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Houston's Jazz History

f you believe the Internet, which you really shouldn't, Houston has no jazz history to speak of. In fact, if you Google "Houston jazz history," you get a bunch of pages about various Rockets playoff series with the Utah Jazz.

Houston's non-basketball jazz history, come to think of it, has something in common with those Rockets series: It's mostly lost. But it's out there, or otherwise there would be no need for Texas Southern University radio station KTSU's (90.9 FM) Jazz Hall of Fame. Two members of this year's inaugural class, after all, were recruited by no less than the Duke Ellington Orchestra, as were several other TSU Jazz Ensemble alumni.

This year's honorees will be inducted in a ceremony Saturday afternoon at the KTSU studios (3100 Cleburne) and toasted at a fund-raiser later that evening at the George R. Brown Convention Center's Assembly Hall hosted by jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, whose PRI program Jazz Set airs Tuesday nights on KTSU. Ladies and gentlemen, your class of 2008:

Lanny Steele: One of the first directors of the TSU Jazz Ensemble, which won numerous awards under his baton, Steele was also pianist for tenor saxophonist Arnett Cobb, the apprentice in trumpeter Milt Larkin's big band and pioneer of the forceful "Texas Tenor" sound. Steele, who died in 1994, was the president and director of SumArts, which brought many leading jazz and blues musicians to the city.

Kirk Whalum: Saxophonist who came to TSU on a music scholarship from Memphis. Led popular local jazz band Group Session in the '80s and was recruited by New York pianist Bob James, first for his album Bob James 12 and then James's touring band. He moved to Los Angeles and remains an in-demand session player (Nancy Wilson, Al Jarreau, Quincy Jones) while moving freely between jazz and ­gospel.

Joe Sample: Pianist and composer and perhaps the most preeminent jazz artist to come out of Houston. He formed the Jazz Crusaders while still at Wheatley High School; after moving to Los Angeles, the group became one of the best-known jazz/funk fusion bands of its time. Sample moved back to Houston in 1994 and released The Pecan Tree, a tribute to his hometown, in 2002.

Hubert Laws: One of the true masters of the jazz flute, the classically trained Laws has appeared with the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera orchestras, and recorded with jazz artists including Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, as well as pop performers like Paul Simon, Paul McCartney and Aretha Franklin.

Barrie Lee Hall: Trumpeter, composer and arranger who joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1973 and became its director in 1996 when Ellington's brother Mercer died; he held the position for a year before sharing it with another Ellington brother, Paul Mercer. Hall is now the musical director of Liberty Baptist Church.

Anita Moore: Moore began singing as a child, and sang with Cobb's orchestra for a while as a teenager. After leaving TSU, she was recruited by Duke Ellington for his orchestra and appeared on Ellington's final album, 1973's Eastbourn London Performance. Moore sang with the orchestra for 16 years before retiring to teach school. She passed away in 2001.

According to retired newspaperman and postal worker Frank Torry, whose "World Through the Eyes of Torry" commentaries run several times a day on KTSU, the closest thing Houston ever had to a jazz district was in the Fifth Ward, where musicians like pianist Ed Frank, drummer Carl Lott and saxophonist Donald Wilkerson played clubs like the Pecko and El Cobra. But even then, jazz players more or less drafted the pattern of musicians leaving Houston for greener pastures, something that continues to plague the city today.

However, jazz musicians felt it much more acutely. The music thrives on the interplay and one-upmanship between musicians, and there simply wasn't a large enough talent pool for the players to keep their chops sharp. (The only other option was to stay and teach, like TSU alumnus and longtime Kashmere High School band director Conrad Johnson.)

"We knew we had to be somewhere where the big boys were," says Sample, explaining why he and the Crusaders moved to Los Angeles after they left TSU. "Jazz is a very, very small community, and they congregated in Los Angeles and New York. If you wanted to see how you rated by competing, that's what you had to do. You had to go out there and see how hard they hit."

Besides that, Houston's reputation as a hub of rhythm-and-blues activity left the city's jazz players on the sidelines. "It was always that rhythm and blues was king, and jazz was secondary," says Sample. "I remember everybody telling me that I was crazy, and I should think about getting a real job and staying out of music, period."

To be honest, I don't consider myself a jazz fan by any stretch of the imagination. I certainly don't hate it, but as a child of the '70s — when jazz's time as the lingua franca of popular music had already come and gone — I'm part of the generation that tended to equate jazz with the anodyne sounds filtered through speakers in elevators and doctors' offices. I won't even mention a certain curly-haired soprano saxophone player who no doubt ruined the image of jazz for no telling how many people.

Later on, of course, I came to appreciate a whole host of jazz artists, from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Count Basie to Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, but even so, it's still the genre I listen to the least. That smooth-jazz stigma has always lingered, and the arcane trajectory jazz began traveling around the mid-'60s has always left me cold. Oddly enough, perhaps, Sample seems to agree on this count.

"When I first heard free jazz, I was not interested," he says. "I was only interested in what I had loved as a child — why did Louis Armstrong give me chills down my spine? Free jazz didn't do that. It was an intellectual thing, and I guess I'm a Southerner and a very spiritual guy. To me, the only purpose of music is to heal. I'm not interested in trying to proclaim to someone that I'm a genius."

One of jazz's great virtues, I think, but also one of its main problems, is that it combines so well with so many other kinds of music. This wasn't a problem 50 or 60 years ago, when it was more or less the common ground of all popular music — the meeting point of swing, rhythm and blues, Tin Pan Alley pop and even country. But as forms such as rock, soul, disco and hip-hop became dominant, pure jazz — if there ever even was such a thing — receded to the fringes.

A lesson in local jazz history is as close as the library. The Houston Public Library's Houston Metropolitan Research Center, located in the Julia Ideson house next door to the main branch at 500 Mc­Kin­ney, has a Texas Jazz Archive of photographs, recordings and oral histories of jazz musicians from Houston — including an Arnett Cobb collection — and elsewhere in the state. (Open by appointment only.) TSU has its own jazz archive on campus at the Robert J. Terry library.

Again, though, that makes it sound like jazz only exists to be researched and written up in stodgy academic journals or drier-than-dry collectors' journals. Whether you love it, hate it or are indifferent, jazz is a cornerstone of American music and, overseas especially, one of this country's major cultural calling cards. Jazz's fingerprints are all over any kind of music that came after it, from indie-rock to bluegrass to hip-hop, and its emphasis on live performance set a benchmark that stands to this day.

More important, though, despite its popular reputation as either background music or the province of insufferable music snobs, jazz is still a vital and viable music with plenty of life left. Besides clearing away some of the cobwebs from one of the dustiest corners of Houston's musical history — which itself would be more than enough — KTSU's Hall of Fame is a welcome reminder that local jazz exists in the present as well (all four surviving inductees maintain active performing careers). Things like this can only help nudge it out of the library and back onstage where it belongs.

chris.gray@houstonpress.com


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