Rock's on the rocks... In a meeting last Thursday, Rockefeller's brass advised its staff that the club would be pulling up stakes permanently at the end of the year. That sobering revelation shouldn't come as much of a shock to anyone who's been frequenting the venue over the last few months, seeing as the vibe among its employees -- from the box-office workers right on up to Rockefeller's president Branan Huthnance -- has been more than a little tense.
One Rock's staffer, who requested anonymity, described the atmosphere that fateful evening as not only tense, but "a little bizarre."
"[Huthnance] called this employee meeting, and we never have them. He showed us this video, a tape of what he was doing [apparently, the pilot for Rockefeller's Tonight, a show he's trying to sell to a network]. It was really poor quality. It looked like one of my video projects in college," she said, adding that it was only after enduring the presentation that folks on the staff learned that they'd be out of a job come January 1.
The fact is, things haven't been healthy at Rock's for well over a year now, judging by the increased number of evenings devoted to private functions as well as the increased number of evenings when nothing is going on at all. Then, just recently, the new Theater at Bayou Place began scarfing the club's bread-and-butter acts (Rock's regulars Little Feat and Robert Earl Keen are playing Bayou Place in November and December, respectively). That was followed by the announcement earlier this month that Rockefeller's Concert Company will no longer be exclusively promoting for the Heights Bank Building location on Washington Avenue. The idea, evidently, was to spend more time booking festivals and concerts at larger venues.
At first, Huthnance maintained that he wouldn't be completely abandoning the club. In fact, an October 10 press release issued by RCC talks about a proposal for a live music show -- the aforementioned Rockefeller's Tonight -- that would be taped at the venue and aired nationally with the help of Cool Films Inc., Houston Sound Studios and Miracle Productions. Apparently, Huthnance has his heart set on a deal with CBS. At press time, however, sponsorship for the program hadn't been secured, and I swear I could hear Huthnance's molars grinding over the phone as he refused to go into detail about much of anything.
"It is what it is," he said of the new direction.
Meanwhile, Rockefeller's vice president Colleen Fischer is defecting to Pace Concerts, where she was hired as booking director for -- that's right -- Theater at Bayou Place. And while Fischer acknowledges that the Rock's most of us have come to know will cease to exist in two months, she wouldn't be surpised to see it up and running in some form or another before long.
"I wouldn't be so quick to throw dirt on its grave," she says.
Some wait... The new CD from Houston jazz mainstay Horace Grigsby has been a long time coming -- 45 years, to be exact. So calling it At Last! seems only appropriate. You could say it's about as obvious a choice as many of the standards Grigsby chose to sing on this breezy, laid-back effort, the release of which he and longtime partner Bob Henschen will celebrate Friday with a show at Cezanne. At Last!'s three Duke Ellington offerings ("I'm Beginning to See the Light," "Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me" and "Sophisticated Lady") and the omnipresent vocalist's staples "Unforgettable" and "Send in the Clowns" ought to be familiar to everyone. And with his husky-smooth baritone and unpredictable delivery, Grigsby manages to at once coddle tradition and coax freshness out of songs covered to death over the years.
If anyone has the right to give a few old chestnuts another work-over, it's Grigsby, a student of some of Houston's most legendary jazz talents -- most notably Arnett Cobb, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and Calvin Owens -- who's paid his dues in nightclubs from here to Los Angeles and Brussels. With a crack backup band (including guitarist Clayton Dyess, bassist David Craig, drummer Carl Lott and Henschen on piano) taking up the slack with their loose, if lucid, playing, Grigsby is free to let his voice roam where he likes, even indulging in the occasional scat. If, technically speaking, he's not quite in the same league as Nat "King" Cole (then again, who is?), Grigsby at least candy-coats his limitations with a streetwise playfulness that leaks from every modest tremolo and low-key sustain.
None of which is surprising when you take into account that Grigsby was raised in the hard-scrabble neighborhoods of Houston's north side, where he received what passed for vocal training simply by listening to and emulating what he heard drifting out of beer-joint jukeboxes.
"The walls were thin enough so I could sit outside. They wouldn't let me in, of course, because I was too young," Grigsby recalls. "I've always appreciated cats and chicks like Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan and so forth. It just sort of grew on me."
The young Grigsby also had some local help along the way. "Arnett and Eddie, they kind of took me under their wing, and I guess I kind of grew with them. I learned by trial and error," he says. "I was always listening to great singers, so I just took a little from this one and a little from that one. And hopefully, by now I've formed my own style."
Grigsby's first on-stage experience came at age 12, when he won a talent show at downtown's Lincoln Theater, which he describes as "a baby Apollo." "I was scared to death," Grigsby says. "But I kept going back."
A stint in the Marines introduced Grigsby to Southern California, and when he finished his time in the service, he relocated to Los Angeles, burrowing into the city's thriving jazz scene of the 1950s and '60s. While there, Grigsby sang with a variety of big bands and smaller ensembles. Eventually, he worked his way up and down the West Coast, and even toured Europe with his old pal Cobb and others.
But by the early '70s, Grigsby -- who had children back in Houston -- was ready to come home. On his return, he found that the environment for jazz in Houston was "kind of shaky," and he was impelled to take a day job selling clothes at the old Battelstein's department store to make ends meet. Before long, though, his on-and-off partnership with Henschen -- which began in the '70s when they played together in the United Nations Sextet -- began to blossom.
Soon, it got to the point where Grigsby could abandon his clothing gig and devote all of his time to making music. Today, he's working harder than he ever has before, performing with Henschen five days a week at venues such as Cezanne, Cent' Anni and the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Given that busy schedule, Grigsby confesses, he's a little out of it before 5 p.m.
"I'm a night person, so I sleep late during the so-called morning," he says. "I can't go to sleep early any more -- you know how it is."
Sure I do -- until it dawns on me that Grigsby is 62.
Etc.... Inner Loop folk heroes de Schmog are making up to break up at Rudyard's Friday. The group is reuniting one last time (promise) for a performance of its tweaked-out rock opera "Fairy Tale" -- and it's no "Humpty Dumpty."
-- Hobart Rowland
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