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Jeff Lofton: Jazz to the People

By Published: July 11, 2011

Music in Austin

AAJ: There are many great Texan musicians who are often not thought of as Texan, in many cases because they moved up north. How was the atmosphere down there?

JL: More than anything else, you had an exodus. You have a big migration after slavery. It's like a continuous migration. From Mississippi and Louisiana usually they went to Chicago because that was close. The people from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama... usually they went to New York because that was closer. And then you got some people moving to the West too. All these migrations are really no different from the exodus in the bible. People that have been oppressed, they want to move somewhere else.

Then you have the musical exodus as well. You have cats that are leaving Mississippi and Louisiana to go to Chicago because that's where the music's at. Chicago was the first jazz city of the north. Chicago was a hot spot of jazz, so everybody was going up there. It was the place to be. If you were a player, that's where you went. Later, New York—the transition, especially when Louis Armstrong moved to New York—that's when jazz really took off. So you have the normal migration, which is black people running from oppression and then you have the musical migration which is all the players want to be where the music is and where it all happens at. More than anything else, that's a whole influence. You get these pockets, like the South side of Chicago, Detroit, New York, Cleveland... You know, you got these pockets of Black culture where the music developed.

AAJ: How do you think it affected Austin?

JL: Well I'm not an expert on Austin's history. I do know that Victory Grill was built in 1945, after WWII. See, this is what you got to understand, you got black soldiers going off to war, they're coming back, they've been in places like France and they're being treated much better than in the United States so when they come back they're in a different mood.

It's that generation of African-Americans after WWII that really set the standards for what the educated intelligentsia of the black community was gonna be. It was at that time that you had the start of the Civil Rights Movement, as a reaction of soldiers coming back from the war in WWII. That was a big part. They fought for the country and died over in Japan or in Germany and then they come back to racism. And it is not the first war of course to happen. The difference, I guess, there was maybe media —you had television, you had radio, so communication was broader.

You also had for the first time—and this is very important—a popular Black music. You have a popular music, you have recordings and all the music in the country, in the world in fact, is being based on this Black music. That's not the conditions that they came back from WWI in. So when you come back, you can listen to Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong on the radio and you can see all these people trying to imitate them. You can see how popular they are. You could see them in movies even. But you can't go to a restaurant and order anything. So that's why the Civil Rights Movement started then and not after WWI, because you have a popular Black music which is saturating the culture and creating the first truly integrated audiences.

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

JL: In a sense I agree. There's probably more live music here than any city I've seen. But in another sense, it's musically limited. Austin is a town with a lot of musical potential and a lot of appreciation for music. But Austin is a town that is not jazz educated. There're certain cities you go into, there's such a rich history of jazz that the populace has a different understanding. In Chicago if you go on the street and play something that's jazz, you've got a much better chance of getting somebody to know what you're doing, because the culture is set up for that. Like in New Orleans, Chicago, LA, Kansas City, St. Louis, New York, Boston... these are cities that have an appreciation of jazz, because they have jazz history and culture being connected. Austin is missing that. Austin has the blues history, the country history, and the folk music history connection. I think a lot of this is because of the segregated nature of the city. Because the city was segregated in such a way, jazz didn't fit in. Country and blues were just saturated here. You got cultural exchanges between black and white on blues, but you didn't get so much on jazz—and, of course, jazz was popular music.

To be the Live Music Capital of the World you have to represent all music, and all music is not represented here. It's more like the blues and country music capital in a sense. Austin's missing some of the musical education that some of the other cities like Boston or New York or Chicago have already had. One of the things I wanna do is educate people that what they're listening to is already jazz. If you're listening to country music, country music of the '50s and '60s, that's jazz. That's all it is. A steel guitar, a shuffle beat... change the lyrics and the way you sing it... '50s country is '30s jazz. If you like soul music, '60s soul music is '50s hard bop. It's the same music. Slightly changed, put some lyrics in it.

So one of the things I wanna do is: "Look, you're listening to jazz already. You've been listening to it all your life." Jazz is the musical background for all American music; everything. It's that scheme in the culture. But it's not perceived that way by the populace. They don't make a connection. They don't realize that Louis Armstrong was the first rock star. He was the first superstar, the first musical genius from America that was known an American musical genius. His influence is so great people don't even realize. If you call people "cat"—"Hey cat! What's up cat? Where you going?"—that's him. You know, "cool," the word. That's him. I mean, a lot of these terms come straight from his mouth and became popular because he said it. That's all it is. And imagine this in a segregated country in the '20s. For him to be that popular how impressive the music had to be to the people.

The thing about jazz, is there's a reason why jazz didn't happen in the eighteen hundreds. Jazz could only happen when it happened, it couldn't have happened before. Only a free society could create jazz. You couldn't have slavery and jazz, there's no way. They wouldn't have had the opportunity to have the instruments, the opportunity to practice... if you're a slave, you ain't got three or four hours to practice piano a day. You don't have time to get those kind of chops to play that music, right? You don't have access to classical music and mix it with this and that. You also don't have the freedom to be taught or to say "Hey, we're gonna hang out together and we're gonna play your classical roots and mix it with this blues roots..." So jazz could not exist until slavery ended.

Jazz is truly the music of freedom, it's a free music, it's the music of free people. It represents freedom. You know, that's why Hitler wasn't so fond of it. That's why the Russians weren't fond of jazz or rock 'n' roll, which is basically another form of jazz. Rock 'n' roll is just another jazz invention. It's the same music, slightly different. Take the drumming, change it up a little bit, put it on the one and three instead of two and four... It's all it is, it's all jazz, all of it. That's why a jazz musician can sit in with all these musicians, 'cause they're playing the same music. Same licks I play for Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
I can play on an Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley
1935 - 1977

There's only one music really, only one American form. You can go back as far as bluegrass. Bluegrass is African banjo and guitar playing mixed with Celtic and Irish music. That's all bluegrass is. So all of these American forms come from African people; country, bluegrass, rock, pop... all of them. And all the Latin forms, you know, meringue, salsa, soca... have the same origin. All of this music is one music, and that is one thing that record companies have tried to create—these segregations and separations, to keep people from making connections.

AAJ: I believe you have played with Austin jazz greats like Dr. James Polk
Dr. James Polk
Dr. James Polk
. How has that experience been?

JL: Me and Chris [Jones] were talking about that one night and basically when you're playing with Dr. Polk, it's like you can do anything. You can take the music any place you wanna go, pretty much. I mean, there're no limits when you're playing with a cat like that. We both agree he's one of the best players in the world. There's really nobody that I can think of that I would say: "Oh yeah, he's greater than Polk." There's like nobody out there. Dr. Polk is one of the great jazz pianists. If I was putting a band together and could pick anybody, he would be somebody I would consider. That's out of a lot of great cats out there. The level that he's on, the way he's playing, the stuff he does... it's just great. To be able to play with him, it raises everybody's levl. The continuity that he plays with, there's so many cats that I've played with that they don't have that mental musical library. He can just take stuff from all over the place and put it in the music, which most people just can't do that. It's rare.

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