According to the society’s executive director, Becky Lao, this will be the HSAIA’s fourth installment of its annual “Cemetery & Cultural Tour.” The tours always happen on Halloween weekend, traditionally the time of year when the boundary between this world and the next is at its most permeable; “on Halloween, your thoughts often turn to that,” Lao says.
Previous editions of the tour, underwritten by Houston-based funeral-services conglomerate Service Corporation International, have focused on Día de los Muertos; the variety of symbolism found on local tombstones; and “Houston Saints” such as Dominique de Menil and famous oil-field firefighter Red Adair. This one is officially dubbed “Swing Low: The Final Home of Houston’s Blues and Jazz Legends.”
“We wanted to highlight Houston’s history of jazz and blues,” says Lao. “A lot of people don’t think of Houston as a jazz and blues city. They think of Memphis, or Detroit or whatever, but Houston has its claim to fame too.”
At the 360-acre Forest Park Lawndale, final resting place of more than 250,000 Houstonians, the tour will visit the graves of iconic Texas bluesman Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins and Bill Quinn, founder of Gold Star Studios (which later became SugarHill), located about three miles from the cemetery. Buried at Paradise Cemetery, South are renowned blues/funk guitarist Johnny Clyde Copeland; saxophone legend Arnett Cobb, an originator of the “Texas Tenor” sound; and Conrad “Prof” Johnson, the longtime Kashmere High School band director memorialized in the 2010 documentary Thunder Soul. Acclaimed trumpeter Nelson Mills III, currently a member of the Conrad Johnson Orchestra, and multiple Houston Press Music Award-winning bluesman the Mighty Orq will perform at the grave sites, which Lao says she hopes helps connect the music of the men being honored on the tour to the present.
“First of all, I want [tour-goers] to come away from this tour with an understanding of Houston’s role in the jazz and blues scene,” she says. “And then, a second thought is that by doing something like this, we are doing something to help perpetuate these voices, because they’re certainly deserving. I want people to leave thinking how fabulous the work of these composers was. To be touched by it, to be moved by it, and maybe to explore a bit more on their own if they don’t know a lot about jazz and blues.”
The tour, which begins at 2 p.m., originates at Project Row Houses, currently the site of Houston artist Tierney Malone’s installation The Jazz Church of Houston, and will stop off at the nearby Texas State Historical Marker honoring Hopkins before heading to the two cemeteries. Acting as guides will be Arnette Cobb’s daughter Lizette and Dr. Roger Wood, author of Bayou City Blues: Down In Houston and Texas Zydeco. Wood’s advice was especially invaluable, notes Lao, because his deep knowledge of Houston’s musical history yielded far too much information for one afternoon to contain.
“Honestly, because once we started doing this research, and started uncovering the wealth that’s here, there’s enough for us to do another tour,” she says. “And of course doing a zydeco tour would be fun too. So there’s more to come from this in the future.”
Tickets for “Swing Low: The Final Home of Houston’s Blues and Jazz Legends” are $25 and available at paypal.me/houstonarchaeology. Reservations are also accepted by phone at 713-364-6344.