Another Skate of Mind: The Jamail Skatepark Ignites Houston Music Culture
Photos by David Ensminger
This article was written by David Ensminger.
Downtown Houston's Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark, like a plethora of other skate sites across the globe, is a gripping locale that merges edge-culture sports and underground music. It reflects an earlier era of Thrasher videos from the 1980s, when skate parks brimmed with punk rock and early hip-hop.
Endlessly promoted by the garrulous Barry Blumenthal -- "who has the energy of a hungry lion," according to one veteran of Houston punk -- the park astride Buffalo Bayou has offered a steady diet of free concerts on the city's curvy downtown bayou for years.
Hordes of bands have also descended on the concrete slopes, nestled next to condos and park foliage, unleashing their fiery brands of rock and roll. The sweat-slicked, dizzyingly acrobatic, and anarchically agile all ages skaters pounding the pavement for hours, supported by eager crowds wielding cameras and water bottles, smiles and smart-ass smirks.
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Blumenthal, himself a shredder for four decades, is the spokesperson/chief fundraiser for PUSH, a grass-roots gathering of skateboarders, friends, families and supporters that came together to raise funds and design the park, which debuted in Fall 2004, under the auspices of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department.
"The park is Houston's first poured-in-place free public skate park," says Blumenthal, adding that it represents the largest private-donation-funded park in the United States, to the tune of $2.7 million.
For half a decade, the park has been transformed into a bona fide site of "fun fun fun" (to quote Texas skate-punk legends Big Boys), where frenetic fitness melds with curvilinear architecture, forming art in motion. As Blumenthal notes, it empowers any Houstonian dropping in by transcending traditional barriers such as economic class, ethnicity, and age group.
Additionally, its focus on music makes it a hotbed for bands bored of dank bars and late-night creeps. Some musicians, like Anarchitex drummer Bob Weber, feel the location is simultaneously slightly odd and always alluring:
"Not only was it outdoors and still daylight -- a crazy place for a punk rock party," he stresses, "but it's located high on the bank of the deepest part of the bayou, staring at the wide-open, two-dimensional downtown facade with the burning sun crashing down into Memorial Park.
Beside the evocative locale, synergy seems to take place under the glare of setting suns or sizzling lights at the dimming of the day.
"The band would get into a hard, rhythmic churn," details Weber, "and we were a hundred people on skateboards swirling around on all sides. It made perfect sense when the sounds collapsed into a chaotic mess because the†motion of the skaters was totally random."
For the art-punk fury of Anarchitex, the flux and frenzy of the skaters paralleled their own sonic worlds.
Houston underground music and skate culture have been joined at the hip for decades, epitomized by bands like Contortion Sessions, Direct Tension, and the legendary Bark Hard (founded in part by John Gibson, Texas' first pro skater). The scene has also been kept aloft by local businesses like Surf House, operated on Ella since the late 1960s, and myriad other ma-and-pa skater storefronts over the years dedicated to keeping skate culture sustainable and accessible.
The current crop of musicians that exude a joint love of music and skating are plentiful too, including Bryan A. of Talk Sick Brats, Kevin Bernier of Los Skarnales and The Suffers, Adam Burchfield of The Octanes, and Buddy of the Luxurious Panthers. Meanwhile, the stage has hosted dozens of acts, from new-school rockers like Art Institute and Omotai to vintage acts like The Hates and Herschel Berry. The long, varying gig rosters continues to read like a who's who of unbridled local talent.
The Jamail Skate Park is not some routine recreational facility to keep kids from surfing the bent, broken streets or using downtown businesses for freestyle frenzy, it's a 21st-century cultural mash-up, an amalgam of art, music, sport, and community commitment. A free space free of hate, a transgenerational launch pad, and an elegant slice of modern urban art next to a sluggish bayou where pioneers hauled goods and kids swam in mosquito swirls.
Even the deep end of Lee's Bowl at the park is an homage to the past, referencing the metal ramps from the old privately owned Skate Park of Houston.
"The park reinvented vertical pipe-ramp skateboarding," Blumenthal attests, and has attracted skaters across the U.S. to relocate to Houston while becoming the template for current X-Games ramps -- now a global phenomena. No wonder Pearl Jam bassist and avid skater Jeff Ament flew to Houston a few weeks ago to hit the slopes.
After taking a place for granted, sometimes people need to be nudged with reminders. But as Anarchitex's Weber testifies, "You guys don't realize how lucky you are to have the Jamail Skate Park."
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