All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Serving jazz worldwide since 1995
All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource


James Polk: Recipes from the Doctor

By Published: April 13, 2011

Black & White

AAJ: Did you have the first integrated bands in Austin?

James Polk & The Brothers

JP: Probably not the first, but I did have one of the earlier ones. After I got out of college, I started teaching. I was a high school band director in Elgin, Texas, which is a few miles down the road. That's when James Brown
James Brown
James Brown
1933 - 2006
was really popular, that style of music. I had some guys, and I've always liked to put my best foot forward when it comes to music. I didn't like to spend a lot of time learning by rote. What we mean by rote is putting on a record and try to learn what these guys did. "What is he playing there? What note did he play here? Why did he do that?" That takes a long time, in order to learn that way. So what I did, I wrote the music. I did the listening and I figured out what they were playing. I wrote the music for the guys to play, and there weren't too many black musicians that could read the music. I had a few, but there weren't too many. So my option was to find somebody that could read the music.

I ran into some guys who had finished UT [University of Texas], and could do just that. It just happened that they were white. So I said, "Well, so?" I'm looking for the best quality. I found out that if I did that, then I could get my band into a whole lot of clubs that were not hiring just black bands. There were a lot of clubs hiring black bands, but chances are that they would hire my band quicker because I had black and white personnel. I had a young lady by the name of Angela Strehli, who's a pretty big name in rock 'n' roll. I gave her, her first gig. She used to be an English teacher, and she decided that she wanted to sing some blues. She loved the blues, so I said: "Hey, why not? Let's try." A guy by the name of John Reed was the guitarist. He was playing with a country band but he always wanted to play some blues, so I said: "Well, OK. Come on man, let's try!" And I had a guy by the name of Don Luppo, a white guy that played bass.

The rest were some guys around here, in this area. Larry Townsend played trombone. Martin Banks, who had lived in New York City but had moved back to Texas, he played trumpet. I had a guy by the name of Don Shoaf, known as Donny Boy, and then I had a guy by the name Aaron Littlefield Jr. that played drums. And Matthew Robinson, who's a big name now. WC Clark played in my band. We had a lot of fun, man. We did a lot of travelling. I bought a big old school bus and we use to travel around in a school bus. We had a lot of fun. I painted it green and white. All the school buses were yellow and I didn't want ride around in a yellow school bus so I painted it green and white. We travelled around. We hired a driver, so we wouldn't have to drive. That was a lot of fun, man.

AAJ: WC Clark told me that he played in your band. Was he playing bass?

JP: Yeah, he also played guitar. He was good, man. Then I left and moved to California, and when I came back he was a big name. He did good, and he's still doing great. He's a great guy, man. Nice fella.

AAJ: After the interest of white college students in East Austin, how did integration affect the East Austin music scene?

JP: Here in Austin, the only affect came in the black area of town. It didn't affect the white portion of town that much. Some of the larger venues closed, simply because the owners probably died out and stuff like that. They passed on, and those places closed down. One was called the Jade Room. It was owned by a guy by the name of Dr. Funk---that was his name. Margorie Funk, that was his wife. And there was a place called the New Orleans Club, which used to be on Red River and 12th Street, I think.

Of course, there were a lot of venues on this side of IH-35, Charlie's Playhouse being one. Well, during those days the students from UT would come over to Charlie's Playhouse. Charlie owned another club way further east, which was called the Chicken Shack. It was an after hour place that opened up like at one or two o'clock in the morning and stayed open till like six o'clock. A lot of white students from UT would come over to this side of town to hear rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll---if that's what you wanted to hear—because they knew they could get a better rendition of it over here.

What happened, in the course of integration, and school desegregation, they finally decided to integrate the schools here in Austin. They integrated schools in 1971, I think. Or about then. It happened in most of your major cities; they went in and closed the black high school. They closed it. So when the closed the black high school, they started integrating the other schools and busing black students to other high schools. There was a guy who owned a restaurant on the corner of I think it was 10th and Congress, I forget his name, but it was called the Piccadilly Restaurant. This guy was before Lester Maddox, who was down somewhere in Georgia, Mississippi. He stood up in front of the restaurant, with a baseball bat, and said that he wouldn't let anybody black come in the restaurant. That happened right here in Austin, at Piccadilly Restaurant. The guy stood out there with a baseball bat. Well, he was the last one to hold out, but some of your restaurants started allowing black people to come in, and so black people were given the chance to go to some of those clubs that they were denied many years before.

Black people started going to those clubs. They started going to clubs on the West side of town, the north side, the south side of town that they couldn't go before. So what happened to the east side? It dried out. A lot of the little clubs started closing. They closed the high school down there, so what happened to the east side of town? Everything that was coming into this side of town just dried out and stopped, because black people could go to other places and white people weren't coming over here. They didn't have to. They didn't have to come over to these little clubs. They had their own. That's basically what happened here in Austin, Texas and you can see the fruits of that today. Most of the black clubs are going down. There are hardly any black clubs in East Austin right now. And now the white people are buying up property in East Austin right and left, man, as we speak.

Even where I live, right now, this house we're sitting in, this used to be Fred Acres' house, the guy who was coach to UT. This is the house he owned; of course, I own it now. But this part of town when I was coming up in the sixties and early seventies... black people couldn't live over here. Finally, all of that opened up and now black people are more or less able to live wherever they choose. This was in the late sixties and the seventies. That's what kind of happened to Austin, as far as the Black music is concerned. Clubs started closing up. A few opened up again but most of them are gone till this day. They're gone, no more.

Music in Austin: A Turning Wheel

AAJ: What are the main changes you have seen in the music scene since you started?

JP: The music scene has changed somewhat. 6th Street, back in the late forties and early fifties, used to be totally black. All those were black clubs and I saw that change. I saw that go down completely and it was revived again under, I think, Carol Keaton who was the mayor of Austin then. She decided that she wanted to revitalize 6th Street and make 6th Street like Bourbon Street in the French Quarter [of New Orleans]. And with that came a lot of clubs right there on 6th Street. Of course, when it first started there were two or three jazz clubs down there. That changed because they weren't patronizing the jazz clubs as much as they were the other ones.

What I have seen a lot change is the music scene in Austin with the beginning of 6th Street. A lot of musicians came here. A lot of rock 'n' roll and blues bands came to 6th Street. Now is the Warehouse District, down on Colorado, that particular area. Back in the early and late seventies, 15th and Lavaca. There's two hotels over there now, but that was more or less the area of interest. There were a lot of clubs right there in that little area. Blue Parrot, Casablanca, Castle Creek... those were some of the names of the clubs. Rick's, Italian Spaghetti House... And on Lavaca, there was a big record store. Record Warehouse, I believe it was called. That was more the area of interest and of course the Drag had a lot of clubs back in the sixties and seventies. There was what you call the Beatnik Era.

During the beatnik daysm there were a lot of clubs on the Drag, on Guadalupe, because we played in a lot of clubs over there. I saw all of that change. Now the areas of interest, of course, will be 6th Street and the Warehouse District, and, of course, some of the outer areas. During that time what we call the strip malls, there weren't any. There was no Lincoln Village, there was no Anderson Mall, there was no Barton Creek Mall, there was nothing like that. The first mall that came to Austin was Capital Plaza, right over there in IH-35. They didn't have any clubs in there but a lot of these other places started opening up, and you started getting these clubs.

Austin has always been a high cultural city, because of the number of colleges and universities here. Of course, with Huston Tillotson College, where I graduated—now Huston Tillotson University. Before that, the Black institutions were Sam Houston College and Tillotson College. They merged in 1952 and became Huston Tillotson University. You have Huston Tillotson, Concordia which moved off IH-35, you have Saint Edwards, you have the University of Texas and you have the ACC, Austin Community College which started in the seventies, I believe it was. So you have a large influx of students, of young people that would frequent those places. You know, your clubs, your music scene because on the weekends that's what they live for. Students live to go out, and drink beer and get drunk, fall down and have a good time. Which I guess is all part of growing up because I did it too. We all did the same thing.

So that's what I have seen changed. It was more localized when I was a youngster because there were a few clubs in the Black side of town, but that was as far as we could go being a black kid and a black student coming up here in Austin. I couldn't go to those other places because there weren't so many anyway. Only in the seventies, we saw that changed. I was working for IBM during those days, and I saw all of that change to where it is now.

AAJ: People don't go to the Drag very much anymore...

JP: No. That used to be real popular, man. Like I said, back in the beatnik days, what we call the Beat generation, the Drag was very popular. There were a lot of clubs on the Drag. I saw, in the papers, they wanted to close that Cactus Club. That used to be a real popular club on the campus. They used to have a lot during the beat generation, when clubs didn't have tables or chairs. They just had these big throw pillows on the floor. People would come, sit on the floor and listen to jazz music, and it gave that ambiance of being more in touch with the people. It was a lot of fun. Those were some good days.

There's nothing like that nowadays. People would listen to jazz music more than they do today. Now people go out to these clubs and laugh and talk, get drunk and don't pay any attention to what the music is going on. Very seldom. I know the Elephant Room is a prime example. I've worked there a lot with my newly formed band called Centerpeace. We just played there this past Saturday night and people there keep more noise than the band. But that's the way it is.

AAJ: Do you feel that music appreciation is different in overseas than it is in the States?

JP: Yes, absolutely. Music is incidental here. People, even club owners, don't really care that much. They're more concerned about how much that cash register is bringing up, how many drinks they're selling, you know. They wanna get the musicians in to play in these clubs and don't pay them anything. That's what happened a lot here in Austin. You have young musicians who come to this town and are not really concerned about being able to make a fair wage and live of what they are doing because they probably got their parents supporting them at school and stuff like that. So they don't really care about how much money they are making; it's just the fun of being able to play.

Well, that messes over the guy who's looking to make this a livelihood. You can't live off of a hundred dollars a week, man. You can't do that. Two hundred dollars a week, three hundred dollars a week... you can't. And there's a lot of people that exist over that because a lot of these young musicians are all pooling together, living in the same place. And they eat fritos and drink beer... [Laughs] You can't do that. I can't do that! I can't live like this, man. [Laughs]

AAJ: What do you think about Austin being named the Live Music Capital of The World?

JP: Every city has to have some kind of motto, some kind of handle that you would recognize the city for. Something, let us say, well we are owned by this. I've heard Austin called the river city because of the Colorado River going through. That's how they call San Antonio, the river city. That's good for Austin. Now, I've been all over the world playing music and I can say this for a fact that Austin does have more live venues than a lot of other major places per capita. Like if you would even talk about New York, it probably has more clubs that musicians can play live in than New York. I know they do more than Los Angeles, per capita, because I lived in Los Angeles for ten years, and I know that Austin does have a lot of live music.

It's good to be known as the live music capital of the world because it attracted a lot of musicians here, for that simple reason. They say, "Hey there's a lot of music happening in Austin, Texas," which it is. There are a lot of clubs here now which attract and they have live music. I'm glad that they consider this the live music capital of the world because it gives a spotlight on music. It focuses on music, no matter what kind of music you're playing its still music, which is good for musicians and it's good for the economy.

South by South West, you know how that guy started. The guy started South by South West because he wanted to give the club owners the chance to make some money over the weekend. Very few musicians get paid for coming here for South By South West, and they get probably over a thousand bands that come here. So he started that idea which was a good idea, it wasn't bad, but the only thing I think is they're using the musicians. Musicians pay their own way here from Spain, from the Netherlands, from Japan. They pay their own way; nobody's paying for them to come. So they pay their own way just to come here and play in some of these clubs with the thought of maybe securing a record contract. So far, as I know, there hasn't been too many—maybe there's been some—but there hasn't been many record contracts gotten from South By South West.>{? But it does the economy good. They pump over two or three million dollars within that week, or whatever it is, which is good for the city of Austin. I can't really say anything bad about it but I don't really participate in it unless they're gonna pay me. If somebody pays me, I'll play. But I'm not playing for nothing, I'm too old. I probably would have done that when I was twenty years old. Long time ago...

comments powered by Disqus