Volume 3 Number 1
Table of Contents
Once again, my friends, Latin American music has reared its head: dark skinned beauties, latin lovers, rich cigars, and all.
Over the past century, America has seen the evolution of country music from a pastime into a multi-million dollar industry giving birth to stars and sensationalism. Texas musicians have been crucial in this evolution, Austin in particular playing a large role in the nurturing of this tradition.
The project produces this series each year as a vehicle for recording the musical performances and and collecting interviews for an oral history archive. Documenting the evolution of Austin's African American music community is the primary goal
As a theatre company, Frontera is committed to fostering daring new voices, and the commissioning of new works is first priority.
As an African American musician, I bemoan the low interest among my people and other people of color in jazz, its related forms and fundamental antecedent -- the blues.
I really don't believe we have become this corporate beast some like to make us out to be.
-- Brent Grulke, SXSW Creative Director
Printmaking is an ancient art form, first introduced as a simple and advantageous way of spreading religion. Chinese artists created woodcuts to accompany Buddhist texts, or sutras, as early as 858 A.D. Since then, printmaking has evolved into a unique and accessible mode of expression.
Every February we black folks become very popular -- to each other and everybody else. The mainstream press and all of the schools and businesses finally stop and pay attention to us.
While most everyone I know is out there living life, I have chosen to hole-up, pull down the shades, unplug the phone and begin drying up like a stick of beef jerky in a Louisiana convenience store. It's reevaluate my life time, and it's long overdue.
Austin's Latin Music Fever by Manuel Gonzales
I'm sitting in the international headquarters of the Clarksville Pie Company with my friend and pie maker, Barry Margeson, making a few pies, eating a T-bone steak, and drinking a beer or two. It's one a.m., and Cannonball Adderly is jamming on the CD player. Before Cannonball, it was Cuban son, and in between strawberry-rhubarb and chocolate pecan, I return to this article which I should be writing about Latin American music and its place in Austin's music history, and I can tell you this: open up the Chronicle to the '97 Austin Music Poll, and you'll find listed among other entries beneath the category "Best Performance Band," "Tejano/Conjunto," "Mexican folk/traditional," and "World Music." Four years ago, you would have found "World Music"; ten years ago you might have found "Other" or "None of the above."
Once again, my friends, Latin American music has reared its head: dark skinned beauties, latin lovers, rich cigars, and all.
In the spirit of Latin America and el Caribe, we might as well call it a revolution, though one long in the coming. And you wonder why? Here we are, six hours north of the Mexican border, four hours west of the large port conglomerate of Houston and Galveston. Two very direct routes into the heart of Texas, and it's not until just recently that Latin fever has hit the Austin night life. We are and have been surrounded by Tejano musical influences for many years now (ever since I was born, so twenty-two, at least): Little Joe from Temple and the Tejano dancing scene out of Seguin, Texas, just northwest of San Antonio, and clubs like Tejano Ranch just south of 183. But Tejano/Conjunto music has remained in the background of Austin's music history for some time, and the main leaders of the Austin Tejano revolt, Los Pinkys, Flaco Jimenez, Freddie Fender, and their Texas Tornados, are just now coming into the foreground. But then, some might argue that Tejano music isn't strictly Latin American music, either, that it is a Tex-Mex hybrid of Mexican mariachi and Texas country, hence the name Tejano, and represents a style of music more indigenous to North America than South or Central America. So if we rule out Tejano/Conjunto, that leaves Austin's Latin scene pre-1990's virtually non-existant.
Latin music first hit American shores in New York and Miami in the late '30s, and the fever lasted as a strong musical influence through the '40s and '50s, labeled as afro-cubop: latin jazz, mambo, salsa, and merengue played by greats such as Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Benny More, and Machito, just to name a few. Then in the '60s and '70s, Carlos "Tom" Jobim and his new latin jazz, bossa nova, made its debut in the states and swept over the nation like an ocean wave off the coast of Bahia with compositions such as "A garota da Ipanema", "Corcovado", and "Samba da uma nota."
And where was Austin during all of this? Texas, from its beginnings, has boasted, and rightly so, of a rich and proud music history, producing greats such as the Grey Ghost, Leadbelly, Buddy Holly, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Before, when you came to Austin, you came to hear some good Country, blues, and rock and roll, and rarely did you expect to dance to some hot, latin salsa or son at places like the Broken Spoke or the Continental Club or Antones. But the Continental Club is exactly where you would expect to dance son , and one of the most popular places to see one of the hottest latin bands in Austin, Grupo son Yuma. You can also catch them at Stubb's Barbecue and Cedar Street on occasion. In the past two and a half years, latin dance clubs have literally and figuratively sprouted from Austin's musically rich soil: Palmerras, Borinquen, Miguel's la Bodega, and Calle Ocho. The Ritz upstairs is constantly hosting bands like son Yuma, Ta Mere, PR Jazz, and Cula du Cafe. La Zona Rosa, after closing and reopening, is still the venue of choice for old favorites like Susana Sharpe and the Samba Police and Brave Combo's nuclear polka/radioactive cha-cha-cha, and the crowds are only growing. Any Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, Miguel's la Bodega is a tightly packed ball of dancing-drinking-smoking frenzy, and by the second set of most son Yuma shows, the Continental Club has been reduced to standing or dancing room only.
The question then becomes: Why?
Aside from the simple fact that the music inebriates you with a rhythm and dancing high, aside from the simple fact that the music is that damn good, why the sudden latin epidemic?
Three and a half, maybe four years ago, I saw Brave Combo play at La Zona Rosa. Before they played, a man and a woman stood on the stage,and, armed with violin, maracas, a harp, and a quatro, they fired the first shots of the revolution. The duet, Correo Aereo, had been in Austin for six months, Abel and Madeline. They met in New Mexico, moved to Austin, and began to play. They were and still are the avant guarde of Austin's latin revolution. They are, in essence, the historians of their musical past, keepers of the faith. To see them play together is to feel the rich, dark aroma of their music, and learn from it. Jaropos, golpes, jarroches, and merengues (of the five beat variety, very different from the Carribean merengue) are only some of the styles of music which they play. They range from Vera Cruz and Oaxaca, to the plains of Venezuela, to Argentina. Their music has sabor. Madeline is constant and fluid motion. Her hands, her legs, her hips sway. She doesn't shake the maracas, she jerks, snaps, rolls, twirls, and spins them. Abel is the counterweight; his relaxed, confident style of playing holds the stage together and makes the music solid. A better pair of performers, I've not seen in Austin or any where else. As Barry said, "There's a huge difference between good performers and just good musicians." Abel and Madeline are by far the best of both.
And yet, according to Abel and Madeline, Correo Aereo is better received outside of Austin, on tour in California, Colorado, and New Orleans. They have in essence paved the road for the latin music population in Austin, or at least rode the crest of the wave that washed through Austin three years ago, and still, after four years of playing, after creating their own penas, they are the best unsung performance band playing Latin American music, original and traditional. Late January, they are headed to New Orleans, and will return after a week and a half or so, hopefully to continue their regular gig at Flipnotics. Take my advice: skip class, skip work, skip and Fuckemos, and even skip son Yuma if you have to. See Correo Aereo.
Austin's Place in Country Music by Jenna Colley
Music has long been the escape and solace of the working man. Grown out of the need for entertainment and a deep root in religion, country music, like so many others, began after a long hard day on the porches and in the homes of the rural south. Over the past century, America has seen the evolution of country music from a pastime into a multi-million dollar industry giving birth to stars and sensationalism. Texas musicians have been crucial in this evolution, Austin in particular playing a large role in the nurturing of this tradition. The "Austin Music Scene" has not always been riddled with wannabe punk bands and trendy lounge acts. At several points in history the city has been an open range fenced in by its geographical isolation, but free in spirit.
When you mention "Texas Country," people automatically think of Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Clint Black and George Strait, to name a popular few. While these artists have undoubtedly left their mark on Texas Country music, its beginnings are found long before that. Eck Robertson, an Amarillo native, was the first recorded country musician. Famed for his fiddling, Robertson proved in 1922 that country music could be a viable market. Several years later in 1924, Vernon Dalhart of Jefferson, Texas shocked the music industry when his recording of "The Prisoner's Song/The Wreck of the Old 97" was the first million-selling crossover hit. These hits paved the way for the more cliche cowboy music which would gain popularity throughout the late '20s and early '30s through the amazingly popular films of Gene Autry, Red Ritter, and Red River Dave McEnery, all western balladeers.
Arguably, the first of Texas' few influential periods in country music followed the depression with the birth of western swing. The infamous Bob Wills and Milton Brown reached innovative heights by combining jazz, blues, and pop songs to a Dixieland beat while playing with the Light Crust Doughboys in Fort Worth. Wills would go on to become a Texas legend with his band Wills' Texas Playboys.
The '30s also saw a greater emphasis on songwriting, Texans Floyd Tillman, Dale Evans, Cindy Walker, and Stuart Hamblin being the most influential of the time.
World War II brought America into a state of bustling optimism. While people around the country were rejoicing in this new era, country music continued to become more and more popular. In keeping with times, the fast-paced rhythms of honky-tonk music began to emerge on the scene. It would go on to reach its peak in the early '50s with Texas honky-tonk singers Lefty Frizzell and Hank Thompson.
The introduction of rock and roll in the '50s brought an unexpected decline in the popularity of country music. The younger audience no longer reveled in the sound of honky-tonk. They wanted the faster, more European sounds of rock. This desire put an enormous strain on the country music industry, forcing musicians to either "popify" their material or regress back to the harder country music of the late '30s in the hopes of keeping the more dedicated county fans the more dedicated county fans, thus facilitating the birth of today's thriving country music industry.
As rock and roll assumed mainstream status, many returned to their country roots. In 1959, Johnny Horton's "The Battle of New Orleans" hit number one on both the country and pop charts selling over a million records. His success instilled much needed confidence in county musicians. In 1963, Buck Owens emerged on the scene with his first number one country hit, "Act Naturally." The '60s also saw the emergence of Texas greats Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers, and Willie Nelson.
The music that came out of the '70s would transcend all that came before it. Texas musicians exploded onto the scene with hits like "For the Good Times" (1970) by Ray Price (written by Kris Kristofferson), "Delta Dawn" (1972) by Tanya Tucker, "Ridin' My Thumb to Mexico" (1973) by Johnny Rodriquez, and "The Grand Tour" (1975) by George Jones.
In 1975 alone, fifteen records reached to the top of Billboard's country charts. Along with amazing performs like Freddy Fender, Billi Jo Spears, B.J. Thomas, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings, came the emergence of such amazing songwriters as the late Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, Michael Murphy, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, and Jerry Jeff Walker. Honky-tonk also saw a resurgence with Red Steagall, Asleep at the Wheel and Gene Watson.
Austin in particular served as the major playground for a completely new sound. May country musicians, disillusioned with the stagnant sound and commercialism of Nashville began to return home to Austin, the most popular being Willie Nelson. Along with his fellow musicians, he created would be coined by journalists as "Progressive Country" or "Red-neck Rock." This music managed to do something that none of its predecessors had dared: combine country and western music with rock and blues. The effects were incredible.
Nelson's performance in 1972 at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin would solidify the popularity of this music. His performances were rumored to bring in rednecks and hippies alike, something that had rarely, if ever, been done in Austin venue. That same year Nelson held the First Annual Dripping Springs Reunion of 1972 which would eventually become the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic. Musicians began to flock to what Time magazine had called "the fastest-growing country music center in the US."
In the Spring of 1976, Austin City Limits began its first season. Designed as a showcase for progressive country, in its first season the television program boasted such acts as Asleep at the Wheel, The Texas Playboys, Rusty Wier, Clifton Chenier, Townes Van Zandt, Augie Meyers, Flaco Jimenez, Doug Sahm, Alvin Crow, Steve Fromholz, B.W. Stevenson, Bobby Bridger, Greezy Wheels, Wheatfield, Balcones Fault, Marcia Ball, The Charlie Daniels Band, and Jerry Jeff Walker.
It was and still is obvious that this program would play a major role in not only the Austin country music scene, but the music scene in general. Austin City Limits has showcased everyone from Ray Charles and B.B. King to Ernest Tubb and Mel Tillis. It has played an integral part in supporting Austin musicians, and continues to do so. This February it will air a new episode "Best of Austin Country," featuring such popular acts as The Derailers and Dale Watson, as well as hosting Texan Lyle Lovett later in the season.
Country music gained even greater popularity in the eighties. George Jones managed to comeback with "He Stopped Loving Her Today." Films like Urban Cowboy added to the mystique of the cowboy image, while Honeysuckle Rose proved an outlet for Willie Nelson to add to his extensive collection with two more hits. Newcomer George Strait also exploded on the scene where he has managed to become on of the most popular country musician of all time. Clint Black, also a native Texans, followed right behind him.
The details of the history of country music in Texas are far to many to be explored her, but it is certain that Texas musicians played a very vital role in the molding an reshaping of country music today. One only needs to take a trip to the Broken Spoke on South Lamar, The Continental Club on Congress, or to Gruene Hall in New Braunfels to experience it first hands. There are few things greater than sipping a cold beer on a warm Texas night and listen to the music of the people that know what really county music is all about, and there isn't anywhere in the world better than Austin to hear it first hand.
Blues Family Tree/African American History Month Concert Series by Harold McMillan
February 19-23 marks the 7th Annual African American History Month Concert Series, one of Austin's finest showcases for local and regional blues, jazz, and gospel artists. The project produces this series each year as a vehicle for recording the musical performances and and collecting interviews for an oral history archive. Documenting the evolution of Austin's African American music community is the primary goal; and at this point Blues Family Tree has the largest collection devoted specifically to local black music, which serves to preserve this historical record and the cultural roots of African American musical traditions.
With the Victory Grill as this season's only venue, the programming is geared to the history of the Grill and its recent rebirth. Showcased performances focus on the connection between generations and genres, such as traditional blues; contemporary and experimental jazz; R&B; and gospel music.
The schedule begins on Wednesday, February 19th: Discovery/Antone's recording artist and R&B diva, Miss Lavelle White. She graced the Grill's stage when it was one of the only places in Austin for black touring acts to perform. On Wednesday evening her special appearance with the East Side Horns will bring home the reach of the Victory Grill's role in Texas blues history. Then later, local percussion giants J.J. Johnson (Billy White Trio, Elias Haslanger Group, etc.) and Brannen Temple (Sheila E., Eric Johnson, etc.) debut their new double rhythm section project Hot Buttered Rhythm.
On Thursday, February 20th, Martin Banks hosts a standard jazz showcase featuring Pam Hart, Carl Settles, Ollie Jones, Efraim Owens, Fred Sanders, Edwin Livingston and others.
Friday, the 21st, features T.D. Bell and the Blues Specialists, Blues Boy Hubbard and the Jets, and the East Side Horns -- all Austin veterans who cut their musical teeth at the Victory Grill during its heyday -- and Jake Andrews, Austin's youngest blues guitar-slinger.
The lineup for Saturday, February 22nd features electric bluesman Long John Hunter of Houston. And the final night of this year's run, Sunday, the 23rd of February, Pam Hart hosts a gospel music showcase, featuring Jacqui Cross and others.
These performances will once again bring the blues home to the East Side, to the Victory Grill. $3-$8 cover charges are at levels to encourage access. Seating is limited, so come early and experience Austin's coziest room for music performance. Call the Grill at 474-4494 for showtimes.
Exploring FronteraFest by Courtenay Nearburg
Exploring new frontiers in dramatic expression is old hat for the crew at Hyde Park Theatre. Recently joined with Frontera Theatre Company, Hyde Park embarks on a new adventure this year with their tried and true formula for success, FronteraFest. 1997's festival promises to be envigorating, with guest artists from Minneapolis, Boston, and Houston joining the winning team of Frontera performers to offer workshops throughout the month-long festival. FronteraFest '97 is in its fourth year of presenting new and exciting works by playwrights, directors, dancers and actors.
Eva Paloheimo is the brain behind the machine, as manager and executive producer at Hyde Park Theatre. An Austin resident since 1977, Eva took over management of the little theatre at 43rd and Guadalupe in 1992. Paloheimo is a theatre lover, but strangely enough, does not consider herself an artist. With an education in religion and sociology, and strong business experience as head of marketing and purchasing at Ginny's Printing, Eva took the helm from local director Ken Johnson and steered into new territory by combining efforts with Vicky Boone, founder of Frontera, in 1993.
"We share an artistic vision, and Vicky's company is new and experimental. We want to be multi-disciplinary, incorporating music and dance. Anything new and different, really," Paloheimo says.
Frontera leased the intimate theatre in 1992, and the company found a home. In 1993, all of Frontera's shows were at Hyde Park. The two entities joined in 1995 for economic and artistic reasons. "We had a common vision for what we wanted. A relationship made sense," says Boone.
Hyde Park is now a full-profit operation, with Paloheimo handling the administrative tasks, while Boone looks after the artistic aspects of business. "We all needed more companionship. Now we are entering our most stable year, both physically and artistically. Hopefully, financially," Boone explains.
As a theatre company, Frontera is committed to fostering daring new voices, and the commissioning of new works is first priority. The company commissioned its first piece last year, Enfants Perdus, with Erik Ehn, a guest artist from San Francisco. This year, FronteraFest '97 welcomes Featured Artists giving both daytime workshops and special performances during the five-week long festival. Laurie Carlos (Minneapolis), Mauricio Cordero (Boston), Amparo Garcia, Daniel Alexander Jones, and Jason Phelps are among the talented artists taking the stage to introduce new works and give workshops. Frontera@Hyde Park is introducing a new commissioning fund this year, specifically for the development of new work. Three new pieces will be commissioned by the group in 1997, created by Laurie Carlos, David Hancock, and Daniel Alexander Jones.
"We're interested in creating a home for artists where we have long-term relationships," says Boone, adding that balancing new work with input from mentors is part of the plan. Boone is particularly thrilled that experimental theatre pioneer Laurie Carlos will be part of the festivities, allowing company members and new artists to experience working with and observing an influential player from the '70s. "Bringing in new voices feeds everyone artistically," she says.
Boone has been a director since she was 22. She started in theatre in high school, then studied drama as an undergraduate at Texas A&M, and continued by pursuing her master's degree at Boston University. "It was a place of tolerance for irregular people in a very conformist environment," she explains, as to why she began in theatre.
"That's common in Frontera; everyone in the company is fiercely unique and probably struggled with conformity. It's never been an articulated value, but it goes back to self-expression. FronteraFest is a vehicle for that."
After completing internships in Minneapolis, Boone briefly lived in Dallas, before moving to Austin. In the summer of '87, she joined some friends from school, "an early version of the company", and did a play in Austin. Seventy Scenes of Halloween ran at the Chicago House. She enjoyed the experience, and decided to return to Austin in 1992. Taking the initiative, Boone called friends from A&M and from Boston, found some new friends like Margery Segal and Christopher McCollum in Austin, and formed Frontera Theatre Company in 1992. In 1993, she produced the first FronteraFest in the Hyde Park Theatre, and in 1995, the company and the theatre incorporated.
Paloheimo and Boone talk animatedly of their future plans for FronteraFest and Hyde Park Theatre. Ultimately, they would like a larger space for multi-disciplinary works, and to incorporate what they call "art therapy" for children and for the elderly. This year's festival features the work of photographer and long-time Frontera documentarian Bret Brookshire. They also claim to be one step away from using the space for local filmmakers to screen new and experimental films. "Its a matter of finding a curator," says Boone.
Frontera@Hyde Park also plan to have an ongoing series of music-oriented theatre, and of course, dance. They already have working relationships with other theatre and dance companies, including Subterranean Theatre Company, and Margery Segal's Nerve Dance Company. Ken Webster, local award-winning director and actor, and artistic director for Subterranean, can't say enough about Hyde Park Theatre and FronteraFest.
"Of every theatre in town, there is not an easier producer to work with (than Eva Paloheimo)," Webster gushes. His favorite experience at Hyde Park was directing "Storyland" in FronteraFest '93. It was his first experience directing with Paloheimo managing the theatre. "I met my wife at Hyde Park Theatre, " Webster adds.
Webster has worked with Paloheimo exclusively since 1991. "I remember a line from Glengarry Glen Ross: 'Your job is to help us, not to f*** us up,' " he says, explaining why he prefers Hyde Park to other theatres. Webster has been actively involved in FronteraFest since the beginning, directing and acting in the first festival in 1993 and going on to serve as a panelist in '95. He will direct and produce works in this year's festival, and says that the best theatre in town is going on at Hyde Park.
"The kind of plays I like to do tend to have about 100 people a night. I could probably draw more of an audience at Zach Scott, but the intimacy at Hyde Park is more appealing," Webster says.
Paloheimo and Boone are most excited about the development of FronteraFest into a city-wide multi-venue performance festival. Already dubbed as the "fringe theatre event of the Southwest" by the Austin American-Statesman, Frontera@Hyde Park is an opportunity for people to create their first works, facilitating participation and helping struggling newcomers to "find the creator in themselves." The lines between performers and audience are already blurred, and since none of the material in the festival is censored, artists express themselves in pure form, and in a safe environment.
Some highlights of past festivals include Lisa D'Amour's four-part Oscar Snowden series, and a children's showcase in which Okra stuck her head out mid-performance to ask to go to the bathroom. Boone delights in new works that take shape in FronteraFest, like Bloodshot Boogie, a 20-minute piece dealing with creation mythology and blurred identity. Boogie now has a full length version.
"I remember one day that had to be at least 14 hours of theatre at its most accessible, with a daytime workshop, then performances and a late night jam," Boone reminisces. Even 9-year-old Cassie Fitzgerald found a home in FronteraFest, telling jokes on stage at the late night jam.
"It's a fantastic way to meet other artists," Boone says, reflecting on her first experience with Steve Moore and the Physical Plant Theatre. Moore's piece, digi-glo, was one that had a beginning in the festival and went on to develop into a full-length project.
Frontera@Hyde Park starts accepting applications in mid-August on a first-come, first-serve basis. This is the cornerstone of the festival, since both Boone and Paloheimo adamantly oppose the concept of competition. The picks for Best of the Week and Best of the Fest are made by community panelists, who make gut-level selections with no criteria and no justification necessary. A Wild Card Night is offered as a producer's pick showcase, for those pieces the producers want to see again, although they were not selected by the panelists. The format for the festival is based on the Director's Festival of Seattle's New City Theatre, an event Boone attended.
FronteraFest '97 opens Tuesday, January 21 and continues through Saturday, February 22 at 8pm. Best of the Week shows will be held on Saturdays, and Best of the Fest is the fifth and final week, February 18-22. Tickets for the Open Festival are $8, and passes for the entire festival or other variations in fare are available. For more information, call the Box Office at 478-TIXS.
The New Blues? by Carl Settles
Many of us are aware of the on-going crisis in America's homes and educational institutions. As an educator I struggle with the apathy of my students whose families are too often overburdened with odd work hours and a lack of two-parent support. As an African American musician, I also bemoan the low interest among my people and other people of color in jazz, its related forms and fundamental antecedent -- the blues.
The blues is a seminal form of American music. Developed primarily during the 1800s, it contains most of the major rhythmic and tonal elements of African musical forms while retaining European elements of harmonic function, instrumentation and motivic development. Moreover, it has had a profound affect on our culture and is now more practiced and accepted by white Americans than the African Americans from which it originated.
The blues as a musical form is based on oral calls and responses which were developed by African slaves forced to work in the fields. These field hollers functioned simultaneously as simple inspiration to carry on the harsh work and as metaphorical codes or instructions for others trying to literally escape their oppressive surroundings.
Nowadays the blues has a much more benign existence. White America discovered it in the form of artists like Elvis, the Beatles and Rolling Stones while at the same time black America has generally shunned the music moving on to soul, funk, disco and more recently the urban music of artists like Janet Jackson and the controversial emergence of hip hop.
Closer to its beginnings, blues musicians were regarded in much the same way as today's rappers. Generally black, poor and with little formal education, these musicians stirred up both controversy and fascination as they sang tales of love and despair. Blues legend, Robert Johnson, sang about going down to the "crossroads" as he traveled throughout the country "making deals with the devil" and such. Country-blues singer and guitarist Huddie "Leadbelly" Leadbetter, a convicted murderer, spent time in prison and achieved a "bad boy" image much like present day rappers Snoop Doggy Dogg and the recently deceased Tupac Shakur.
Later, as African Americans migrated to urban areas like New York and Chicago, the common knowledge of the blues reached a new sophistication and helped spawn the Harlem Renaissance. Jazz masters such as Duke Ellington based most of their extended works on permutations of the blues form. Louis Armstrong defined many of the motivic elements now common in jazz and other American styles of music while playing primarily in the blues idiom.
The swing era of the '30s set the stage for the re-discovery of extended harmonies of 19th century European composers like Claude Debussy. Charlie Parker and other be-bop musicians combined this harmonic approach with elements of swing and virtuostic technique. Be-bop also created a good bit of controversy as it took popular tunes of the day, sped them up and spontaneously created an advanced musical language. All along, the blues has been there having a profound affect on the music of Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, Thelonious Monk and countless other jazz players as well as more recent popular artists.
Is hip-hop the new blues?
Returning to my role as an educator and acknowledging the general disinterest of youth along with their current socio-economic and educational status, is it unreasonable to say at least in function, that rap music and the hip-hop culture it accompanies are the new blues? One of my elders told me "the blues is about sufferin'," and rap music, although not exclusively, explores today's inner city problems. Like the blues once did through veiled metaphors, hip-hop exposes unattended longings in black America for among other things fathers, jobs and safety. It has been the methodology for young talented black youth, that for one reason or another lack well-paying job opportunities, to carve out an economic and cultural niche in America.
In its infancy, the blues spoke of such hardship, but due to the segregation of "race records" white audiences were mostly exposed to it through a filter of Anglo artists' renderings of the form like George Gershwin. Later, with the emergence of Elvis Presley in the late '40s and '50s, the blues became widely accepted by young white audiences under the new name of rock and roll. Many black blues artists of the time lacked the media access of today's rappers and consequently missed out on much of its financial rewards.
Some believe rappers are able to exploit their peoples' sufferings and resent their ability to become millionaires in doing so. When South Central Los Angeles rapper Ice Cube chants "Once upon a time in the projects" it strikes a raw nerve for too many Americans while for others it unfortunately has some resonance. But is this statement much different than a popular blues phrase like "No...oh...oh...oh... Body seems to love me... No...oh...oh...oh... Body seems to care!?" The major difference seems to be that, through technology and the media, the race-based filter between artists of color and their audiences has virtually disappeared.
MTV, who at its inception tacitly pledged to exclude most African American artists, now regularly features their street life Yo-MTV Raps, in its prime time hours.
Hip-hop, a subconscious return to rhythm and rhyme as the rule, also at times ignores harmonic function for the sake of a groove. Like the blues it employs riffs and melodic hooks into an asymmetrical tapestry of rhythm and rhyme. Both styles are rooted in a struggle to overcome and persevere as well as having dramatic affects on American culture.
The questions remain. Will there be a time when hip-hop becomes as universally accepted as the blues is today? Are there figures as seminal as a Duke Ellington or Jelly Roll Morton that link hip-hop to the bedrock of the American experience? Is there the rapping equivalent of a Charlie Parker studying all of the masters and summing up the next logical extension of American music? Will we look at today's gangsta rappers much the same way as we now do Leadbelly and Robert Johnson?
If not, the alternative is at the least very bleak.
South by Southwest by Chris Hess
As the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference draws nearer, we here at Austin Downtown Arts thought we'd give the folks over at the festival a chance to let us know what's on their minds, to counter the inevitable criticisms and tell us what to expect. Brent Grulke, Creative Director of the whole shebang, was a good sport:
ADA: How do you respond to people who bitch about the "overwhelmingly corporate nature" of the conference?
BG: I'd point out that we have a vast majority of acts with no corporate affiliations whatsoever. Most are unknown and are here to try to get the attention they need. Also I'd say that we ourselves are a tiny tiny company by most standards. With the film side and everything, we have fewer than 30 employees here. At peak conference time we have about 500 volunteers working, but that's everything. The acts themselves want to be seen by the corporations, that's why they're here. Without the major label presence here to see the indie bands, most of them feel they would have less purpose to play the conference. I really don't believe we have become this corporate beast some like to make us out to be.
ADA: What reaction do you have to all the counter-conference showcases that go on -- all the "South by So What" kinds of things?
BG: A lot of the time I feel like if we weren't delivering something that was genuinely useful for the musicians, all those things wouldn't be popping up around it. Kind of like imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. The bands who play those things typical want the same audience, otherwise they'd do it at a different time of the year and not while all this was happening.
ADA: What kind of policies do you have about bands who are playing conference showcases playing elsewhere in town during the festival -- I recall a couple instances last year where bands who had planned to play shows at smaller venues under different names were threatened with their official showcases being pulled if they went through with it.
BG: The only thing we ask is that they don't play more than one show under the same name as a public show. In other words, only one main show for each band so that the top Austin draws don't play all over town and take attention away from other lesser known bands. Now if someone has a standing gig, a regular show that's part of their regular paycheck, that's fine. And if they play under a different name that's fine too. But if anyone was threatened to have a showcase pulled if they played under a different name, that was the doing of the record label sponsoring the showcase and not of the festival itself.
ADA: How do you answer those who say that the festival focuses too much on white alternative rock acts and avoids other music, indigenous and otherwise?
BG: Well, we are always conscious of that and we wish it was different. We'd like to have the greatest diversity we can. White rock acts have seen direct results from having performed at the event because there's enough of that industry here paying attention. We'd like to see jazz, hip-hop, Tejano, we'd like to see all of it grow. But the acts need a reason to be here -- the industry needs to be here. What has made American music as successful and desirable as it is is the mixing of cultures, and we want to encourage that.
ADA: How do you see the past ten years of SXSW conferences affecting the music in Austin?
BG: Well most apparent is the boost in the arm economically that the venues get every year. Some of them can realize three months of revenue in a single weekend while this is going on, and that helps them survive. And since it's during Spring Break, the places would otherwise be empty. And acts can establish relationships with other acts and enter into a creative relationship, collaborating and trading gigs. It's a chance for the industry to get together and see Austin acts, so they can get the attention of the indies and the big ones and everything else.
ADA: Do you think the massive musical traffic in this city every March has had any sort of residual effect on the music scene here?
BG: I think that for the most part Austin musicians are pretty oblivious to that effect. They play because they want to play, and they know they can be comfortable here and play what they want. First and foremost, the musicians here play what they want to play and aren't paying much attention to the dominant style or fashion of what happens every March.
Brent's Personal Selections
Favorite SXSW show ever: Alejandro Escovedo's show the year before last at La Zona Rosa. "I love to see Alejandro play, and in the festival he plays at La Zona Rosa the last show on Sunday and that's when I can feel that it's all ending. Before then I see five minutes of 200 and it's pretty frantic. Sunday night I get to enjoy the last one."
Recommendations for this year: "I recommend that people see what they don't know about. If we'd go see these bands, the jazz bands and the other music that doesn't get enough attention, then we'd be able to expand the programming of them. We'd be able to get more of that kind of thing into the festival every year. It does make a difference. Too often it's just a following around of all the bands they have seen and can see at other times. I hope that people will dig into the nooks and crannies and see the bands they may not have heard of, the ones who made it through the listening process down at headquarters and are banking on being heard."
Think About Fresh Ink by Courtenay Nearburg
Printmaking is an ancient art form, first introduced as a simple and advantageous way of spreading religion. Chinese artists created woodcuts to accompany Buddhist texts, or sutras, as early as 858 A.D. Since then, printmaking has evolved into a unique and accessible mode of expression, molding itself to the needs of the society or to the aesthetics of the individual artist. In Austin, one needs only to look as far as Flatbed Press for proof of this evolution. The Austin Museum of Art, in conjunction with Flatbed, offers artists and enthusiasts the fruits of a cooperative effort amongst Austin's printmakers in the form of "Fresh Ink," an exhibition celebrating works created in collaborative printmaking workshops in Austin.
Founded by Katherine Brimberry and Mark L. Smith in 1989, Flatbed Press is an etching workshop that publishes quality limited editions of original prints by both established and emerging contemporary artists. In the spirit of cooperation, which is the reason Brimberry cites for the conception of Flatbed, artists and students from around the world and locally are invited to rent the presses or collaborate with one of the master printers, either Gerald Manson (co-owner) or Brimberry, to create original works.
In 1989, Brimberry was teaching at Austin Community College when she and Smith decided it was time for Austin to have a cooperative workshop. Brimberry is a specialist in intaglio plate development, a form of printing that differs from traditional relief in that "intaglio" means "to carve away" -- the image comes from below the surface of the plate, or "matrix". Now she is the director and master printer for collaboration at Flatbed.
"There was something about drawing with a needle on copper. I responded to it -- being able to manipulate the metal. It's very sculptural," says Brimberry.
Smith owned a fine art press, but wanted to branch into editioning, the creation of multiple original works, an aspect that makes printmaking so unique. A Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Texas at Austin, Smith is an art writer and historian of 20th century American art and the director of the Helm Fine Arts Center of Austin. Manson was doing job printing at Third Coast Press until Brimberry called, and he joined in as co-owner and master printer for editioning.
Flatbed is like a publishing house, sponsoring artists as they create the work that will be produced and distributed by the press. "We invite artists in to create editions at Flatbed," Brimberry says, as she displays a beautiful print by local artist Melissa Miller, the product of a three-month collaboration and one of the featured works in "Fresh Ink". Many artists conceptualize the design and do the drawing, but don't know the technical aspects of printing and thus, collaborate with the Press for the editions. The Texas Fine Arts Association publishes prints, and hires Flatbed to collaborate with specific artists, like Michael Ray Charles.
"We're slowly educating people about prints in Austin," says Brimberry, adding that most of Flatbed's sales are made in New York to private collectors, or to museums. As for the individual cost of prints, well, that depends on the artist and his/her reputation as a printmaker. Because prints are made in multiples, the number of prints in an edition can affect the pricing of the individuals works. As an edition sells out, the price goes up.
"We want to see prints viewed as art, not as a special art form," explains Brimberry, since printmaking was once best known as a graphic medium for political expressionism. Some of the first political cartoons and comic strips were developed from relief prints, made from woodcuts. Since more images can be produced, the work can be sold for far less than an original painting or sculpture, making the art form accessible to the middle class. Some of the best known relief prints were created by the German Expressionists at the beginning of the 20th century.
Flatbed aims to make prints available to beginning collectors by selling works on consignment. "It's for the people. It shouldn't be so elite that it's not available," says Brimberry.
Among the talented artists whose works are available through Flatbed are Terry Allen, a local musician whose work "Rage" will be on display during the "Fresh Ink" show. Flatbed just finished three editions with Kelly Fearing, a university professor for 40 years and one of the local artists most often found working at the press. Anna Marie Pavlik is an associate member who rents the presses and Betty Ward comes in from San Antonio to work in Flatbed's fully equipped, 2,000 square foot studio, located in an adapted warehouse space in downtown Austin, right around the corner from the Electric Lounge.
Flatbed's name derives from art historian Leo Steinberg's description of Robert Rauschenberg's "flatbed picture-plane," a conception of pictorial space based on the circumnavigatory process of arranging imagery on a horizontal working surface. "Flatbed" also refers to the thick, steel press-beds of intaglio presses and suggests an open space in which an infinite variety of creative possibilities can occur. These are the counterpoints of the printmaking medium.
"Fresh Ink" opened January 18 and runs until April 13 at the Austin Museum of Art Downtown. Austin Print Workshops run concurrent with the exhibit, starting with "Artists About Art" on Thursday, January 30 with Connie Arismendi. For reservations, tours and additional information, call 512-458-8191, ext. 211.
For the last two Februarys I've written pieces on African American History Month, on the Blues Family Tree Project and our archive and concerts, on African American culture and history. Yeah, every February we black folks become very popular -- to each other and everybody else. The mainstream press and all of the schools and businesses finally stop and pay attention to us. For twenty-eight days we exist and have culture and history that is worthy of attention.
And before I start to sound like I have some kind of problem with this, let me stop that notion. February is a wonderful time to take stock of African Americans' contributions to this country, this society, this culture.
The black folks of this country -- all shades of us -- deserve a time when celebrating the richness of our culture is something we share with all our neighbors. Dr. Woodson started this celebration as Negro History Week, a time for Black folks to celebrate ourselves. It then expanded to a month (sometime in my youth). And now February seems to have found widespread acceptance throughout (even) Middle America as a time to celebrate this important cultural community. (It must somehow be good for the bottom line!)
Twenty-eight days is probably enough time to have parties, special celebrations, to do programs, have concerts and contests, to make special acknowledgment of our struggle. It is a start. Twenty-eight days, however, is not enough time to expose students and our kids to the importance of the African American presence in this society. February is not enough time for the mainstream media to pay attention to the positive news in the Black community.
Twenty-eight days is enough time to notice, but is not really very much time to learn, to understand, to appreciative the far-reaching significance of African American culture as an integral component of American society. Twenty-eight days is not enough time for any of us to address issues of race/racism and class/classism in America.
It's really not about affirmative action and special treatment for Black folks. It's about knowing the truth, hearing the whole, non-white-washed story. It's about looking at America's history and track record of telling the truth. It's about starting with the assumption that we have incomplete information on how things have evolved in this society. It's about assuming that most grade school -- even college -- history teachers (in most schools) just don't have a grasp of or competence in the subject. Remember, they are products of the same educational system in which they now teach. Nobody required that they know this history. By and large, most don't. So how will they teach our kids?
OK, enough with the general, broad statements. You should see my bias by now. If you read this little mag each month, you have noticed that we don't wait until February to deal with African American culture. We do it in each and every issue. And we are still deficient in our coverage of what is going on, what is important, what is newsworthy in Austin's African American art and culture scene. And I say this not as a way of implying that African Americans deserve special treatment from us either. African American arts and cultural issues are important to the culture of all of Austin. Of course part of the problem here in Austin is the black arts community is small, provincial, and dispersed. But that alone is one of the important issues.
From both historical and contemporary points of view, this leaves most of us without a true picture of life in Austin, and the whole of America. This matters to some of us, others not. In real terms it means that most of us need to be in the remedial class when it comes to contemporary African America, its history and culture. Even those of us who profess to know about the culture of America mostly know about the culture of Euro-white-America. Just watch network TV, watch the Arts and Entertainment Channel on cable, go to Live Oak Theater or the Symphony, listen to Austin radio, read the Statesman and Chronicle, go downtown, go to the University of Texas, the jazz bars, a City Council meeting.
In Austin you can't get caught up, you can't get the big picture by agreeing to pay attention once each February. There are not enough of us here to keep it in your face all of the time. You gotta accept some responsibility for the rest of the year too. The media and the schools, and churches, and corporations are not going to help you very much. There's much to learn, but it's good stuff. Take your time, read some books, have some conversations, take a drive, take a whole year or two or the rest of your life to understand America's brand of multi-culturalism. But learn the difference between a token celebration and a true dedication to increasing your depth knowledge of the cultural life of America. I can't teach much in this column (I'm a student myself), but I can dedicate this piece to some folks who figure very importantly in my knowledge and appreciation of my culture and history. Here's my off - the - top - of - my - head short list. I hope you recognize some names and want to learn about some more.
So, I dedicate this one to A.C. and Modis. And too, THIS ONE IS FOR NAT TURNER. This one is for Carter G. Woodson. This one is for DuBois. This one is for Madame C.J. This one is for Monroe Trotter. This one is for James Weldon and James P. This one is for Eubie. This one is for Howard, Tuskegee, and Hampton, and Spellman and Morehouse, and Huston-Tillotson, and Wylie, and Jarvis, and Texas College, and Tugaloo, and Jackson State, and Xaviar, and Grambling, and Southern, and Paul Quinn, and Bishop, and Lincoln, and Bethune-Cookman, and Pine Bluff, and Maharry, and Fisk. This one is for Asa Randolph. This one is for Daniel Hale Williams. This one is for Paul Robeson. This one is for Satchmo and Marylou Williams and King Oliver. This one is for Bert Adams. This one is for Gene Ramey. This one is for Yardbird and Diz, and Miles, and Trane, and Billy Eckstein, Art Blakey and Max Roach and Willie the Lion, and Monk, and Miles, and Browney, and Bub Powell. This one is for Zora Neale. This one is for Matthew Henson. This one is for Marcus Garvey. This one is for Adam Clayton Powell. This one is for Langston. This one is for Jean Toomer. This one is for Paul Laurence Dunbar and G.W. Carver and Booker T. This one is for Claude McKay. This one is for Alain Locke. This one is for William Johnson. This one if for James VanderZee. This one is for the Washingtonians. This one is for Alvin Ailey. This one is for Florance Mills and Bricktop. This one is for the Clef Club. This one is for James Balwin and Ralph Ellison. This one is for Gwen Brooks and Alice Walker and Toni Morrison and Terri McMillan. This one is for Baraka (Leroy Jones, too) and Nikki Giovanni. This one is for Houston Baker and Henry Louis Gates. This one is for Dewey Redman. This one is for Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. This one is for Grey Ghost. This one is for Erroll Garner and Mr. Jelly Roll. This one is for Ella and Chick. This one is for Minton's and the Apollo and the Cotton Club and the wishing tree and Congo Square. This one is for Charlie Christian. This one is for Teddy Wilson. This one is for Kenny Dorham. This one is for the Journal of Negro History and Life, and Fire, and Ebony and Jet, and the Chicago Defender and the Amsterdam News. This one is for Kwanzaa. The one is for Mr. Dorsey and Mr. Henderson and Ma Rainey. This one is for Rossetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson and Josh White and Edwin Hawkins and Odetta. This one is for Marian Anderson and Jessye Norman and William Grant Still. This one is for Barbara Jordon. This one is for Shirley Chisolm. This one is for Duke/Peacock, Stax and Atlantic and King, Motown and Barry Gordy and Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and the Supremes. This one is for Ray Charles and Percy Mayfield. This one is for KNOK and WLAC. This one is for Howlin' Wolf and Willie Dixon and Snuff Johnson. This one is for James Polk and James Clay and Ornett Coleman and Ornette Cobb and Freddy King. This one is for Henry O. Tanner, and Jacob Lawrence and Charles White and John Biggers. This one is for Brown vs Topeka and Plessy vs Ferguson. This one is for Thurgood Marshall. This one is for Buddy Bolden. This one is for Charlie Patton. This one is for Leadbelly. This one is for Mance and Lightnin' Hopkins and Lightnin' Slim and Slim Harpo. This one is for Jimi Hendrix. This one is for Ike and Tina. This one is for James Brown. This one is for Johnny Holmes. This one is for Erbie and T.D. and Ural. This one is for Ernie Mae Miller. This one is for Mr. Joyce and Martin Banks. This one is for the Victory Grill and Charlie's Playhouse and Ernie's Chicken Shack and the Deluxe Hotel. This one is for Doris Miller and Dr. Givens. This one is for Heman Sweat. Dis one is for Bob Marley. This one is for Harold Washington. This one is for Julian Bond. This one is for Gordon Parks. This one is for Jackie Robinson. This one is for Jack Johnson. This one is for Martin and Malcolm and Medgar. This one is for Rosa Parks. This one is for Ralph and Jessie. This one is for Stokely and H. Rap. This one is for the Panthers. This one is for SNCC and SCLC and SDS. This one is for Angela. This one is for Ali. This one is for Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne, W.C. Handy and Ethel Waters.
This one is for ancestor worship. This one is for African - Nigger - Colored - Negroid - Negro - Black - Afro - African - American - History - Heritage - Month. This one is for the next generation and tolerance and knowledge and unity. This one is for me and my connection to all of the aforementioned names and titles. This, Bud, might not be for you. But, to all, I offer my best wishes for a spirited and culturally educational and insightful February.
My brother just finished his first year in law school, Cynthia is going to spend next year on a boat sailing form Alaska to Panama, Bobby is planning to overthrow the government, my best friend from high school just had a baby, Mike found God, and Kirsten, Maya, Jamie, and Sam are all falling in Love...and me. I've just spent two hours of my life watching Dallas reruns and painting my toenails.
While most everyone I know is out there living life, I have chosen to hole-up, pull down the shades, unplug the phone and begin drying up like a stick of beef jerky in a Louisiana convenience store. It's reevaluate my life time, and it's long overdue.
You may think these symptoms sound a little psycho slightly deranged but me: I think they're so abnormal that they make perfect sense. See, the fact is, I'm tired of leading a highly functional life. I'm tired of waking up at 6:00 a.m. to go to work, rushing to classes that aren't really teaching me anything ( on my lunch break of course), hauling ass back to work so that someone who is twenty years older and allot dumber than I am tell me what to do before I go home, do my homework and them complain about how I never have any free time. Frankly, I'm just tired of it all. So I've decided to change everything.
I will no longer put up with anyone's shit.
I wish there was a more polite word, but there really isn't so I'll continue. We all say this but no one ever takes it seriously. When someone cuts me off in a parking lot, I will get out and slash their tires. When a girl at one of those "made for anorexic 12-year olds" clothing stores in the mall asks me if I'm lost, I will give her a lecture on the importance of inner strength. When my family runs all over my mother on holiday, I will take her aside, break out the bourbon and crank-up the kareoke machine, while they stare in wonder as we sing "Beat It" at the top of our lungs during Christmas dinner. When some schmuck at one of the million University offices tells me that I'll just have to wait in line. I will take off my clothes and scream the words of "Eyes of Texas" until they listen to me.
I will put things in perspective.
I have found that this is the key to all things in life. When I begin to freak out over the fact that I have just failed my Spanish final, I will remind myself that I have failed all of the ones leading up to this one, therefore I am just keeping up tradition. When I begin to feel self-conscious at a party, I will remind myself of how once, two years ago, a guy crossed a room to talk to me, and we fell in love. When I am saddened by loneliness, I will remind myself that I have friends that are amazing that will be with me through it all. When I am broke and can't afford to buy a beer, I will remind myself that I'm alive and healthy.
I will not judge my worth by other people's standards.
This one has taken me forever to understand. From the time we are children we base our opinion of ourselves on those of others: our parents, our friends, our dates. Along the rocky road of adolescence and adulthood it is so damn easy to lose that thing in all of us that makes us strong. If we're lucky, something, or someone touches that place inside, if you've found it you know what I'm talking about, and we open ourselves to all of the love and hate in the world by seeing everything we can decide...consciously decide...what we want to be. I want to open that place and share. I don't want to be afraid of life.
I will be strong on my own.
I arrive now at the most important one, the hardest one. l It has taken my whole life to realize that life is too short and too precious to waste; that confidence in you own strength is everything. I remember the words my father told me once when I was just a child: "Remember who you are Jennifer, because that's the only thing that will get you through this world. Just remember who you are." As I sit here now, typing these words I think of those words. I think of how my life has changed, and how I have lost sight of who I really am, whatever that might have been I will be strong on my own, if only because I know that I have to.
So here I am shades pulled down, phone unplugged, TV on I lean back and finish up that last nail...lookin' good. I pop open another Diet Coke and laugh at just how funny life really is. I will make these changes, if I haven't already. I don't need to the change the worked, or raise a family, or find God, or write a book, or make a film, or fall in love. At least not today.