By Chris Gray
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Robert Sye is a "flusterated" musician. As much as he always wanted to play the trumpet, he couldn't. When, as a sixth-grader in the late 1930s, Sye decided to take up the instrument, Mr. Miller, his music teacher, told him, "Sye, we're all outta trumpets. You can play either the tuba or the drums." A tiny child, Sye opted for the latter.
And even once he grew into the shape of a 130-pound high school freshman, Sye still couldn't get his hands on the horn. Coach Hanson, the six-foot-one, 230-pound phys-ed coach at Susan M. Dorsey High in Los Angeles, noticed how fast Sye could run the mile in class one day and asked him -- essentially ordered him -- to join the green and gold of the Knights, the school football team. "By the time you got home from practice, and [coach] would usually keep us out till the sun went down," says Sye, "all you had time for was studying, then bed."
Sye's only personal time with music came as a listener. As a fan. Every Saturday, Sye's mom and stepfather in L.A. would turn the family radio to KGFJ AM and platter pusher Joey Adams. Before that, when Sye lived in his hometown of Dallas with his father, two younger brothers and a sister, he would spend hours lying on the living room floor listening to the sounds coming from the sleek, black three-and-a-half-foot-tall Grundig. Radio ruled his world.
Two years ago Robert Sye, the adult, decided he no longer wanted to be a stranger to music. He founded the Texas Music Library and Research Center in Houston, a nonprofit organization aimed at -- in Sye's words -- "acquiring, promoting and maintaining all the musical property of musicians, composers and singers born in Texas." On the first day of its second year, this month, the library officially became tax-exempt.
"Now we can get some grants flowing in," says Sye. Just like growing up in a Southern household back in the day, where at dinnertime the adults were served first and the children later, the library's second year of operation means it no longer has to sit out the feast. It is at the table. Only, instead of chicken, the main course at this meal is greenbacks. Hungry mouths abound.
In Texas, according to the Texas Music Office in Austin, there are 119 music-related nonperformance nonprofit institutions. All have diverse directives, from Orff-Schulwerk to Gilbert and Sullivan to Mariachi educators. In Houston alone there are 18 nonprofits, including the Texas Juke Box, which also incidentally is dedicated to preserving the music of Texas talent. Where Sye and his library fit in can't be determined yet. The only thing that separates the real research institutions from the hobbyist-shops is time.
"It depends on how hard they work on it, how good it's gonna be," says Bubbha Thomas of Jazz Education Inc., a Houston-based nonprofit agency that will be 30 years old in 2000. "It takes staying power. More than a high ideal that won't last past the initial interest. It takes some work."
On the second floor of a wide colonial at 2810 Isabella Street in the Third Ward sits the "library," which also doubles as Sye's home. He moved in only two months ago.
At the top of a flight of stairs, black-and-white promotional photos of R&B stars of yesterday and today greet you. And that's the thing about this library. While it is dedicated to preserving the legacy of all Texas musicians/artists, it tends to lean greatly toward R&B and gospel acts. Not that Texas hasn't produced its share of these performers, but it hasn't churned out so many that a Third Ward house actually tips in one direction from the weight of its PR photos and miscellanea (e.g., Conrad Johnson's 1964 check from Peacock Records owner Don Roby in the amount of $51.25, sheet music and lyrics to Bobby Bland's "The Whole Town," written by Joe Scott, photos of Grady Gaines, Zero Point and Erykah Badu, and bluesman Joe Hughes' actual red Montanya strat knockoff).
Once inside, a 15-by-20-foot hardwood floor lends a little necessary sterility to what should be a serious working environment. It's a library, after all. The plush gray couch, modern reading chairs, swanky lamps, computer terminal and standing bookshelf lightly sprinkled with a handful of books, however, suggest somebody's private space. See, while a music scholar is researching the harmonic tendencies of Hughes' guitar solos in one room, 65-year-old library president and director Sye could be taking a nap in another. His bedroom -- "off limits to the general public," says Sye -- is directly around the corner from the listening room, Sye's makeshift office, where the library director also conducts the daily business of being a newspaper reporter.
Sye freelances for The Informer, The Defender and occasionally the Houston Chronicle. That's how he has been getting by these past few decades and how he has been supporting this endeavor since its inception in 1997.
Though he has been back and forth and back from L.A. to Dallas to Houston his entire life, he has been in Houston since 1994 and plans to stay here. For good. A call from one of Sye's three children five years ago spurred the move.