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James Polk: Recipes from the Doctor

By Published: April 13, 2011

Playing with Ray Charles

AAJ: What did you learn during the time you worked with Ray Charles?

JP: I learned quite a bit from Ray Charles, because I worked with him on a one-to-one basis a lot. It was just he and I, many times, in the studio. He did all the engineering himself ever since, I guess, the seventies on. He did everything. I learned a lot about engineering from him, and a lot about orchestrating and writing music for bands, because he was a great arranger, a great orchestrator, and a great creator of music. It was just a great learning experience for me. He was a hard worker, man. And I learned a lot about blind people too. The only thing Ray Charles couldn't do was see. He could do everything else, everything. I even tried to trick him one time. The control room, where he worked a lot on the board, had carpet on it and one day I was tiptoeing in easy so that he couldn't hear me, and he stopped what he was doing and said, "Come on in, James." I said, "How did you know I was here, man?" He said, "I heard your heartbeat." Great ears, man. It was a wonderful experience. I learned a lot, a lot.

AAJ: Did you both play piano?

JP: I played piano before he would come out. See, he travelled with a 36-piece group: five female singers and 17-piece, 18-piece orchestra. I played piano with the orchestra before he would come out and start singing. When he would come out and start singing I would go on to the other side of the stage and played the organ. That's how it worked out. It was great.

AAJ: Another Texan who was famous for playing with Ray Charles was David "Fathead" Newman.

JP: Good friend of mine. As a matter of fact, I did a concert with him... was last November, I believe it was, he came here. They have an Episcopal church, St James Episcopal Church, and they bring people every November for a few days and I played with David. He told me then that he had cancer and he passed soon after he went back to New York. But I have known David for many, many, many years.

Styles, Memories and Something to Look Forward To...

AAJ: One of the things you're well known for is your knowledge of music. You've always tried to teach the musicians around you and, of course, you've been a university professor. Does the teaching go together with the playing?

JP: Well, when I finished college with a bachelor's degree in music, I started teaching high school band. I was the high school band director. I just kind of progressed from that point on and I ended up finishing my career by teaching at Texas State University in San Marcos. I was the associate director of jazz Studies program down there where I taught jazz history, and a lot of the jazz courses. Of course, it's always been a learning process for me, as well as the students. Whatever I learned, I tried to expose that to my students. I tried to give it back to my students. I tried to find the easiest route to learning what jazz music is about, learning what creativity is about. We're all born with some kind of creative instinct. Everybody.

A lot of people go through life and never realize what it is but those who are fortunate in music and learn what that creativity thing within them is have a chance to pull it out, and it was my job to try and recognize that in that person and try to pull it out of them. You know, "you can do this." I've always tried to maintain a real positive attitude because I love jazz music. Jazz music is my first love. Ray Charles used to teach me, there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. What makes it good is that if you do it right. If you do it wrong is bad. It's simple, you know.

My motto when I taught at school was KISS which means Keep It Simple, Stupid. [Laughs] The other one was "Don't Forsake the Groove." You've gotta always make the music groove. Make it groove and make somebody else feel good by listening to your music. The way to do that, you play the music correct, put yourself into it, make sure that it's technically right... It's either gonna be right or it's gonna be wrong. And why do it wrong the first time? If you do it right the first time you won't have to go back and do it again. I have some simple rules. I use to tell my students "If you can say the first seven letters of the alphabet you can be a musician. A, B, C, D, E, F, G" and then you start all over again. [Laughs] That's great, man.

AAJ: Where does the name "Doctor" come from?

JP: I have an honorary doctorate degree of music. Huston Tillotson offered to give me a doctorate degree of music, which is Doctor of Music. I didn't go to school to study to be a doctor. I learned everything I learned out in the street, which is probably more than what I would have to learn in school. Oh yes, and a lot of people have trouble with that. I'm not a classically-trained musician. I never taught classical music because that wasn't my thing. But there are very few people around [that] know any more about jazz music than I do. I put myself up against anybody at any university as for as knowing anything about jazz music. That's simply because I've been doing it for so long and I've learned a lot about it.

Huston Tillotson recognized that talent in me and decided to say, "Hey, this guy deserves this," so they gave me a doctor degree which gives me the same privileges as anybody who went to school. And it says that on my degree. They paid me for down in Texas State so they increased my salary because I had a doctor degree. That's where that came from, the doctor degree. That it is simply because I have learned a lot about that particular form of music.

AAJ: Some decades have been associated with different styles of jazz. The thirties had swing, the forties had bebop, then came cool and hard bop... What do we have now?

JP: Confusion! [Laughs]. Well, I see what you're talking about. As jazz music is concerned, the guys are kind of reaching back getting some of the things that were more popular, more of the traditional jazz. Of course you still got traditional jazz. You don't have free jazz, as much; Ornette Coleman was the main exponent of free jazz. So, what I see now is smooth jazz---a combination of traditional jazz, R&B and funk. They mix that together. And even some of these jazz musicians are mixing hip-hop with that jazz. Hip hop is not new, man. People don't know that they were doing hip-hop back in the 1800s. You know, what they call rap music. I can give people some classical records where these guys were doing rap, back in the 1800s. It surprised me, when I heard it, but that's what it was. Nothing's new.

Everything is rehashed over again. So the only direction of jazz is not much new coming by way of jazz. What they are doing is polytonal. What I mean by polytonal is polychords; two chords simultaneously played together. The harmonies they are resorting back more to triadic harmonies, more sequential patterns. They're playing patterns over certain stuff that they learn but that's not new either. That's just finding a different way to implement it and to improvisation. Jazz is all based around improvisation. Improvisation means to create, to make up on the spot. You have different avenues that they use now that they didn't use back in the forties in traditional jazz, because the fact of the polytonal or the chordal aspect of it. They use triads and build sequential patterns out of that. That's the direction I see it is in now, that kind of thing.

AAJ: What music are you listening to right now?

JP: I listen to everything, man. Well, I like traditional jazz music, I like smooth jazz, I like that combination of jazz and funk, what we call funk music... I'm not so crazy about rap or hip-hop, because what they are doing is good, in the sense that the words and the rhythms they use and are creating over... that's real unique; how they can squeeze those words into different rhythm patterns. Rap music is more rhythmical than it is anything. A lot of times, they put music that has been recorded already in the background. They're using those beat box machines, drum machines and things to create rhythms and then put words and stuff over the top. That's fine; I even listen to that. Some, but not as much as I do my traditional jazz. I like traditional jazz, I like funk, I like R&B, I like blues and, of course, I like smooth jazz.

AAJ: Do you have any lifetime favorite artist or record?

JP: I like Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), that was Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
. I mean, I think that is one of everybody's favorite. It was an album that came out then that kind of announced the time for what the music was about. The creativity that went into making that was just great. And how they were playing back there then, you know. People are still listening to that.

That's when I was really interested in trying to really get my teeth into jazz music and listen to it. We would really listen them a lot to try and figure out what the guys were doing. See, there weren't any places here in Austin, Texas, where we could go sit down and hear these really great artists play music so the only way we could learn was by listening to those vinyl records. We had group listening sessions, where five or six of us would get together and put a record on and [Kind of Blue] was one of the records we put on. "What did he do there, man? What chord did he play? What did he play over there?" That was how we learned. We went to the piano and try to figure out: "Oh that's what he did." That was very interesting, and was one of my favorite.

A lot of albums and things and music that came along during that time were very special to me. I listened to a lot of stuff. But there wasn't too much smooth jazz during that time, no. There was a lot of blues. I listened to a lot of blues. There was a guy named King Curtis
King Curtis
King Curtis
1934 - 1971
—tenor saxophone. Oh man, he's one of my favorites, too. I love King Curtis. And organ players; I listened a lot to Jimmy Smith
Jimmy Smith
Jimmy Smith
1925 - 2005
organ, Hammond B3
. Jimmy was a personal friend of mine. I listened to Jimmy, and I listened to Dr. Lonnie Smith
Dr. Lonnie Smith
Dr. Lonnie Smith
organ, Hammond B3
and Don Patterson
Don Patterson
Don Patterson
1936 - 1988
organ, Hammond B3
, organ player out of Philadelphia. Oh man, he was fantastic. I played a lot of organ. I thought I was an organist. [Laughs]

I never get the chance to meet him [King Curtis]. He got killed trying to stop a fight. And they stabbed him. That's how he died. In Dallas! That's where he lived. He was coming to his apartment and these people were out the having a fight. He tried to stop the fight and they stabbed him, killed him. Awful, man.

AAJ: I believe you're working on a new record right now.

JP: Oh yeah. Well, I'm getting the material together. The group that you heard, Centerpeace, we're gonna go in the studio and do some recordings. I haven't picked the date yet, when we're gonna do that. I got most of the music already put together. It's just trying to get the funds together. I got the studio, too, where I'm gonna go, but I'm trying to get the funds together to do that. That's on the horizon in the near future. So keep your ears open.

Selected Discography

Dr. James Polk, When Evening Come (Twink, 2008)

Dr. James Polk, Go With The Flow (Twink, 2007)

Pamela Hart, May I Come In (HartBeat, 1998)

Dr.. James Polk, Jamad (Twink, 1992)

James Polk & Co., You Know The Feeling (Trilogy, 1984

Ray Charles, Wish You Were Here Tonight (Concord, 1983)

Ray Charles, Ain't It So (Concord, 1979

James Polk & The Brothers, Power Struggle (Twink, 1969) (single)

James Polk & The Brothers, Just Plain Funk (Twink, 1969) (single)

Photo Credits
Page 1: Victor Engel

Page 2: Courtesy of Dr. James Polk
Dr. James Polk
Dr. James Polk

Page 3: Jeff Lofton

Page 4: Rick Haering

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