-filled room. Still dazzling, still mysterious. She schooby doos and bop-ditti-di-bops her way into our hearts. Hanging in there despite the dizzying array of temptations to choose more lucrative means of expression.
Celebrating these chanteuses is the Women in Jazz Concert Series, returning this time for a first-time ever two-night stint at the Victory Grill, June 20-21, 1997. And the line-up is filthy-rich with talent. Take a look.
Pamela Hart: Traditional jazz singer extraordinaire and organizer of the series.
Donna Menthol: This 10-year veteran mixes the mediums -- jazz with pop, funk, and the more classical.
Hope Morgan: This exciting singer known for amazing scat sequences has studied with Max Roach and Ron Carter.
Suzi Stern-Luna: This lady's rooted in the classics, but with an experimental twist.
Beth Ullman: Bringin' it to ya straight on with traditional ballads/swing tunes, this Clarksville Jazz Festival veteran.
Nancy Webb: This fairly new newcomer to the Austin jazz scene also drives straight on with those "oh so golden" jazz tunes.
House Band: Jeff Helmer Trio featuring John Mills on saxophone.
Heather Benett Trio: This young up-n-coming jazz pianist shows her stuff for the first time for the WIJ Series. But she's no beginner: she just finished self producing her second CD, most of the material on which she wrote and composed herself and which includes an all-women jazz band.
Karan Chavis: Based in Bryan, this lovely is known in the Austin area for her scorching appearances at Top of the Mark performing with The Brew.
Mady Kaye: Putting the "Ssssss" in sophisticated, Mady sings, struts and shows us all how it's done.
Willie Nicholson: Back from Texarkana, this lady sings the Blues of Jazz. She's also sings the now famous duet of "Route 66" with Pam Hart.
House Band: Sandy Allen Trio with Tony Campise on various horns.
This Women In Jazz showcase promises to be a smokin' weekend. Don't miss it at the Victory (bring your own alcohol) Grill, 1104 East 11th Street, corner of 11th and Waller. For more info, call Pam Hart at (512) 258-3414.