"Houston is going to be the next big musical explosion," says Horace Alexander Young, Texas Southern music professor and one of the featured artists at Cafe 4212's August month-long celebration of Houston jazz greats and Houston horn players. "We've always had cutting-edge players, but right now something special, some kind of renaissance, seems to be happening here."
Young thinks part of the creative surge happening in Houston's jazz world is interplay with Katrina refugees who just never went back home to New Orleans. Yet he admits that for a city that has produced hundreds of important jazz and blues musicians and singers, there really isn't much of a jazz scene here.
While it can seem like every corner and rehearsal space has an indie-rock band, outside of a handful of reliable haunts like Cezanne, SkyBar, Sambuca and Eddie V's on certain nights, live jazz in Houston remains an elusive target and a hard way to make a living.
And while some ensembles in town cater to the supper crowd with jazz versions of standards, serious hard jazz like what's going down at Cafe 4212 can be truly difficult to locate.
Kansas City native and attorney Walter Strickland is doing his part to keep jazz alive in the Third Ward at his Almeda nightclub. Strickland bought 4212 in 2000, which just happened to coincide with some of the first moves toward gentrification in the area.
Once he opened, it quickly became apparent that jazz was not going to be a viable seven-days-a-week option.
"I was really hoping to have a pure jazz club, but sometimes things just take you in a different direction," says the University of Houston Law School graduate. "Now Thursday is our main jazz night, and we also do jazz on Saturday."
But Strickland has also branched out into zydeco, with a Saturday brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Brian Jack's Sunday residency from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. The club features deejays on Fridays.
"I grew up in Kansas City about a mile from where Charlie Parker was born, so jazz was my main thing," says Strickland, "At our parties in high school, we would have jazz bands. But when I got to Houston, I began to open up my mind to things like zydeco, which I really enjoy now."
But while zydeco definitely helps pay the bills, Strickland is still exploring any and every opportunity to make jazz viable at the club.
"Our Thursdays in August, which is jazz month in Houston, were given over to KTSU, who put together a program called 'A Choice Evening of Jazz,'" Strickland explains. "KTSU is the last jazz station here, so maybe it's a case where they want to see us succeed and we need that jazz outlet in this city. It seems like it would be a shame if jazz disappeared from radio entirely in Houston."
Strickland has also formed a working relationship with local artist/jazz historian Tierney Malone, who recently produced an all-star tribute show at 4212 in honor of monumental Houston tenor sax player Arnett Cobb. Malone's next program, this Thursday, highlights vocalist Horace Grigsby, who frequently performs around town with the Bob Henschen Trio.
Strickland fears for the future of live jazz in Houston, primarily because the audience is aging and the 18-34 demographic doesn't seem to be gravitating to the music. This was definitely apparent Thursday evening, when the only people under 40 seemed to be at 4212 to sit in. But then, that's encouraging.
"The crowds at our jazz shows are almost exclusively 40 and up," says Strickland. "The younger demographic just doesn't seem interested, at least not yet. For the most part, it seems like that age group isn't listening to KTSU. In fact, they don't even listen to 102.1. They're mostly listening to The Box [97.9 FM]. I don't know how we can interest that group to give jazz a chance.
"I suppose it would help if the schools emphasized jazz and what an important part of local culture it has been," he adds. "But it's like blues; the younger generation just doesn't seem to recognize it."
Houston may not recognize Corey Stoot, who will bring his ensemble to Cafe 4212 the last two Thursdays of September, but his work is all over the place. For someone so young, a list of his projects is staggering: Geto Boys, UGK's Ridin' Dirty, Devin the Dude, Paul Wall, Mike Jones, a Letterman performance with LL Cool J and international tours with Bankie Banx, known as the Anguillan Bob Dylan. Stoot just got back into town after a month in Europe with reggae pioneers Morgan Heritage, who played 26 shows across Europe and had a sold-out show in London during the Olympics.
"It may not work for everybody, but for me the secret to being able to survive as a jazz musician is to keep moving," says Stoot, the cousin of zydeco front men Brian Jack and Step Rideau.
"I could never make a living just playing jazz in Houston; the audience isn't large enough," he explains. "So I live here, but I work a lot in Los Angeles, New York and the Caribbean. And I don't limit myself to jazz. I like to play lots of different genres."
A member of the Sam Houston High School stage band, Stoot grew up in a musical family. His father, John Stoot, had a hot band called the Jumpin' Jivers that worked all the joints on Dowling in the '50s and '60s before he began working with Rockin' Sidney of "Don't Mess with My Toot Toot" fame.
"Dad told me not to limit myself," says Stoot, who approached Strickland about having a regular jazz gig at Cafe 4212 when it opened. "I think a lot of players in Houston are like me. I work church gigs. I've got my own little group. I play with zydeco bands. And then I make sure I get out of town a lot. As a musician, saturation in one place can just kill you, I think.
"When I was first starting out, I used to sit in with people at Cody's in Montrose," Stoot recalls. "And I realized that in some ways, there was more jazz happening in Montrose than in Third Ward. That just seemed weird."
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Like Strickland, Stoot sees the main problem as demographic.
"It's sad, but the youngsters are just not hipping themselves to jazz," he sighs. "And the jazz audience, like the blues audience, is aging. Yet at the same time, TSU and the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts are still training some incredible jazz players. These are serious people, so hopefully some audience is going to eventually come to it."
Meanwhile, Walter Strickland is honing his menu, his drink selection and his entertainment lineup, hoping to keep hard jazz alive in the Third Ward.
Cafe 4212 is located at 4212 Almeda, 713-522-4212, www.cafe4212.com.