V4N1: February 1998
Volume 4 Number 1
Table of Contents
What is it with American writers and drinking?
I am a white woman, 26, a native Texan of English / German / French-Alsatian / Cherokee Indian descent.
If you enjoy the American Short Story and you have not even read John Cheever, and might not know John Cheever from Adam, then please, head to the bookstore or library, buy, check out, steal the book, and read the stories.
I've lived in Austin almost all my life, yet I still don't know much about East Austin. Maybe it's not just me. Maybe a lot of people don't know what's going on in East Austin.
Watts' love affair with music began with jazz (specifically, with hearing John Coltrane's Kind of Blue when Watts was a teenager), and to jazz he always seems to return.
Galeria Sin Fronteras was the first to move to the area that would one day become the cultural district.
The Blues Family Tree Project began in 1990 with a mission to spend 10 seasons producing live performances for archival recordings and photography. For the most part, the folks we book for these shows have some direct connection to black Eastside music history. And, yes, we focus on black folks doing this music.
Veritiesby Manuel Gonzales
A writer without a drink is like a chicken without its head.
-- William Faulkner
What is it with American writers and drinking? Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, London, O'Neill, Cheever, Carver, Dorothy Parker and that whole vicious circle? There are more, I just don't know the list off the top of my head. They drink too much and they don't write enough. Don't write enough that's good. They have their good, strong works. Classics of American Fiction. But before their time, their writing fails them, their talent deserts them, and they drink themselves into literary obscurity. For the most part, they are known, well-known, for their body of work written before the age of 50. With O'Neill and Fitzgerald acting as exceptions (O'Neill because he kicked his habit, and Fitzgerald because his greatest body of work was written while he was in his late twenties). While European writers continue to write well into their sixties and seventies -- writing, even, until they die and writing good, strong works of fiction -- the big hitters of American fiction are petering out in their fifties and sixties. Faulkner's last great novel was Go Down, Moses. How many of you have read Across the River and Into the Trees and liked it? The Garden of Eden anyone? Even The Old Man and the Sea was a sentimental rewrite of the excellent short story "The Undefeated." Carver was never sober enough to write a novel, and Cheever stopped writing long before his time.
And so, I have come to this decision (more, this decision has come to me, battling its way through my pounding head): I'm going cold turkey. Everything, cold turkey.
If it isn't alcohol, then it's something else. That something else I'm giving up, too. No sex, no drugs, no smokes, no liquor. Goodbye cruel world of hangovers and bad highs and one night stands and emphysemic lungs. No more, not for me, no sir. Well, maybe a beer once in a while will be okay. Can't deprive myself of all earthly delights.
So I ask you, my friends, if you see me out and about, please do not offer me any drinks or smokes or tokes, and if in my hands you spy a full, half-full, empty glass of whisky or gin or even a bottle of beer, take it away. You'll be doing us both a favor. And if I come to your house for dinner or for the afternoon, please do not offer me a beer or a glass of wine, for, being the gentleman that I am, I will be unable to refuse your gesture, and, as we all know, one drink will lead to two, and three and four, and so on. And in the end, I will find myself at the nearest Quicky-Mart buying another six-pack or bottle of wine to replace what I've taken from your refrigerator. And if I'm buying you a six-pack, then why not buy myself six-pack? So starts another vicious cycle.
There will, of course, be exceptions. If, for instance, a dear friend invites me to his house to taste a special vintage French Country wine, or if it is somebody's birthday or anniversary or wedding, or any event in which one might make a toast or join a toast, I will put aside my disciplined ways if but for an evening. Or if I am in a great deal of pain, the kind which might be soothed by a beer or two or a small tumbler of whiskey, or if I find myself unable to write, find myself, in fact, butting my head time and again, against that proverbial and inevitable wall of writer's block. Then I would not deprive myself of drink, purely on principle. And if a good friend invites me to have a drink, I shall not disappoint him because of my limitations, for no man or woman should drink alone. And what if one of my characters is a heavy drinker of, say, whiskey? Then a drink or two will not be merely luxury, but neccesity. Else, how could I assume to describe his reactions or even the taste of the drink. We must write about what we know, mustn't we. Or say I publish a short story or win the lottery or finish a well-written article, then I might deserve a drink, as good work should never go unrewarded. In fact, having finished this piece maybe I should have a drink right now.
A White Woman Looks at Her Own Black History by Courtenay Nearburg
I am a white woman, 26, a native Texan of English / German / French-Alsatian / Cherokee Indian descent. My grandfathers were white second-generation immigrants. They were good men, they worked hard, they worked with their hands. My father made good in the oil business and I was raised in Highland Park, an affluent suburb on prime real estate just north of downtown Dallas.
There were no black families living in Highland Park when I grew up. I graduated from high school in 1989. I had yet to know a black person my age. I knew black servants that worked in the homes of my friends and neighbors. We had a "housekeeper." I was not allowed to use the word "maid" because my mother considered it derogatory. The woman's name is Helen. She pretty much raised me.
I did not grow up in the "hood." I grew up in "the Bubble." It's a quiet place, safe, peaceful. It shimmers like a bubble, iridescent, crystalline, unreal and magnificent. The white people who live in the Bubble do not want out. By comparison, the outside world seems dirty, scary, loud, impoverished and tragic. Violent. In the Bubble, the white children are sheltered from the storm of racial turmoil that rages around them in the inner city. They do not play with their servants' children. My mother invited Helen to attend our family weddings, but I always remember Helen working in the kitchen. She wore my mother's hand-me-down dresses when she didn't wear a white frock.
Helen remembers how picking cotton ripped the skin of her pink palms and she brags that she got her master's degree in "sugah'n'shit." Her real name is Rachel. Helen is her middle name. Rachel Helen Woods. She is in her eighties now, stricken blind by diabetes. Her skin is so black, it's gray like smoke. When I last visited her tiny house in South Dallas, she greeted me with squeals and tears. She sat in front of me and patted me over from foot to forehead, oohing and aahing over how big I've become, all grown up.
We talked about God and the neighborhood, the children who visit her and the children who have died. We talked about her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. Her daughter, Elaine, slept in the next room, the only other room in the house, and Helen complained that she is lazy and that she keeps bad company. Elaine's husband is in jail and Helen thinks that she is on crack. But she needs someone to take care of her, and Elaine has nowhere else to go. Her own children have children and they have no room for Elaine.
I worry about the fact that the house has no air conditioning. The windows are covered by stacks of boxes and old furniture that has been piled over the years against the walls so that hardly any light gets in. Helen doesn't notice the dark but I am concerned about the heat of Texas summer. She doesn't want an air conditioner because she believes that the change in temperature between inside and out will make her sick. I am afraid she will suffocate in the little house. There is a stench in her room. It creeps into the room from hidden corners where descendents of one of my mother's cast-off pets have peed and no one cleans since Helen can no longer keep house. The little mutt dogs clamor at my feet, and Helen shoos them with a newspaper, "Git off her, little dog, off! Off!" and I laugh with her.
I told her about my job at an arts organization, producing jazz and blues music. I didn't go into a long explanation of our mission at work, to promote African American arts and preserve the cultural history of African Americans in Central Texas. I felt uncomfortable talking about it. I didn't want to tell her how I feel ashamed of my privilege in the face of her pain. I didn't want to tell her that I feel responsible for her slavery, and that's the reason I became shy around her in high school, and that's why I do what I do now. I know that she loves me deeply, and I wanted her to know how much I love her. I also know that I am one of those who have kept her in chains all these years. I am trying to do penance, I guess. I feel guilty, and I didn't want her to see that guilt. I feel that it would be disrespectful in the face of her true dignity.
We are all victims of "domestic violence" -- our world, the only home we have, continues to be dominated by fear, violence and death. Our society is divided into "haves" and "have-nots," winners and losers, white and black, unequal and separate. We suffer with racism, like a plague on our communal body. There can be no mistake about who is in control. He is white, wealthy and ruthless. As one of his daughters, I am battered by his ruthlessness. I am sickened by his greed. And I am crying for Rachel Helen, because she must be my grandmother, the one The Great White Father has forsaken. I must respect her and him equally, and thank them for their wisdom, but I long for peace between them.
I believe in the dreams of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I believe in Rachel Helen Woods' eternal love, and I believe there is much work to be done to heal the wounds left on our already-weakened communal body by the searing hatred of racism and the strangling disease of hopelessness. I believe in affirmative action because we are fooling ourselves if we think 30 years is enough time to heal the gaping wounds of 400 years of torture, and we are fooling ourselves if we think that public education today gives the black child a fair shake in the "race" for success that predominates every aspect of our American culture.
Ninety-eight percent of my graduating class at Highland Park attended college. Few needed scholarships or financial aid. Most went into business school. Highland Park is an independent school district financed not by state money, but by property taxes. The district consists of four elementary schools, one junior high, and one high school. Fourteen hundred students graduate a year, on the average. Ninety-nine percent WASP. Most find starting salaries in the 20's. Their fathers earn six figures and their mothers disperse some of it into popular philanthropies. Some of those philanthropies benefit the children of their household employees. Those children still do not play together.
I was introduced to Dr. King by Dr. Smith, my eighth grade U.S. History teacher. A lot of my secondary school teachers were Ph.D's. Dallas Independent School District cannot afford such luxuries. I'll never forget Dr. King's voice, passion quivering in his commanding tones. I had never before been moved to tears by a man speaking. He came to me from a turntable at the front of a classroom, and I felt a strong emotion rise from my stomach, from the place of courage. I could imagine the vision he described. I felt the same emotion come to me again last year listening to Subcommander Marcos speak on KOOP Radio. I couldn't understand his language, but the quality of his voice was the same.
I wonder if the black children getting their state-funded public education in DISD listened to Dr. King's speech on a turntable in their classrooms. Were their 8th grade history teachers Ph.D.'s? Did they play YMCA soccer and attend cotillion? Did they have bicycles and warm clothes and books and coloring pencils? Who cooked dinner for them while Mama and Grandma cooked and cleaned for the white children in Highland Park?
When I was in high school, our basketball team (all white, tallest player 6'4") went to the state finals. On the way to Austin, we played many all-black schools. There was violence. One boy, Tommy Lott, was hit in the face with brass knuckles and almost lost an eye. The word "nigger" flew around the halls of my school and the crowds chanting taunts turned ugly at the following games. An effigy of a young black hotshot named Thomas Hill was waved in the Highland Park student section at one of the semifinals in Moody Coliseum at Southern Methodist University. Highland Park won the game.
Rachel Helen Woods is not a victim of this social injustice. She is a survivor. She didn't desegregate busses or protest in the civil rights movement. She slaved. She was beaten by her alcoholic husband. She held her babies as they died. She held me to her breast and dried my tears. She cried as her babies had babies and their fathers went to jail. We are all children of her ancient family, the family descended from Africa, homo sapiens, the human race. We still refuse to recognize and accept all of our kinfolk, and we remain mired in mindless fear and loneliness, imprisoned in ignorance, as a result.
Racism is hatred, the opposite of love. It is blindness, and we must open our eyes. We must find it in ourselves and expose it. Use the negative to create a positive. Find service work and do penance with your hands and your hearts, and finally your pocketbook. Then we can release it and we will be free to embrace our brothers and sisters. It is a dream. We can live it one day in the future. Rachel Helen Woods lives the history.
Ah, Fat! by Manuel Gonzales
It has been some time since I wrote a book review. It has been so long, in fact, that I find myself out of practice, floundering among styles and stories and poorly written sentences (my own, of course), but I will try to make this bearable. Furthermore, since I have lost book support, I am purging my own library for stories to review, and though my library is fair, most titles are older titles, and so the reviews may not be as timely as, say, The New York Times or The New Yorker reviews, but hopefully, better written than, say, The Austin American-Statesman reviews.
Maybe, maybe not. And so, this month, I have chosen to review John Cheever's The Swimmer and Hemingway's A Movable Feast.
First, let me bore you with my theory on Hemingway's work. Hemingway was a short story writer. He mastered the style, wrote clean, crisp, excellent short stories that can take your breath away, make you stop dead in your tracks and say, "Whoa." Just like that. "Whoa." His novels tended to be longer (as novels tend to be) and at times, long-winded. His style a little forced, and his words not as crisp. For the most part, his novels weren't bad, and some of them are excellent works of literature, but they do not compare to the short stories. And then we look to his nonfiction. If you are a staunch fan of Hemingway, you might find and read and even buy the book, Dateline-Toronto, which chronicles the articles written by Hemingway for the Toronto Star while an expatriate in France. These articles are examples of well-written journalism. At times funny, and for the most part, intelligent and insightful, etc. But all in all, they are newspaper articles. Then there are the bullfighting books: Death in the Afternoon and The Dangerous Summer. Dangerous Summer I have not read, so I cannot voice any opinion. Death in the Afternoon, however, I read while in Mexico. The book is probably his best novel, if you consider a novel novel because it's novel. It is definitely his most experimental work, is well worth reading and is one of my personal favorites. Which brings me to the conclusion that I enjoy his short stories best and then his nonfiction above his novels. So, if Hemingway were to find a way to combine his short story writing with his nonfiction writing, we would be in for some kind of funky treat.
Which brings us to A Movable Feast, published posthumously and written towards the end of Hemingway's career. Written, in fact, after many had written off his career, after his talent had turned cold and his writing over-sentimental, and just before he shot himself. A Movable Feast is a nonfiction account of his time in Paris, when he first met Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald. When he was young and making his first real attempts at writing short fiction. When, married to his first wife, he decided that he would write one story about each thing he knew, and he would cut from his work the scroll work and the ornate descriptions and begin with the first true declarative sentence he knew. When the world was, as he makes it sound, a much happier, if poorer and hungrier, place. The work is made of 20 sections, each relatively short and which could be considered chapters, but which stand better alone, as if they were short stories. In this book, there are more glimpses of Hemingway's power of voice and style than you can find in his last four novels, including The Old Man and the Sea, for which he won the Nobel Prize. His descriptions of France and Paris in the '20s are beautifully and simply written. Intimately written. But not all of it is beautiful. Not all of it is good. His writing suffers with age and alcoholism, surely, but bitterness affects his writing more than anything else. The Paris of A Movable Feast was, to him, Eden. Perfection. Where hunger was good discipline and, "[w]hen spring came ...there were no problems except where to be happiest." But, as in Eden, something or someone(s) ruined Paris for Hemingway as Eden was ruined for Adam and Eve. And those who ruined Paris for Hemingway are dealt with harshly and in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. But rather than dwell on the bad, let's leave A Movable Feast with this, Hemingway's introduction to the chapter on F. Scott Fitzgerald, that describes, like no other, Fitzgerald himself:
His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.
If you enjoy the American Short Story (enjoy it enough, even, to capitalize each word in an article) and you have not bought The Stories of John Cheever, have not even read John Cheever, and might not know John Cheever from Adam except for the Seinfeld episode, then please, put down the magazine, head to the bookstore or library, buy, check out, steal the book, and read the stories. You may start with The Swimmer if you want, or any other story in the collection (there are 60 to choose from). I first read "The Country Husband" in a short story class at UT. Excellent story. They are all excellent short stories. Well-crafted works of fiction that sneak up on you while you read, hit you with phrases and words, that, when used by any other writer, would feel over-used and simple and rote, but when used by Cheever, feel necessary.
The Swimmer begins as a lark. A man at a pool party one Sunday afternoon decides to swim the eight miles to his house, hopping from friend's pool to friend's pool. How he creates such an elegant and clean story out of this I will never understand. The story, however, cannot be better told than by Cheever, and, therefore, though this may seem lame, you have to read the damn thing yourself to find out what happens.
Austin City Blues by lgjaffe
this poet went to austin
riding on an airplane
made of peanuts and
flight attendants wearing
i wondered if we were going
to run instead of flying
made me glad i was wearing
my nikes even if they were made
strictly for poets and not pedestrians
flying down the highway of inevitability this southwest airlines
airplane made stops in cities
i half knew existed touched
down in el paso the runway
covered in tumbleweed
i'm in texas i said to myself
with a smile and a wink
hitched up my pants
and looked out the window
re-embarked on the plane
austin city limits bound hoping to
see willie and waylon or anybody cool
cause i was going to austin
and i am a poet man not a music man
but still seeking fame and fortune
selling my books in austin city without limits screaming poetic blues
my poetic jones shrieking
for good words and forgotten sorrows
and wanting some genuine texas vittles
find myself every night at katz' deli
deep in the heart of texas
every night after every read
find myself every night at katz' deli
cause i am from the bronx after all
and say y'all cause that's
the south bronx y'all
and i cannot get enough
poetry or pastrami
wishin' i could do my reads
in katz' fill those patrons up
with my raw words
while they fill their bellies with bagels this
poet went from coffeehouse to coffeehouse
hitting the guadalupe drag like a poetic
firestorm serving up his words and soul in
poetic diatribe at quack's and mojo's daily grind
watching people consume him poetically
collapsing in tears as he finally breaks through
faces and reaches their eyes
moving over to the home
of downtown arts diversified art
center gets the funky poetics
words start bouncing around
the room like a choir full of
hallelujahs and amens
words landing in souls
forget the ears
as marvin, floyd and me
go at with words of
there be mockin' words
and bluesy words
words of every shape
color and nationality
and the room is lit with poetry
patricia sings her words
so melodic is this poetic angel
marvin wails and i
want to cry
as floyd shoves my own
words down my throat
with a firm but gentle hand
a poet coming to austin
i had dreams of audiences with
six guns and ten gallon hats
riding bulls between sets
instead i had audiences
with rhythm making blues
I've lived in Austin almost all my life, yet I still don't know much about East Austin. Maybe it's just that I don't get out much. But maybe it's not just me. Maybe a lot of people don't know what's going on in East Austin or, furthermore, what East Austin was like in its heyday. That is why the Austin Blues Family Tree Project is so valuable. It sheds light on the history of black music in Austin and the importance of the East Austin community in creating Austin's musical heritage.
The Austin Blues Family Tree Project, for the past eight years, has been gathering oral histories from Austin's blues, jazz, and R&B musicians for its research archive. In addition, the project also presents and records the annual African-American History Month concert series. This year there will also be a photo exhibit at the Little Gallery located in the Heritage House. The exhibit documents the social and cultural development of East Austin through the eyes of the music scene. Both the concert series and photo exhibit will open this month.
Beth Lieberman and Jennifer Edmonds are researchers for the upcoming exhibit. This is the first year that Blues Family Tree has put their historical photographs in any particular context. Now with a narrative to go along with them, the photos will follow a timeline spanning from post-World War II to the present. In that period, East Austin started out as a strong black cultural center with Huston-Tillotson College [H-T], a strong church community, and clubs such as Charlie's Playhouse and Ernie's Chicken Shack. A little before the time of integration, whites began adopting black music. "It was 'funky' for college kids to come over here and 'slum it' or get a bit of local color over on the Eastside, where all the black clubs were happening," says Beth. Then the community witnessed a transition in which the music scene switched from 'really happening' on East 11th and 12th Streets to happening over on the west side of town, on 6th Street. The exhibit uses Blues Family Tree documentation as well as photos and press clippings gathered from the history center to tell the story. "When there was a thriving community, there was a thriving music scene," says Beth. "Apparently it was a really exciting time and there was a lot of great stuff coming out of [East Austin]."
Pat Murphy, a longtime resident of East Austin and a blues musician, recalls the atmosphere during the height of 11th Street. "You can't imagine if you drive through there now and see the condition it's in," he said. "It used to be fabulous. You talk about lights -- it was lit up like Broadway, you know. It was the street!" All the interviews in the archive reflect this enthusiasm about the great talent coming in and out of the Eastside clubs. Both regional and national talent came to play in these venues, and it attracted those in the community as well as white college kids from the west side of town. Murphy also recalls, however, the transition period when most of the Eastside clubs closed down and 6th Street became the hotspot. "Sixth Street used to be a part of the East Austin scene. A lot of money was poured in there. And they developed it, and the owners of those properties down there and the managers of those clubs, they had a lot of political clout apparently," he said.
While the exhibit and oral history archive delve deeper into social issues surrounding the decline of East Austin as a musical and cultural center, the concert series is a chance for audiences and performers to just enjoy the music. I spoke with Carmen Bradford, who will be headlining the concert series along with her father Bobby Bradford, about her experiences in Austin.
Carmen Bradford is a world-renowned jazz vocalist whose parents are both prominent musicians from Texas. Her father is trumpet player/composer/educator Bobby Bradford and her mother is jazz/pop singer and Broadway diva Melba Joyce. Carmen grew up in Altadena, California, but studied music and got her start in Austin while attending Huston-Tillotson College in the early '80s. Dr. Beulah Agnes Curry-Jones was Bradford's vocal teacher at H-T. "She was an awesome, awesome teacher and that is what kept me in Austin," says Bradford. "She knew what the hell she was talking about when it came to the voice and knew what I was trying to do -- I wasn't trying to be a classical singer, which is what they had the singers at H-T studying. I wanted to sing jazz and R&B."
So, while at H-T, that is exactly what Ms. Bradford did. "I worked at all of those clubs on Sixth Street," she says, "and made very little money but had a blast." However, Carmen did not stay working within the small Austin circuit for long. During her junior year, she met Count Basie and got her first big break.
She recalls the story for me as if recounting it for the millionth time, but she still sounds excited. "So I was the opening act [for Mr. Basie] with the group Passenger. They asked me if I wanted to do a couple of tunes with their band to open the show, and I told them yes. Mr. Basie was already riding on his motorized cart so he couldn't go down to his dressing room. So I asked if he would listen to me while I was singing on the first part of his show, because I thought he would make billions of dollars if he'd hire me. So he listened to me sing and I came back off stage and I said, 'Mr. Basie, what did you think?' And he said, 'Well, I think you were very good, I want to hire you.' I said, 'Well, when?' He said, 'Well, don't worry me, I'll call you.' So I waited and waited and waited and I gave myself this birthday party. And when I blew out the candles I just said, God, please let Count Basie call me. And the next day came and I was on my way to do my rock and roll gig with the group that I normally performed with at the time, which was Minor Miracle. So I got out to the car and my roommate said that there was some old man on the phone. So I thought maybe it was my grandfather calling and maybe it was an emergency or something. So I picked up the phone and this man said, 'Well, this is Bill Basie, do you still want to work with me?' And I said, 'Is this you, Otis? I really don't appreciate you doing that. You know I've been waiting for Count Basie to call me.' And I hung up the phone. I went back out to the car and he called back and my roommate said, 'It's that old man again on the phone.' I ran back in the house and I said, 'Hello.' And he said, 'Listen, if you don't want this gig, I'm not calling you back.' I said, 'Oh, I'm so sorry, I thought you were my cousin, Otis.'" She laughs at this part of the story, thinking of almost passing up the gig. But after that call, Carmen stayed with the Count Basie Orchestra for nine years before starting her solo career.
As a soloist, Carmen has worked with many other great jazz musicians including George Benson, Herbie Hancock, and Benny Carter. She recently got back from Paris after working with her father and the Paris Symphony. After all her success and traveling the world, Carmen still treasures her time in Austin. "My Austin experience was just incredible. It was the best time of my life," she says.
Tenor saxaphonist Ernie Watts calls his way of life "hectic but fulfilling" -- a concise way of describing a career that ranges from commercial projects such as the film score to Ghostbusters, to recording a blues-based album with some of today's top jazz performers.
Watts' commercial music work included being the regular tenor saxaphonist on The Tonight Show for 20 years and a member of the NBC staff orchestra for its last three years (1969-1972), being used as a sideman for various pop and rock artists on the show, and playing on numerous film and television scores, including The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Color Purple, and Fame. He has also crossed over into pop many times, playing with such groups as The Rolling Stones, Whitney Houston, and Frank Zappa, and in the 1980s his "Chariots of Fire" won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental. He received another Grammy in 1985 for his album Musician.
But Watts' love affair with music began with jazz (specifically, with hearing John Coltrane's Kind of Blue when Watts was a teenager), and to jazz he always seems to return. His latest release, The Long Road Home, is a "blues-ish and relaxed affair that leaves plenty of room for passionate solos" and has no drums, which enables the listener to hear all of the music clearly. For the project, Watts recruited Kenny Baron, who has played with Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz, to play piano; Reggie Workman, who has recorded with John Coltrane and Art Blakey, for bass; and guitarist Mark Whitfield. Singer Carmen Lundy, with whom Watts has recorded on one of her projects, also appears on two of The Long Road Home's songs. Despite the musicians all being well known for playing jazz, the album actually emphasizes the blues, or, as Watts says, "songs that put me in a blues mood." People described the music as "phrasing as natural as falling water and a sound that is at once steeped in tradition and wholly unique."
Since moving to Colorado in 1987, Watts has taken less pop and studio work, releasing four jazz/blues albums as a band leader on JVC as well as albums with Brazilian superstar Gilberto Gil and Gamalon. He also plays and records regularly with Charlie Haden's award-winning quartet West and on occasion sits in with Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. He is a member of The Meeting, a quartet with keyboardist Patrice Rushen and percussionist Ndugu Chancler, and still plays with long-time associate Lee Ritenour. Watts believes it's crucial that music get passed on to younger players, and he travels often, both for concerts and workshops.
Watts will perform in Austin on February 13, backed by local musicians Jeff Helmer (piano), John Fremgen (bass), and Brannen Temple (drums). Tickets are $7 and the show starts at 9:30 p.m. He will also participate in a show with the Texas Tech University Jazz Ensemble, part of Texas Tech's Artist in Residency Program, on Wednesday, February 11. The show begins at 9 p.m. and is free to the public. Both shows are at the Elephant Room, 315 Congress.
Galeria Sin Fronteras: Art on the Boundary of Two Cultures by Daniel Torres
Galeria Sin Fronteras stands diffident on the corner of 17th and Guadalupe. Shadowed by the monuments to corporate America to its south and UT's ivory tower to the north; disregarded when compared to the "true culture" in Austin, "the live music capital of the world." However, there are those who see the bold neon Galeria Sin Fronteras sign, itself a work of art, asserting the gallery's presence and they get reeled into what is today known as the Downtown Cultural District. A monolith within the district, the gallery has redefined boundaries, economics and culture.
Residing in a renovated warehouse, Galeria Sin Fronteras was the first to move to the area that would one day become the cultural district. Transplanting itself from the heart of East Austin seven years ago and thereby leaving the comfortable confines of its constituency, the gallery lived up to its namesake and crossed an invisible boundary into the west side of the Interstate. After a precarious beginning, Galeria Sin Fronteras has survived on the vision and love of art of gallery owner Gilberto Cardenas. For more than a decade, this for-profit organization has struggled against market conditions better suited to selling chicken fingers and Bud Light. Yet the gallery has broken with conventional wisdom and created a niche based on a wide variety of media focused on Latino art. Today the gallery is recognized throughout the western hemisphere as a mecca for the finest up-and-coming painters, sculptures, printmakers, and photographers such as Cesar Martinez, Luis Jimenez, Carmen Lomas Garza, George Yepes, Byron Brauchli and Alan Pogue.
Nevertheless, the gallery's present success and bright future are due in large part to the arrival of a new gallery director, Arturo Palacios. Himself an artist, Arturo has managed to break down some of the barriers which still exist. For example, financially the gallery is beginning to thrive despite the market, an indispensable factor in any business. Artistically, the '98 season is one of the strongest yet with artists such as Malequis Montoya, Anna Laura De La Garza, and Byron Brauchli, as well as the permanent collection of Sam Coronado who has recently moved his office into the gallery.
At present the gallery is showing A Retrospective Exhibit: Leopoldo Morales Praxedis. This exhibit provides a look at the diverse body of work produced over the past 10 years of Leopoldo Praxedis. A native of Apizaco, Tlaxcala, Mexico, Praxedis has earned widespread acclaim as a painter and printmaker throughout Latin America and within the United States. In addition, he played a vital role in the development of El Taller de Grafico Popular and Escuela de Pintura y Escultura La Esmeralda in Mexico City from 1974 through 1981. His collaboration with other artists in the Chicago area in the production of lino-cuts and woodcuts was essential in starting Chicago's own print shops such as El Taller de Grafico Tony Galigo and others. Furthermore, he has worked on collaborative projects in Central America and his work is internationally exhibited in Italy, Germany, Puerto Rico and Canada.
Yet despite the international exhibitions and quality of artwork the gallery remains unappreciated within the southwest. A gallery without boundaries at the border of two cultures, it has had to grapple against the common definitions of space and art. Ever-present underneath the shadow of the "live music capital of the world," Galeria Sin Fronteras has managed to turn its weather vane towards a more lucid future.
Raccoons by Robert Ashker Kraft
We sat on the back porch talking, drinking Bushmills and chain-smoking Camel filters. A family of raccoons shuffled past us one by one on their way to the automatic feeder set up on the other side of the porch. "They must just think that we're weird, mumbling lawn chairs or something," I whispered.
"Who knows what they think." Trent grabbed the lighter off the arm of my chair and lit his fifth cigarette. The butane flare startled a very small raccoon, which squeaked and ran down the stairs into the shadows of the back yard.
"Damn," I muttered.
"He'll be back."
From the kitchen behind us I heard Trent's girlfriend Toni talking on the phone with one of her dancer friends. "Oh my Gawd, that is gross. They are going to fire his ass, if he don't watch it." I heard the muffled crackle of microwave popcorn and the clink of glassware. She was preparing for her Friday night ritual with Carl, an old guy from the club for whom she often danced. He came over every Friday night and they would snort crank, drink Martinis and play Yatzhee until the following afternoon.
"Why isn't Toni working tonight?"
Trent sighed, "Friday. Too many girls and not enough money."
We spoke, as they say, of everything and nothing, after the fashion of lifelong friends. Trent and I had met in kindergarten. He is to this day my best and, sometimes, only friend.
In the middle of our dialogue, Trent stopped and pointed, "Check him out," he said. The baby raccoon waddled back up the stairs towards us. He stopped to sniff my boot, gazed up at me, then wandered past us to his family, which was munching and splashing around the feeder and water trough. A thrill ran the length of my body. Some of the raccoons had made their way to the roof, and they sat watching us, ears cocked at our rumbling and gurgling.
"So, how you dealing with the Dad thing?" Trent asked.
"I don't know if I am. I don't feel anything yet."
"Maybe it hasn't been long enough. It hasn't sunk in."
I lit a cigarette. "Yeah, maybe not."
Trent handed me the bottle and I took a long pull of the sweet, amber whiskey. The backyard was slowly bathed in yellow light as Carl's Jeep crept up the alley and pulled into Trent's driveway. We sat silently and watched him climb out of the Jeep and shuffle up the stairs towards us. He was a slouching, fidgety man in his late forties, his pale face pocked and seamed.
"How's it goin'" he piped.
"Alright," we answered in menacing unison.
He stood before us for a moment, squirming under the obligation to make small talk with Trent before he went inside for his "date" with Trent's girlfriend. We were not inclined to encourage him.
Up All Night by Harold McMillan
The Blues Family Tree Project began in 1990 with a mission to spend 10 seasons producing live performances for archival recordings and photography. For the most part, the folks we book for these shows have some direct connection to black Eastside music history. Yes, in a town whose music legacy is fueled by remnants of 1970s cosmic cowboys, 1980s Westside blues, and 1990s alt - garage - punk - grunge - pop, we focus on connecting to pre-'80s blues, R&B, gospel, and jazz. And, yes, we focus on black folks doing this music. And we very consciously produce the shows to coincide with the celebration of African American History Month.
Now, because I founded the project and spend a good deal of time talking about this stuff, this all makes perfect sense to me. However, year after year, I keep finding that many folks don't understand the motives or methods involved. As much as possible, the artists we select, the venues in which we produce, and the specific media spin we attempt for the African American History Month Concerts all have a very integral connection to the cultural -- historical, educational, social -- goals of the Blues Family Tree Project. And because I really want the work to be understood, this column offers up for consideration some of the reasoning underlying the project and its programming.
For starters, let's consider some hypotheticals. Let's say it's the early/mid 1980s and you, reader, happen to be a UT student with a keen interest in the history of East Austin and its music scene. You're not from around these parts originally, so you don't have the benefit of a grandfather's stories about the good - bad - old - days. And you also happen to be a musician, a bass player who wants to hang out and play R&B, blues, jazz -- whatever you can -- with some Eastside homeys who've been on the scene for awhile. If this were the situation, you might think the blues scene would be the place to hang.
So, you get out there and make the rounds, visit the jam sessions, check out the clubs. What you find is a lot of activity around town, a lot of young cats who are really into the blues, a good buzz in the press about the scene, everything seems to be hip.
Now, because you just started your research into the scene, you haven't gotten around to checking out the Eastside. But hey, black folks play blues. Right? So it would seem to be a good assumption that when you do check out Black East Austin, you're gonna find the old blues cats hanging out and playing some stuff. Seems like a normal expectation. But then you go out and drive through the 'hood on East 6th, 7th, 11th, 12th and Rosewood Streets (the places where the night spots were supposed to be) and you don't find much happenin'. In fact, what you find are boarded-up buildings, street corner hangin', and virtually no sign of this business district that is supposed to be there. It's not totally gone, though. The East Room is there on Lydia. Phases is a little further out on Rosewood. The Bottom Line is there on 6th. And you might even find (if you go at just the right time) some blues at Marie's Tea Room, off of 7th and Webberville.
But that "district" you've heard about, 11th and 12th Streets, the "End," is dead. Boom!
In the early '80s, there was blues all over the place in Austin. Just not so much on the Eastside. And there were young cats out there jamming and getting gigs who really were into the blues -- lifestyle, music, ethos. There were just not very many of them who were black. So, if you were a UT student who played bass, liked the blues, and had an interest in cultural history, Austin just might have been the ideal place to be in the early 1980s.
Given all I've said so far in this 1980s hypothetical scenario, now factor in your strong interest in seeing black communities thrive, your interest in seeing black folks benefit (as much as anyone else) from the fruits of African American art and culture. Factor in your deep understanding of how important it is for an older generation to pass on its oral culture to the next generation. Include your understanding of how racism, even -- god forbid -- in the music business, can contaminate the integrity of cultural expression. And acknowledge that your take on this whole situation is not necessarily understood or appreciated by other folks with whom you will interact. Also factor in that, at least hypothetically, you are a young black man.
What you find in Austin in the early '80s, young black man, is a music scene where black players (old and young) are trying, working hard to "break into" the jazz and blues live music scene. There's a mood in town and it seems like there is about to be a blues rebirth. There's blues at the Austex on South Congress, at the Rome Inn near campus, at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel downtown, at Spelman's on West 5th, the Bottom Line, the Continental, Hut's, Antone's, and other places around town.
W.C. Clark is the most visible black face in the blues scene at that time, playing all around the scene. Black-owned downtown businesses seem to take notice of what's happening. Big Scotty's BBQ joint on Neches tries to get in on the local blues explosion, Brooks' Fine Food on 6th Street soon follows. Next thing you know Major Burkes is trying to get back out there and take advantage of the renewed interest in Austin blues. George Underwood and his sons put together blues jams for Brooks' Fine Food. Blues Boy Hubbard hosts a weekly jam session at C-Boy's Bottom Line. The point is black folks seemed to be getting "back into blues" because there was renewed interest in the stuff. Ironically, the new interest in Austin was coming from the Westside of town and mostly from young white folks.
Please understand. There was some great music brewing up here. The energy in the blues scene was some exciting stuff. It was fresh. It was full of hot jam sessions, a whole scene was developing around really getting into this old music that had for years been the domain of black folks in cut-and-shoot joints, reflections of what the good-hard-life is all about. But, in Austin, the blues had found this new energy, new players, new venues. Believe me, it really was an exciting time to be out and playing in the local scene.
Now come back to our hypotheticals. What if you, young black man, found yourself in all of this good energy about the music and stopped to think about some of the cultural ramifications of what was going on in the scene. Perhaps you might ask some question about this. You might ask about why it was necessary for these journeymen black players to have to work so hard to "break into the scene."
Wasn't there a legacy, a tradition in the Austin blues/jazz scene that connected it directly to the community and players that created and performed that music to begin with? Weren't the local "old masters" of Austin's jazz and blues scene the guys who had been playing the stuff the longest? Weren't they the veterans of the Huston-Tillotson jazz programs of the past, weren't they the cats who had cut their musical teeth in the 1950s playing blues and jazz on the Eastside at Ernie's, Charlie's Playhouse and the Victory Grill?
Enough of the hypotheticals. Reality sets in right here. Truth is the Eastside blues and jazz scene was all but dead by 1980. Truth is black folks had very little to do with the business of booking/promoting this music in Austin in 1980. Truth is James Polk, through his work with the group Passenger, was one of the very few black faces (or Huston-Tillotson jazz alums) to be found doing jazz gigs around town. Truth is that the East 11th and 12th Street night life district (the focus of present day Austin Revitalization Authority efforts) -- the End -- was not involved in the rekindling of Austin's new interest in jazz and blues.
Further truth is that I was out in the scene, playing bass and learning from these folks in the mid 1980s. I played at the jam sessions, worked with Major Burkes, sat in with W.C. and Stevie Vaughan, played gigs with Blues Boy Hubbard and Matthew Robinson, hauled my geared nightly between Scotty's BBQ to the Austex to Hut's to the Bottom Line to the Stephen F. Austin Hotel. To tell the truth, I was a pretty good R&B/blues bass player then. But there was always something that just didn't seem right about how this stuff was working in Austin.
When I went back to graduate school, I decided to do some original research and put together some materials on the history of the Eastside music scene. I wanted to find some documentation of this glorious Eastside musical heyday of the 1950s that I heard so much about. The cats were always telling me good stories about the old days on East 11th Street, about Charlie's, about playing with Johnny Taylor or B. B. King at the Victory. I thought it would be a good project to go through the local libraries and put together some materials to illustrate this colorful past.
The Blues Family Tree Project took shape in my head in the late 1980s. The thing is, it was supposed to be just a little research project on the music scene. The original goal was to just collect some materials from the libraries and media.
It is true now, and was true then. Efforts to find a "usable and complete history" of Black East Austin in our public, university, and media research facilities and libraries results in an abundance of frustration and very few materials. Truth is, you really cannot, even today, go to the UT Library System or the Austin Public Library and find archival materials that illustrate what Austin's black music heritage is all about. The Statesman didn't write the stories, the scholars didn't write the books, the players didn't publish memoirs. The folks who wrote the published histories of Austin simply didn't give a damn about the culture, music, or people who lived East of East Avenue/I-35. So the great idea I had for pulling that material together just never worked. For the most part, the materials don't exist.
The Blues Family Tree Project can't create archival materials for an era, a time already past. We can't time-travel back to the early 1950s and record Bobby Bland jamming at the Victory Grill. We can't recreate T.D. Bell and Erbie Bowser's early collaborations. It's too late for that. We missed it.
What we can do (and are trying to do) is provide a collection of materials for those who come after us and just might be interested in reading, for instance, our transcript of Erbie Bowser's oral history interview. Maybe someone else will be interested in seeing and hearing, from our video archive, guitarist Clarence Pierce's (with the Eastside Band) only Antone's performance. Maybe someone will be interested in knowing just how some of these cats feel about blues moving out of the 'hood and into the Westside's clubs.
And when you consider that Erbie, and Ural Dewitty, and Grey Ghost, and Whimp Caldwell, and James Clay and others have all died since we started this documentary project, maybe you'll understand why our booking decisions focus first on the guys who were directly connected to the Eastside scene of the past.
Believe me, black music in Austin did exist before it had to move to the Westside to find a gig. All we are trying to do is document some of those folks while we still have the opportunity to do so.