V5N1: February 1999
Volume 5 Number 1
Table of Contents
When people speak of the blues scene in Austin, they almost always discuss two names. The first is Stevie Ray Vaughan, his contribution attested to here in his hometown by a bronze likeness along Town Lake. The second is both a man and an institution. The person is Clifford Antone
...a film that will enlighten the spirit and open the mind.
There is a mystical aspect of music that is shared by all cultures. It involves the idea that music expresses in the external world some kind of internal truth or power.
I'll Make Me a World is a fast-paced, energetic documentary, yet not at the expense of being sufficiently analytical. It provides a window into the struggles of individual artists, beginning as early as 1900, addressing significant issues like entertainment, jazz, minstrelsy, blackface, stereotype, "vernacular culture" folk art, exploitation/blaxploitation, hip hop, feminism/womanism, mainstream, pride, and revolution.
There is an audience for underground music in Austin. We need to work together to build and strengthen this adventurous music community, most importantly by showing our support and encouraging our local musicians to play creatively.
-- P.G. Moreno of Ephistrophy
T.D. Bell was Austin's elder statesman of blues guitar, the original electric blues man. T.D. died a couple of weeks ago. That puts him in the history books as a local legend.
I've spent the better part of my years -- okay, so the years aren't that numerous to date -- lookin' out for number one. You know, "What am I going to do when I reach that proverbial age that shoves me into the realm of 'grown up' responsibility?"
The Blues Without You By Tony Pozeck
When people speak of the blues scene in Austin, they almost always discuss two names. The first is Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose name is synonymous with modern blues guitar, his contribution attested to here in his hometown by a bronze likeness along Town Lake. The second is both a man and an institution. The person is Clifford Antone and the club is Antone's. The club's fabled history is known to have brought growth and quality to Austin's blues scene, and Clifford Antone's infamous history has left his venue perched precariously atop the very scene it helped to develop. In light of recent legal developments, though, authorities appear to be ready to immortalize this fixture of Austin's blues scene in a much less flattering way -- by imprisoning him.
The drug trafficking and money laundering charges that Antone faces have been public knowledge since 1997. He is charged with intending to distribute more than 9,000 pounds of marijuana and of laundering the resulting profits. However, on Wednesday, January 6th, 1999, these charges hit home for Austin music fans as Antone pled guilty on both counts. Had he stood trial and lost, Antone would have faced up to life in prison with a minimum of 20 years and over $4.5 million in fines. With his plea, the judge will have the discretion to sentence him to less than 20 years. Sentencing will be later this spring, so all Austin can do is sit back and wait to see what fate awaits one of its local legends.
A few weeks before Antone entered his plea, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak with him about the blues scene in Austin and about music in general. I wish that U.S. District Judge James Nowlin (who must still approve Antone's plea agreement) was privy to our conversation, because from my point of view, I was speaking with a hero, not a criminal -- a man that should be honored by the government rather than be imprisoned by it. The impression that our conversation left me with was that, for Antone, his club was a means of surrounding himself with what he loves (great music) while at the same time providing musicians with an opportunity to put food on the table. He truly considers the business end as secondary to the music, which is a refreshing change of pace in this day and age. A bassist himself, Antone has had the opportunity to sit in with some of the biggest names associated with the blues, names such as Buddy Guy and Albert Collins. Antone made it clear, however, that he will not mess with the show that fans want to see. "I always try to wait until late in their sets (to sit in), so I don't disrupt the flow of their show." He seemed to understand that live blues doesn't just please our ears, it elevates our souls and fills our minds with memories that will stick with us until the day we die.
When I asked Antone about his club's move from its former location near campus on Guadalupe to the warehouse district, he didn't focus on the move in terms of dollars and cents, he focused on it in terms of what a sentimental loss it was for him. He spoke of how sad he feels whenever he goes to Antone's Records, which is almost directly across the street from the club's old location. "The blues is a feeling... The old club had a lot of history. We're still trying to get some history in the new club."
And what a fabulous history the new location has had. From hosting legends like Buddy Guy and Bobby Blue Bland to presenting such historic shows as Luther Allison's final Austin appearance and Storyville's last performance, the club's walls are beginning to drip with that indefinable substance known as the blues.
I asked Antone about the changes that he has witnessed in Austin's music scene since his club first opened back in 1975. One thing that he made perfectly clear was that although Austin's music scene has changed over the years, his objective has always been the same. "To keep musicians working." Antone seemed to take particular pride in the success of local musicians that he has had the opportunity to watch develop while playing in his club, and with over 20 years experience in the business, he has provided that opportunity to many young players. I could almost hear a fatherly pride in his voice when he spoke of young musicians, such as Jake Andrews, that have played his club over the years. "[Andrews] was seven years old first time he played there with Albert King, can you even imagine how exciting it has been to see him mature as a musician?" Along with the musicians that Antone has seen develop, he has witnessed an explosion in the growth of the town's music scene -- a scene that he and his club have helped to make famous, and one that has helped to make Austin the "live music capital of the world."
Austin will not lose Antone's -- the business will continue to operate regardless of his sentencing. It is now a corporation and has been managed by Susan Antone since 1985. What Austin stands to lose, however, is the presence of a driving force that has helped Austin's music scene flourish, a man that is dedicated to providing young musicians with a chance to make it, a man who by providing us the opportunity to see so many unbelievable performances has helped make Austin a better place to live. I hope that those who determine Clifford Antone's sentence will take into consideration all the good he has done for Austin and for one of our country's national treasures, the blues. I hope they will also remember that his only crimes seem to stem from the fact that he was providing consenting adults with what they wanted.
The Cruise by Rachel Staggs
The Cruise is a film that will enlighten the spirit and open the mind.
Shot over a three-year period in New York City, The Cruise follows the daily life of Timothy "Speed" Levitch, taking the viewer on a tour that Levitch facilitates with historical information and his own insights. Atop the Gray Line double-decker bus, Levitch recites poetry and discusses the unnatural beginnings of Central Park. The "cruise" appears to be synonymous with life for Levitch; when he discusses life he often refers to it as The Cruise itself. "If I have an essential goal on The Cruise right now... I think that the simplest goal is, perhaps, to be able to exhibit that I am thrilled to be alive and still be respected," Levitch says. "The Cruise is about the searchings for everything worthwhile in existence."
Levitch will fill your head with thoughts to ponder. For instance: "You know, I want to look at the flower and appreciate the beauty of the flower. Somebody else might say you can look at the flower and become the flower -- isn't that even better? But then I further would love it, on The Cruise, if I could look at the flower, appreciate the beauty of the flower, and then have the flower appreciate the beauty of me."
Director Bennett Miller embraces the lows and highs of New York City in the black-and-white images that grace the screen. Architecture is artistically captured in moments throughout the film where Levitch takes time to pleasure in it. Levitch's thought process is so eloquent that one cannot distinguish between his thoughts and poetry. His thoughts are poetry.
"Civilization is the amputation of everything that ever happened to us ... Civilization is the molestation of everything we ever could be -- a giant repression melting into suppression so that you never say what you mean. Civilization is breathing down our necks, splitting us apart; we are wreckage with beating hearts... Civilization knew who you were before you were ever born, forgave you when you thought you needed forgiving. And you never once surprised this civilization. And you never once felt that sensation."
The Cruise is a timeless film filled with intelligence, laughter, and most of all, honesty.
Notes from the Woodshed by Paul Klemperer
There is a mystical aspect of music that is shared by all cultures. It involves the idea that music expresses in the external world some kind of internal truth or power. Around the world religious rituals, political rituals, love rituals, almost any ritual you can think of usually has some link to music. In our beloved late-20th century American society, music is often reduced to a mundane commodity or recreational background noise. But there are shining moments when its power reminds us of the deeper things in life, when it acts as a mirror for those things we most care about.
I toss that nugget of philosophy into the ring as a way of framing the issue of Austin's growing size and changing character. I've written before on the shape of things to come for Austin's music scene, and I'd like to develop some of those ideas further here. Specifically, Austin musicians increasingly must grapple with the tension between commercial and artistic choices. As the city grows there is a tendency for it to become more like other big American cities, and for the music here to become more commercially homogeneous. But at the same time there are greater opportunities for creative artists to survive and flourish. The music we make here is a mirror of our city's character. In the face of economic pressures to conform, we strive for a unique identity.
In the struggle to survive, and beyond this to find one's own personal niche, a musician or band may lose sight of the continuum. Sometimes the idea of a music community seems idealistic as we scramble for low-paying gigs in a competitive market. But the fact that we have a strong music community is undeniable, and it is often surprising how much this community transcends different musical styles, cliques and trends. Austin has a reputation as a creative musical enclave, not only nationally but increasingly around the globe. In my travels as a road musician I am continually struck by the ripples our little city makes in the larger music world. We seem to have an inordinate amount of creative energy here.
Which brings us to the title of this column. A venerable part of the jazz tradition is "woodshedding," with the concomitant image of holing-up in the woodshed, just you and your instrument, working out all your melodies, licks and ideas, until you are ready to bring them out for public consumption. Part of what makes Austin distinct from other music communities is that it encourages woodshedding. You don't see a lot of players getting onstage in Nashville or L.A. saying, "Here's a little sumpin I been workin on, and it goes like this..." For jazz players in particular, jam sessions and sit-ins are extremely informal and friendly in comparison to other cities. It may not seem like it sometimes, but just take your horn to a cutting session in Manhattan if you need a reminder.
In Austin we are able to work out our ideas, develop our style, separate the wheat from the chaff, in a way that is extraordinarily encouraging and good-natured. As everyone knows by now, there are more live music venues per capita here than pretty much anywhere in the world (I'm not sure if this has been scientifically proven, but I have yet to see it disproved). You can go out any night of the week and hear live music--some great, some awful, and a lot just taking shape. This creative process is the heart of our music community, and we encourage it, consciously or not, just by being part of it.
At DiverseArts we had tossed around the idea of a regular music column for some time. At first it was going to focus on jazz in Austin. Then it seemed more appropriate to expand the idea to improvisational music in general. But this begged the semantic question of what constitutes improvisational music. Getting to the heart of it, I believe, is the creative act. The artists that dare to create, to be distinct (or don't know enough not to be) are on the frontlines. They come stumbling out of the woodshed into the glare of day (or more often the glare of stagelighting), eager to share their discoveries and inventions, for better or worse. The focus of this column is that creative endeavor. Bring it to the table; let's see how it tastes.
Redefining Revolution by Sandra Beckmeier
Austin's PBS station, KLRU, will start off this February by to bringing audiences the long awaited celebration I'll Make Me a World, a first-rate documentary about how African Americans have redefined and revolutionized art in America. Produced by the late Henry Hampton, executive producer of Blackside, Inc., I'll Make Me a World records the achievements of writers, dancers, visual artists, actors, musicians and filmmakers who have shaped American culture in the 20th century.
KLRU had known for about a year and a half that the program was being developed by the same producers who made Eyes on the Prize (which is regarded as one of the best things ever produced by public television), so efforts began in the spring of 1998 to coordinate community outreach programs designed to jump-start discussion between local artists, scholars, arts advocates and students.
"We knew that this program was going to be important to this country, and to this community," said Karen Quebe, KLRU's Outreach Coordinator. "With almost every public television program that is made available to KLRU there are materials also made available which are developed by the people who produce the show. Part of KLRU's responsibility is to look at the programs and decide which ones are the most important for this community as far as extending the value of the program. We saw this as a tremendous opportunity to develop community pieces.
"The Austin Children's Museum heard about it first and expressed interest, so we decided we needed to pull together a partnership," Quebe said. The partnership between KLRU and the ACM resulted in a handful of artist performances that were geared toward educating kids on African American art and its impact in the community.
After four primary partners came together, including IBM and the Town Lake Chapter of the Links service organization, a long-time African American women's service group, these activities started to grow. Although February is recognized as Black History Month, organizers wanted to focus on January because it gave an opportunity to build conversations early, and involve a larger audience.
I'll Make Me a World is a fast-paced, energetic documentary, yet not at the expense of being sufficiently analytical. It provides a window into the struggles of individual artists, beginning as early as 1900, addressing significant issues like entertainment, jazz, minstrelsy, blackface, stereotype, "vernacular culture" folk art, exploitation/blaxploitation, hip hop, feminism/womanism, mainstream, pride, and revolution. "The program paints a complete landscape of what was happening, and brings home what people went through," Quebe explains. "And part of that landscape is highlighted from the remarkable footage on this documentary."
On January 19, a pre-screening and informal discussion facilitated by Dr. Joni Jones, artist and professor at the University of Texas, opened a community forum as a part of KLRU's outreach efforts, coordinated by Sharon Bridgforth and Karen Quebe. Dr. Jones offered an historic sense of the African American arts aesthetic, then opened a discussion with the hand-picked panel. N.O.O.K., rap artist/educator/activist and founder of Jump On It (Austin's only hip-hop festival); Evelyn Anderson, writer and founder of the Langston Hughes Festival; Boyd Vance of Pro-Arts Collective; Harold McMillan of DiverseArts Production Group; Lisa Byrd of the Dance Umbrella and Theater Critic for the Austin American Statesman; and Eva Lindsey, arts activist and founder of the Institute of Art, Culture, and Entertainment, all relayed their concerns about important issues relevant to the community as a whole, but specifically relating to establishing a network within the Afican-American community.
Each participant was given several minutes to speak about what was or was not working for their projects, organizations, and art, and then the focus turned to audience members for an open forum on possible solutions. Continuing to build a network to support African American artists that focuses on keeping the community moving forward was agreed to as a solid beginning to reaching out into the community.
Also addressed was the need to create community-based projects over time, knowing that developing institutions that will put a structure in place is something that takes the efforts of many. Funding sources are what most people who are doing cultural work have to come to terms with, and to get a project funded requires that an artist go through a rigorous routine, leaping through some uncomfortable hoops in order to get a small amount of money.
"When you choose to institutionalize something and take on the role to see that things are done, it is sometimes the artist themselves in this role. It is like giving birth." Jones said.
Although KLRU did not tape the discussion on January 19th, a conversation between several panel members was aired January 28th on Tom Spencer's public affairs program Austin at Issue. The program was steered toward the spiritual perspective of the arts, as represented by an artist, a funder, and a critic. Considering that I'll Make Me a World clearly explains how artists invent and re-invent American culture, and also that KLRU has invested a great deal of time to ensure that there was community programming locally, it seems strange that all of these efforts and conversations, so vital to the overall health of the Austin arts community, are not aired consistently and "in bulk."
Things are changing at KLRU. As of February, 1998, Mary Beth Rogers was brought in as the station's new CEO. KLRU maintains they have always selected which programs are broadcast, and which get the focus of outreach into the local community. "Most certainly there are always opportunities when a new CEO comes in to reexamine the way you've done things in the past," Quebe said. "We've gone through an intensive strategic planning process. It's important to realize that outreach in Public Television is really beginning to take hold around the country. We're considered a middle-sized station, and for our size we get a lot of mileage for this community. Only a third of public television stations have the resources or expertise to really build strong outreach."
Dr. Jones and playwright Sharon Bridgforth implemented one successful outreach program aimed at Austin youth. With their help, a group of 12 teens from local high schools pooled ideas, talents and vision, and put together a performance piece in non-traditional format (non-linear) that created meaningful celebrations of art and culture, a section of which was later aired on Austin At Issue.
In the month of April, poet Nikki Giovanni will come to the University of Texas to take part in the Heman Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights. This year's symposium, developed to honor Sweat, the first African American to get into the UT Law School in 1949-50, will revolve around African American art and artists. "Organizers heard that I'll Make Me a World would be airing on television," Quebe said. "They thought, 'How perfect to focus on the struggle of the artists during the period.'" Nikki Giovanni is also highlighted in the series.
I'll Make Me a World airs on PBS, Channel 18 February 1-3, from 9-11 pm
Riley's Blues by Jeff Knight
The black man had grown up in the Delta, singing
Gospel and chopping Cotton, and
I'm not making up any of this.
Folks split when he was four, Little Riley moved
with his mother to another part of the state, didn't
see his father anymore.
His mother died when he was nine.
His mother died when he was nine,
and it would be worth a moment of our time to try
to remember being nine
and to remember, too,
what poets know is true:
the inadequacy of language to convey experience.
That said: His mother died when he was nine, and
he had to go to work chopping cotton for a tenant
farmer who made him a place. Nine years old, he
sharecropper work and he didn't go to school. Did
that for a year.
A year is a long time when you're nine.
Then he did it again the next year,
and again the next.
Nine, ten, now he was eleven,
and he lived in that shack,
no family around,
for another year,
and another, and then,
when he was fourteen, his father found him and
came and took him home.
Now it moves along:
he lived with his father,
he had family all around,
he sang gospel at church,
he still did some farm work,
but he got to go to school,
an uncle showed him a few guitar chords, he grew
up, and in 1944 he got drafted.
During his stint in the Army
he learned some blues from the guys in his unit. He
did his time; he got out,
And in '46 or '47, he thumbed to Memphis. There,
he slept on his cousin's couch.
This cousin -- and I might as well tell you
the cousin turns out to be the great
bottleneck slide player Bukka White --
helped him get a job
singing in radio commercials. It was an in, and he
was able to turn it into something. He got work as
a DJ on WDIA, the first
radio station anywhere on this continent to feature
an all-black format.
His guitar playing improved.
He went to all the blues jams
at all the black clubs on Beale Street, and (Oh My
He cut their hearts out.
He cut their hearts out, night after night, blue note
after blue note rising, falling, tumbling liquid from
that big Gibson guitar, sad and sweet and smart,
fusing the styles of T-Bone Walker and Blind
Lemon Jefferson, city smoke and country dirt,
all bent strings and fat tone.
He started working Django Rheinhardt's
jazz flourishes into his Delta blues,
he had vocabulary,
he made something new,
he cut their hearts out.
He started playing his guitar
along with R&B records on the air.
Can you imagine this?
It is, oh, let's make it 1948,
you're driving through Memphis,
and as you cross the river you
tune in to WDIA and happen to catch
the HeeBee JeeBee Radio Show,
and you hear Howlin' Wolf,
or Dinah Washington,
or Junior Parker,
or Sonny Boy Williamson
cranking through the static
with additional guitar from the DJ,
and it's Little Riley
King all grown up,
Beale Street Blues Boy King
they called him, and later
it was just
© 1997 Jeff Knight
Suzie Ibarra & Assif Tsahar Duo with Will Greenstreet: Saturday, January 1999 @ Off Center by Allyson Lipkin
Epistrophy Arts has done it again: a great gathering of jazz loving people at a new space called The Off Center, where Suzie Ibarra (drums) and Assif Tsahar,(tenor sax and bass clarinet) hashed out a headlining show with Austin's own Will Greenstreet opening. Suzie and Assif have been making avant-garde improvisational music with other New Yorkers like William Parker, David S. Ware, Wilber Morris, Denis Charles, John Zorn, and Mathew Shipp, among others. Epistrophy Arts has been doing its best to keep Austin up on new and improvisational jazz. P.G. Moreno of Ephistrophy states, "Our goal at Epistrophy is to demonstrate that there is an audience for underground music in Austin. We need to work together to build and strengthen this adventurous music community, most importantly by showing our support and encouraging our local musicians to play creatively." Yes, Hallelujah, praised be!! After the jazz show, Assif, DiverseArts, and Will Greenstreet had a chat to discuss current events while Suzie was putting up her drums. Later she and I had a conversation which I have entitled "Suzie and Me" due to the fact that she is so on the level.
ADA: What precipitatied your tour to Austin?
AT: We did a tour in Israel. That's where I'm from. We played to the film of Stan Brackage. That was the first time I had played there in nine years. Nine years ago I left Israel.
ADA: As a student?
AT: I am still a student, but I was really a student then. There was no one in Israel that was playing this stuff. It was the first time in nine years, so I was very excited.
ADA: Who organized the Stan Brackage Combo?
AT: I just wrote him...to ask him to do it.
ADA: So you produced it?
AT: Yeah, I did it. He said fine, do whatever you want to do, you know it's your business. It was amazing that I met with him and talked to him. I still have to send him everything I did because I promised him but I have had no time.
ADA: So what other projects do you have in mind?
AT: I'd like to do what [P.G. Moreno] suggested with this orchestra, CO2 [The Creative Opportunity Orchestra]. I like orchestras. Mostly what I do now, it's a duet or a trio in small settings. I have this brass band that I'm working with now. I have played in Cecil Taylor's big band and William Parker's. That's kind of what started it. See jazz music started from big band music...bigger ensembles. I really have an appreciation for that. Like the first bands I played in New York were big bands.
ADA: Will, is it totally different, like going from one end of the spectrum to the other?
WG: Well, you get the reading, you know, people supporting what your doing.
AT: You know it's kind of like a community. Like when you play that music you have the reading but more importantly it's like when everybody is together. It's larger than somebody. When it really works it's magical because it's so hard. You know you have to give up your ego.
WG: It's easier with two people, actually.
AT: I talked to Mal Waldron once, he's a piano player, he said it's the easiest thing to do -- express.
ADA: When you and Suzie are playing in the moment, do you have a structure that you are going with, a composition, or a feeling? Suzie has ultimate control and stream of flow...
WG: Whatever she wants to do she can do. That she thinks it and does it. The whole thing about recording music like this, improv, is that it's a record of the time. That's all it is. You know you don't think we're gonna make this glossy record or anything like that. It's really just a record of the time, so quality of what you can do is all that's important.
Suzie and Me
At this point in time, Suzie was ready to grace me with her soft-spoken presence. We continue talking -- just us -- about recording improvisational jazz and her roots.
ADA: I was talking about recording with Assif and Will. How would you tend to prepare for it?
SI: Well, there is always a different feeling when you're in a studio than when you're playing for people. And, you know, jazz is largely based on improvised music but also we have pieces, melodies, or structures that we work from. Sometimes these ideas are worked out from just playing a lot. These ideas, or say, tunes, will go into a free tune -- which will be worked out in the moment by improvising. And the version that's played that day is the version that gets the recording. And you know that's what it is. You can't really stress about it because music tends to be about that moment. And whether it's a studio or live performance -- I always just try to go and just play my best and from the heart.
ADA: I think it's great, because you are one of the only women players! Your name comes up a lot and it has to do with style and interpretation. I don't know who you consider your mentors, but there are not that many women who have busted out. I think it's great. What can you say about what you've done to prepare yourself?
SI: You know, you are who you are. Being raised from my family I had a very strong mother. She was very bright. She's a doctor. I'm a first generation American, they are from the Philippines. During WWII she went through med school. She was really bright -- I could never be this bright! She had great grades. They said to her in med school, "You know, we would rather have some mediocre guy come in [even though] you have the grades." My mom said, "I have the grades, I want to go in!" So that stuff she was going through in the fifties. And I guess music hasn't, I feel, really been through a feminist period; not to say that all women who play music are feminists. A lot of other art forms have gone through femenist and post femenist movements but in music, it didn't even happen. I think you have to wonder why, because there are a lot of women musicians out there, a lot that can play. But it's still not that many.
ADA: Especially in the jazz world. Because there are a lot of them when you look at the full spectrum.
SI: In music you have to cosider that there is a lot of tradition, if you want to go way back to traditional music. Actually, in April, I'm curating a women's music show at a club called Tonic. I haven't finished booking it, so I can't give out any names.
ADA: Keep us posted, we would love to hear about the event!
There was a little more dialogue in "Suzie and Me," but my recorder started slurring all her words. I refer to Suzie as "the Zen mastress" of drums due to the control and velocity for which she expells her rolls. Her chop is mean, too. We ended the interview with me handing her a plastic glitter star ring to wear. (She put it on her pinky.)
Check out Suzie and Assif's selected discography:
- Suzie Ibarra and Assif Tsahar
Home Cookin' (Hopscotch)
- Assif Tsahar Trio
Ain Sof (silkheart)
- Susie Ibarra and Denis Charles
Drum Talk (Wobbly Rail)
- With the David S. Ware Quartet
Go See the World (Sony Columbia)
Wisdom of Uncertainty (Aum Fidelity)
- With William Parker
In Order to Survive Compassion Seizes Bed-Stuy (Homestead)
William Parker (FMP)
- With Wilber Morris and the One World Ensemble
Breathing Together (Freedom Sound)
Up All Night by Harold McMillan
T.D. Bell was Austin's elder statesman of blues guitar, the original electric blues man. T.D. died a couple of weeks ago. That puts him in the history books as a local legend. For those of us who knew him well, and for the many who simply had the opportunity to meet him, he was also -- more importantly -- a kind and gentle soul, a good friend, an honest caring person. T.D. Bell was a good man. Many will miss his presence and, continue to hear his guitar and feel his spirit for years to come.
I have much I could say about T.D., his art, his contribution to Austin's music scene and culture of the blues. T.D. Bell was a teacher, on many different levels, to many of us here in Austin. Given the opportunity to comment on his passing, whatever I have to say about him is probably less telling than what T.D.'s own words portray about the man he was, his place in history, his temperament, his view of his music and his place in the world.
What follows is a short edit of an oral history interview for the Blues Family Tree Archive that Sandra Carter and I did with T.D. in 1991. Limited space won't allow us to print the entire transcript, but please read T.D.'s words here. You'll get a glimpse of him, learn why he is important to our history, and perhaps get some idea of the kind of person he was. T.D. Bell IS loved and his presence will be missed from now on.
TD: Well, I tell you what, I was working at the Alcoa aluminum plant at the time this happened, in '49. I wasn't making but a dollar an hour. Johnny Holmes asked me to come, said if I would move here he would pay me $125 a week. And good gracious alive, man, that was some money then, you know? So I decided to get away from there. So I quit the aluminum plant and came here. And been right here ever since.
ADA: So at first, you moved to Austin just to work at the Victory?
TD: Yeah we did that, oh, I don't know how long. After that I branched out to different clubs. You know Johnny mostly had the weekend and [someone else] started booking me and Tom Plumber. He had a club, he and I played, just started playing at different clubs just after Johnny Holmes. Three nights or two nights or whatever, you know? And most whenever they had a big band here in town. Johnny Holmes had the after hours, you know, at the Victory for it.
ADA: The Victory Grill was the main music room in town at the time?
TD: Yeah, early '50s, yessir. In 19 and 50, 51-52 the Victory was strong, I'm telling you, it was strong then.
ADA: So there was an Eastside music scene back then?
TD: Yes there was, but most of it was jazz here, you know? If I'm not mistaken. I don't want to over support myself. To my knowledge, I didn't see or didn't hear any blues guitar players in these clubs. 'Cause they was all jazz. And that's why lots of the great horn players wouldn't play with you. Because they didn't want the blues, they didn't want to play blues, they wanted jazz. I didn't know one note of jazz, not of blues either, I learned mine from ear. So I wouldn't know one note if it was big as a boxcar. But so far I've managed to make a living, you know, playing the blues so far.
ADA: Was the East Side music scene mostly local players
TD: Right, yeah. We had a few soldiers, you know, that was stationed at Fort Hood. And they were great musicians. I think some would even come from San Antonio. Like I remember one guy used to be here, I don't know exactly where he was from at that time. They called him Peanut, because he was short. And, oh man, he played great baritone and tenor. And H-T [Huston-Tillotson College] had lots of great jazz musicians. And they just, some of them just said they really couldn't play the blues, you know? I guess because they was on jazz and just like me, I couldn't play jazz, you know? So I guess that's how that were.
ADA: Was there a market for jazz and blues in other towns in Texas, so you could travel and play?
TD: Oh man, what are you talking about? Oh yes! Everywhere I went. Getting back to Johnny Holmes, I started to venture out a little bit from here, after a guy out of Odessa, Texas, heard me. I had lots of people from Rockdale living out there and they knew that I had a little band. They advised me to come to Odessa and play. So I started going to Odessa and Midland. Work was good out there during the oil boom. And they were paying good for cooks. So after the Victory Grill started kind of going down, I came through here and I talked to Johnny Holmes, I said, "Johnny, I say you a great cook. They pay dearly for cooks in Midland and Odessa." So he said, "When are you going back out there." And I gave him the date. He said, "well when you come through, come by and pick me up and I'll go out there with you. And see what it's like."
And I carried Johnny Holmes out there and he didn't even come back, he stayed. And he got a job cooking. And you know Johnny was in the business for the music, that was in him. So he worked as a chef cook there in Odessa for a while. Then he spotted a club and so he got this club. Then he stopped cooking and started booking bands--big bands like B.B., Ray Charles and all those great guys, you know, at the Cobra Club there in Midland. And that's what Johnny did. After that, well Johnny would call me and I would go out there and stay a year or two and play around with the group he had. Then I would come back to Austin and play here a year or two. And maybe go back. That's the way I did it up to about '58, then I came back here and I stopped traveling.
ADA: How did you come to play with Erbie Bowser?
TD: Ran into Bowser in Odessa. I think Erbie was working at a sulphur plant. And like I was saying a while back that I've seen so many great musicians pass away. We had a great little piano player. He was about 17, 16 or 17 years of age. And he was about the hottest thing that I had ever heard to be so young on a piano. And he got with a drummer that was playing with us, and they went over into Mexico and he got an overdose. Killed him. And so at this time we were looking for a piano player.
I don't know how Johnny found Erbie. But anyway, we got ready to have rehearsal and Johnny said, "Oh, I've got a piano player coming. He work at the sulphur plant. He'll be here later on this evening." So when Erbie walked in, you know, with his work clothes on and everything, I looked at him and I thought, "Man, he can't...he won't be able to make it." Erbie came in there and sat down on the stool and he went up and down that piano and I says, "Uh-oh, man he's too tough for us!" So that's how I met Erbie. And Erbie and I have been fiddling together since '54 or '55, somewhere along about there. That's how long we've been together.
ADA: Did you tour with this west Texas band?
TD: No I didn't. I left. I don't know if Erbie even remembers when I left from out there, but I was...things get a little rough there, I'd come back here and work here a while, and get a little rough here I'd head back out there. Look like I would just...I would have a job either place I went, you know? We were back here playing for Charlie Gilden, I think I was playing at Charlie's Playhouse. And I happened to look up and see Erbie. He had relatives and things lived here, and I didn't know it. So I looked up in Charlie's Playhouse, I don't know if it was day or night, 'Cause we played so much at Charlie's, matinees and at night. In walks Erbie. And...we got back together and we've been hacking it ever since.
ADA: What was the East Side club scene like in the 1950s? Were your audiences mostly black folks?
TD: Well, when I first came here, you know, it wasn't integrated and we had the black people. And somewhere in the '50s, if I'm not mistaken, it was Charlie's Playhouse, he was the first that integrated. And Charlie had a nice club. Not saying nicer than anybody else's, you know, but he had a nice huge club that could hold lots of people. And so then the whites started coming over to the east side and then Charlie's Playhouse, he started taking over then. He carried about the biggest crowd that was in the clubs here during that time, but before then it was all Victory Grill, you know?
ADA: Considering that Austin was still a segregated city at the time, how did it feel to be playing blues for integrated audiences at Charlie's Playhouse?
TD: Well, it was fine, because they...what they wanted was the blues, you know, and in fact we had a chance to do a lots of fraternity jobs out there. And that's...that's what they wanted. What we were doing, and it opened up lots of work to us. And then we had lots of white guys coming over wanting to learn to play the blues. And so...dog-gone-it, this guy's in California now and I can't call his name. He started coming over and learning. I think Hubbard, Blues Boy Hubbard, taught him about the guitar.
ADA: Bill Campbell?
TD: Bill Campbell, yeah, Bill Campbell. Yeah, he could lay down some blues for you. And so he started playing. And after the other white guys saw how Bill Campbell was doing, then they got interested. Then I guess Bill started learning them and before we knew anything, boom! Every time you would look up here was a band, there was a band there, band over there. Then after the white guys got their bands and things together, then they started getting the jobs in the fraternities at UT. And so that kind of knocked us back, you know? 'Cause they were doing some of the things that blacks had been doing, and that...you know, that really carried them over.
ADA: How did you feel about that, losing gigs?
TD: Well, it was fine with me because...if I wasn't there I was somewheres else, you know? Fact, like during that time I had a chance to travel with Johnny Ace and Willie Mae Thornton. And that was a great experience. I started with them out of Houston. We went into Atlanta, Georgia...was a long ride to make $15. We left there and came back in from Georgia to Alabama -- Anderston, Alabama, or some place. I can't remember now, but anyway we had a couple of dates in that town, then we got back into New Orleans, Louisiana. Johnny Ace and Willie Mae Thornton, they had a little disagreement and so they called Don Robey in Houston. And Don Robey had them to come in. They cancelled the dates that they had and [Robey] had them to come in so he could try to get things straightened out. So they left us in New Orleans.
We stayed there at a little hotel and that's where I learned how to eat gumbo. Money was low and you could go and get a 15 cent bowl of gumbo, you were ready for all day. And so we kind of got a little stranded there and I kind of got uneasy. I said, "You know I'm doing better than this back there in Austin." I had kind of already checked the map, you know, I'm thinking about hopping off. And I checked where they was going...they were only going into Florida. And so I checked the map and I seen how close we were going to be to Texas, so I was riding with Willie Mae Thornton in the station wagon -- she carried the instruments and the musicians in the trailer in a station wagon. So we came in -- I can't think of the name of the little town there -- but anyway, when we got there I told her to stop. She said, "what do you want to stop for?" I said, "I'm getting off here. I can't go any further." So I got off, they went on into Florida and in the next three weeks, that's when Johnny Ace killed himself. I guess with the Russian Roulette.
And, but see I came right on back here to Austin and got with my same group and went to work. I had plenty of work. I could leave here and stay gone a year, two years, come back. People knew I was back in town, they'd start booking me, calling me.
ADA: What is it about the blues that keeps you playing?
TD: Well, I tell you what. Some people may be down on it, but I'm not. I tell you what, blues tells a story. You know, if you sit there and listen to it, it will...you'll get something out of it. And I'll say one thing, if you haven't had them, if you keep living, you will have them. Yeah, you'll have the blues.
ADA: How do you feel about the future of the blues, as a form of music that people play and listen to?
TD: Well, so far as I will say, for senior citizens, I think the blues are here to stay, but the young people they are on this rap and stuff. So I don't know about them. We have maybe a few young people that likes the blues, you know, but you take most of them, they going for this rap music. But blues are here to stay. There's going to be somebody always playing the blues. Blues are not as hot as this other music is now in popularity, but blues are still here. 'Cause if they wasn't, there wouldn't be as many who turnout to these blues festivals and these great artists that come through, you know? They carries a crowd with them, so I think they're still here.
ADA: It seems like for you, as someone who was out of the playing scene for so long, you're now playing to a whole new audience.
TD: Yeah, that's true. In fact in '87 when we did this blues festival up at the Victory Grill up there on 11th Street, well...that was all I intended to do, you know, was just that. And so Tary Owens called me. "Say T.D., I got a job for you and Erbie Bowser at the happy hour at the Continental Club." So I said, "No, that's it for me, I don't want any more. I put it down and that's the way I'm going to stay." But Erbie Bowser, he accepted it. So he was working up there by himself. And he kept calling me every week. "Come on up, come on, I'm making so and so, I'm doing this, I'm getting $50 for 2 hours playing and $30-40 in the kitty." I said, "What?" And I said, "well I'll come down and check you out one evening." So I fooled around another two or three weeks and then finally I decided to go down. I said, "I believe I'll come down and play one with you." And I went down and got $35 and $35 in the kitty for two hours. I say, "well my!, two hours, you know, $70, I didn't make that much money in 6 hours before I quit." And so I decided, "Well I might as well..." I was just going to do that you know every Friday and that was all.
So after people started hearing us and hearing more of us and everything, then they wanted us to play here, play for a wedding, play for a party, play for this and that, and man it just...the word got out. So one day Mel Davis walked up, the harmonica player, he walked up and said, "well if you fellows let me play with you, I don't want any money. I just want to play the blues." So Mel stayed with us about a month or something. He didn't take any money. So we gave him some money out of the kitty, then finally then Erbie asked for a salary for him. He got that. And another month or so later Lynn Nichols, bass player, he came up. And he same way. "Well I just want to play and learn with you all." And so he stayed there a while then Erbie got a salary for him. So well the next thing, we said now we need a drummer. And we talked to Steve about getting a drummer and he said, "well go ahead and do that," and we ended up with five pieces in there. That's what it's been for the last year and a half. So people come in and out and they hear about us and then they want us to come to different places for different occasions and we end up doing them.
ADA: How do you feel about the new attention you're getting, being out there as a working musician again?
TD: Well, it makes you feel good because...really we are getting more publicity and everything than I've ever gotten in my life, you know? And you have more people running up and hugging you and admiring you and thanking you and tipping heavy, you know? Back there then we didn't hardly know what a tip was. But it makes you want to do more, when you have people to even applaud for you. After a number is over, and they come up and thank you and say how they enjoyed the band and how great you were and all of that. It just makes you feel like going to work the next night, for me it does.
ADA: Well, they're doing it because you are a local blues legend.
TD: Well it makes me feel good. Maybe some time Tary Owens he will announce, blues legend or you know, something. It makes you feel good. I just, sometime I wished and then sometime you never know what's for you. You can only say what...I've had lots of opportunities to leave here try to hit the big time. I've had one aunt that was living in New York, she begged me to leave and go back with her,back in the early '50s. I said oh no I'm going to stay here. I wouldn't feel comfortable I had relatives in Los Angeles, they'd come down to visit and hear my group and they would ask me to leave. A couple of sisters in Houston, they wanted me to come down there. I don't know. I just stayed here. I just thought I was comfortable doing what I was doing here. I made a living at it. So I am thankful for that.
ADA: For the purposes of the this project, for the Blues Family Tree Project, all of this makes you a blues grandfather here in the local scene.
TD: I tell you what: I'm happy to be in that class. 'Cause you know I've seen so many fall by the wayside. A lot of us don't live to be old men. That's why I admire Grey Ghost so, you know?
Verities by Kelli Ford
Couches, Car Insurance, and Volunteerism
I've spent the better part of my years -- okay, so the years aren't that numerous to date -- lookin' out for number one. You know, "What am I going to do when I reach that proverbial age that shoves me into the realm of 'grown up' responsibility?" (More commonly, "What can I do that is fun today?") "How do I pay for college, and why should I even spend my time and borrowed money at such an institution? Will I ever be able to pay for my own car insurance? What happens when my parents can't take care of themselves anymore -- can they rely on me as I have them?"
Though these were things I wondered, I rarely took an active role in finding creative and worthwhile answers to these self-perpetuating questions. It was beginning to look like I had destined myself into the Land of Eternal Slack. Self-centered questions, however, weren't the only ones I asked myself as I sat clothed in last night's bed attire on my slouch couch with Regis and Cathy Lee chattering away -- tucks, plucks, heavy foundation cream and all staring at me. (Slack or not, I was a somewhat early riser and had only one channel to choose from.) No, other little worry splinters dug under my skin. Things like: What happens when the landfills fill -- will the countryside look like most cities and the floor- board of my car, filled with Burger King wrappers, soda can syrup, and cigarette boxes? What if everyone drives as much as I do? And what about those poor cows in the feedlots awaiting some fast food freezer? Why are there still so many hate crimes? And how could I be a lazy college student watching Regis and Cathy Lee at 9:15 on a Tuesday when babies and grandmas were wet, hot, cold, thirsty, and hungry?
Thoughts. All just thoughts of a self-diagnosed almost -- Eternal Slack. But what separates those of us who have good hearts and intentions from the other people who have the same but get off of the couch and away from these vices of entertainment and DO -- the people who perpetuate their own existence by doing so for their community and world -- the carers and the doers, the movers and shakers?
I left college because I found no meaning there (or money), much less in the world at large. I mean, starving babies, the hole in the ozone, hate crimes, and me and Reg' and Cathy? It just didn't add up. Now that I spend more time away from my couch and can't tell you what happens on The Simpsons rerun every single night, I am beginning to realize that I never found a meaning because I never went out and made one up for myself, never addressed one or even all of my concerns and decided to work to change them.
I recently read an article in Rolling Stone about David Chain, a young hippie from Texas who found his meaning and his death saving Redwood trees in California. Work didn't make sense. College didn't. Religion didn't. He put himself in a position to activate change saving one tree at a time until a logger dropped one on his head.
Not that you have to drop your life and friends and join a hard-core environmental organization to change things. One of my roommates, a full-time philosophy student and waitress, volunteers two evenings a week with an organization that can't be mentioned due to legal reasons. I asked her why and how she made the time and energy.
"The American capitalistic society forces people to do things for money. But making money isn't fulfilling. To me, going to college isn't really fulfilling either. People's roles in our society are too specific.
I mean, if what you have to do is go to college and be a waitress, what do you really get from that? I mean you don't know if your education is even going to be worthwhile, and serving yuppies..." her voice trails off in obvious distaste. "[Volunteering] is kind of a selfish thing. You do feel that you get something out of it -- not money, better than money. It's very personal," she says when I ask her why she works for her cause. "I wouldn't just randomly volunteer for things. I think people just do it to have something real going on."
I suppose one reason we have such a trashed out environment and so much hopelessness is because so many of us don't have anything real going on other than paying our insurance (or thinking about how we someday can) or feeding ourselves and our families. Not many people do anything extra, and some really don't have the capacity. Most do. It will certainly take more than paying rent to help our society survive very far into the much anticipated (or dreaded) new millennium (I had to throw at least one millennium reference in here somewhere).
I am now in my second year as a member of Americorps, a program in the National Service Corporation, and am considered a full-time volunteer.
Although it looks great on a resume (that's self-perpetuation at work), I don't really consider myself a volunteer. Sure, I put in 8 1/2 hour days for a year, but I get a stipend and a scholarship in return. I am now much more aware, at least, of volunteers and the countless opportunities to get involved, not to mention the little things you can do on your own like picking up a beer can some jerk left at the park, putting your cigarette butt in the ashtray, or giving your old clothes to someone who needs them instead of selling them in a garage sale. Turning off the TV is a really good start, too.
So, am I stuck in Eternal Slackdom? Let's hope not, for all of our sake. For we are on the verge of a new era (sorry, there's that millennium thing again), and it's time to turn those good intentions into deeds.
Thoughts. All just thoughts.