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The Improviser

In a city that doesn't support jazz, Paul English still finds ways to make the music happen

When Paul English helped establish Cezanne more than a decade ago, he probably had no idea the small club would become Houston's longest-running and most-respected outlet for jazz. Though his stint as Cezanne's first artistic director lasted less than a year, if it were not for English, the club likely never would have been conceived, let alone become a local institution. That's because when it comes to presenting jazz in town, English is something of a visionary. The 49-year-old sees opportunity where others see a wasteland.

Cezanne wasn't English's first jazz room, nor would it be his last. He's been bringing the music to local clubs and hotels -- including many that had never before featured jazz -- for more than 20 years. The Blue Moon, Cody's, Birdwatchers, the Rusty Scupper, Mums, Roscoes and several different hotels, including the Doubletree and the Warwick, all have featured jazz simply because English convinced an owner the music would be good for business. In the process, English has created employment for himself and hundreds of area players.

Now he's about to take his entrepreneurial skills to a whole nother level, with a new project tied to a South Dakota ski resort. More on that in a minute.

Paul English: Where some see a wasteland, he sees opportunity.
Deron Neblett
Paul English: Where some see a wasteland, he sees opportunity.

"While certain musicians choose to whine about how lame the jazz scene is in Houston, there is Paul English, out there, making it happen," says fellow pianist and longtime friend Joe LoCascio. "He is not one to sit around and wait for the phone to ring. He is always out there, tirelessly pursuing his goals as an artist. He never, never quits."

Though English has enjoyed considerable success, not every one of his projects has worked as envisioned. He ran Ovations as a full-time club for a year; for seven months of that time, it was the city's only seven-nights-a-week jazz venue. Yet Ovations never clicked. Small crowds, failed promises from a financial backer, and a complete absence of effective marketing forced English to call it quits in the summer of 1999, a couple of months after his lease ran out. "Ovations was a bear," English says. "It was a struggle. We made weekends work, but during the week, it was really difficult to get crowds in there."

Later that year the Mercury Room asked English to help start up a jazz happy hour, which made its debut in September 1999. English played some of the shows, helped book musicians for others, and advised the club on what piano to purchase. But in the end, English says, the club was not committed to the genre. The music from the main stage downstairs often drowned out the duos and trios upstairs. English got the message and moved on.

By October 1999 English was involved in a new project: presenting jazz at the Warwick Hotel on Main Street, the first time the music had been featured there. English established a five-nights-a-week schedule in the hotel's rather low-key atmosphere, a comfortable, intimate and somewhat smoky setting.

Since the Warwick doesn't have a cover charge, it's one of the best live-music deals in town. It's also been one of the best-kept secrets. The hotel has put little promotional money behind the program, not even a "live jazz" sign in the lobby. Word of mouth, occasional mass e-mails by English and a few newspaper listings have been the extent of the publicity. In August, despite positive local and national press, the Warwick reduced its jazz schedule.

Since then, it's been basically English and bassist Brennen Nase playing duo gigs on the weekend. Jazz at the Warwick is unlikely to last beyond the new year, at which point it will become yet another example of how difficult it is to present the genre in Houston. Given its rich history in the city, why does Houston have such a problem supporting jazz?

"Man, that is a $64,000 question," says English. "My personal feeling is Houston is a transient town. Nobody comes to Houston because they love it. Nobody sits on their porch and says, "Mama, when I retire, let's go to Houston; that is where I want to live.' It doesn't happen. People come here to make their fortunes and then leave.

"A side benefit of that is [that] in order to make things more pleasant, the fine arts community here is really excellent in most ways. The money is there, and people that are stuck here for the time being have put themselves behind" the fine arts scene "to make it really like a flower blooming in the desert. But we don't have that in the pop arts.We don't have a real die-hard jazz constituency here."


English was born into the jazz life. The son of a jazz trombonist, he grew up in San Antonio and attended many gigs with his father. He initially took up the trumpet but eventually switched to piano. He moved to Houston in 1977 to build a radio/TV jingle business. (Exxon, AstroWorld and Church's Fried Chicken have used his music.) While he has presented jazz in dozens of venues, the role of impresario is just one of many he's assumed. English has found work as a composer, teacher, artistic director, club owner and jingle writer. He has even been commissioned by several organizations, including the Houston Symphony, to write orchestral and other formal works. His works includes oratorios, chamber music, concertos and "mixed genre" pieces that combine music with dance, spoken word and even paintings.

During his Ovations run, English often fronted a Third Stream group, and as a pianist, he is tricky to pinpoint. He isn't gritty in the traditional hard-bop sense, yet he has some hard-bop influences. He can sound unrestrained on stage, yet he also maintains a certain sense of formalism and classicism. His style is an unusual blend, to be sure.

English found another outlet for his piano playing this year when he became a partner in Deer Mountain Records. The label is an offshoot of a South Dakota ski resort that's in the process of expansion. Part of that expansion includes developing a concert program to attract more tourists. The Deer Mountain principals asked English what it would take to host a jazz festival. English suggested the resort record such a festival and make a CD. "It becomes a real good form of international publicity, because those CDs travel," English says. "They go all over the world."

While the festival has yet to take place, the people at Deer Mountain have moved forward with their plans for a label. They gave English the green light to start recording different projects, which he did this fall. The business plan is at first to sell the CDs at the resort and in a few choice markets, including Houston and California. In essence, Deer Mountain will be a boutique label. English says the company will build up an artist roster that includes jazz, bluegrass, Celtic and Americana acts, and after the company has a couple dozen recordings in its catalog, the label will try to go national.

The first three Deer Mountain CDs will be released on Wednesday, December 6, and English has a presence on all of them. Christmas on Deer Mountain, paradoxically recorded at Sugar Hill Studios in Houston, is a compilation of yuletide songs performed by various Texas musicians, including English, trumpeter Dennis Dotson, saxophonist Larry Slezak and guitarist Erich Avinger. It's more spiritual than jazz. Sketchbook, Vol. I is an introspective solo piano recording that English made in 1987; it's filled with classical influences. But English is most excited about his quartet record, Girl in Green, which features former Miles Davis sideman Dave Liebman on three songs. English says working with the saxophonist was an education, and he plans to release another recording with Liebman sometime this spring.

Despite his Deer Mountain project, English still itches to get a jazz club launched on his terms. Whenever the Warwick gig runs dry, English will be looking to start up another venue. "I've started a lot of places," he says. "I am going to look to do one more, and it will probably be the last one that I ever do, at least around here. I would like very much to align myself with a good hotel [that] really wants to establish a long-term, long-running successful jazz venue."

If English doesn't find his dream project right off the bat, don't expect him to lay low. He'll likely find a way to make it happen. "If Paul were suddenly to move to the remotest town in the northern parts, I have no doubt that he would find a place to perform music," says LoCascio. "Of course, he would have to probably accept sealskins and blubber as payment, and play in an igloo, but I can assure you he would be playing a jazz gig. It's in his blood."

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