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Harold McMillan: Inspirational Commitment

Josep Pedro By

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Deeply involved in Austin's music and art community, Harold McMillan has been providing access and exposure primarily to traditions derived from African American culture for more than twenty years. Initially he started the Blues Family Tree Project, a documentary collective first conceived as an oral history project, which ultimately contributed to the founding of Diverse Arts Culture Works in 1994, four years later.

A non-profit multidisciplinary cultural arts organization dedicated to the long-term development of the African American Cultural Heritage District in East Austin, Diverse Arts has produced annual jazz festivals and performance series around blues and jazz, including the Clarksville Jazz and Arts Festival, Women in Jazz Concert Series, Austin Acoustic Music Festival, African American Month Concert Series. McMillan has also been executive producer for selected touring shows by different jazz artists, including organist Jimmy Smith, pianist McCoy Tyner, saxophonist James Clay, trumpeter Roy Hargrove and Crisol, percussionist Ray Barretto, and trumpeters Kermit Ruffins and Nicholas Payton, among others.

Locally, McMillan-who functions as publisher/editor, music producer, documentarian/cultural historian, gallery owner and performing musician, has put together the single largest collection of documentary materials on the East Austin musical community, especially the history of the East 11th and 12th Street Entertainment District, where two key places where he operates can be found: the Historic Victory Grill, the most unique cultural club in Austin, and Kenny Dorham's Backyard, an outdoor venue dedicated to the bebop trumpeter who once was a resident of the neighborhood and a student at Anderson High School.

Convinced by the power and impact of community action belief and day-to-day work, McMillan keeps demonstrating the importance of personal and cultural integrity, a reminder that music is not only entertainment but also a complex language where individual and collective voices relate at different levels. Overall, with his particular production-research combination and an understanding attitude towards the past, present and future, McMillan is tracing a valuable piece of history that celebrates the richness of East Austin's past, showcases the contemporary creative community and contributes to the bridging of cultural gaps between various Austin communities.

This article was inspired by an encounter with Harold McMillan about two years ago, during time spent in Austin; a series of intensely concentrated experiences that come out as a collective story in which significant places, people and circumstances should be mentioned.

Contextual Background

Largely ignorant of Austin's fascinating music history, I arrived in the Texas capital willing to search the music for myself, which made it all the more exciting. After a few days getting myself together and attending the nearby country bar Donn's Depot, I looked for the Texas Music Museum, also located in East 11th Street, just a few meters away from the Victory Grill.

Feeling the intense Texas summer heat, I took bus number 4 and started to walk from the Texas Capitol. I crossed I-35, the dividing highway between Downtown and East Austin, historically a separating border-line where Blacks congregated, and finally arrived at the Texas Museum. I contemplated the exhibits and ended up playing twelve-bar blues on a piano upstairs; enough for Clay Shorkey, Texas Music Director, to approach me for a welcoming conversation and another tour. A charming, chunky Social Work professor, Shorkey proved to be a very helpful and active-documentarian connoisseur of local musicians. He took me to the Victory Grill, where I met Clifford Gillard, who shares the production management of the venue with McMillan.

Founded in 1945 by Johnny Holmes as a celebration of the returning black soldiers from WWII, the Victory Grill was part of the "Chitlin' Circuit," a series of clubs and venues where black artists performed while touring around the South. Also a breeding ground for new talent, the Victory Grill "represents a time and a culture that cannot be recaptured or cannot be erased," Gillard explains. "It provided an opportunity for black people back then, a space that they could call home, a space that they could call their own."

That same night I attended the Monday Blues Jam that Harold McMillan organizes at the Victory Grill. Delighted by its impressive facade with portraits of Johnny Holmes, pianist Grey Ghost and singer Lavelle White. I walked in through the backdoor; there was hardly anyone there. I talked to the bartender, with whom I went out for a smoke. I met McMillan, who said he would lend me a guitar if I liked to play. We talked about my "Ethnography of Austin Live Music" course at the University of Texas. Then it was time for the music to start.

The jam started off with the house band, the East Side Blues Syndicate, playing a long, slow, instrumental blues that set the mood and broke the ice patiently. Featuring Woody Russell on guitar and vocals, Jose Ruiz on harmonicas, Harold McMillan on bass and Doug Marcis on drums, the band played some personal classic covers like "Every day I Have the Blues" and "I'm Ready," and reached a great emotional peak with "Sittin' on Top of the World." After that, different musicians started coming onstage and, to end the show, they appropriately played Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On." The friendly atmosphere made it special, and it felt authentic. Wrapped in its fascinating history, as the blues filled the walls inside, the Victory Grill radiated magical vibes.

It was a meaningful place to embrace the music in an appropriate environment. Not only for its past, which holds the culture of a community that locally lived the blues in their own way, but for its present spirit. With the right attitude, being at the Victory Grill on a Monday night blues jam meant a form of dialogue, imagination and understanding through music. Far from a commoditized version, it was a breath of fighting peace in the midst of today's dismantling policies.

Since then, I have followed McMillan's labor from a distance, as the jams kept evolving and bringing in a larger audience and different musicians, most notably bluesman Matthew Robinson, whose tandem with McMillan inspires confidence and excitement. McMillan has also gone through the horrible experience of being roughed by Houston Police Department officers when he traveled to that city's Memorial Hermann Hospital to collect the wallet of his recently deceased brother. All the charges against him were finally dismissed, with local support from friends and allies who started different initiatives to denounce the situation and help him.

Nowadays, McMillan is back to work and it's best to join him in his day-to-day concerts and exhibits. Although many of us can't make it, it's necessary to keep spreading the word so that when you go to Austin or talk about the "Live Music Capital of the World," you remember the best options. It is precisely for making things happen and for the honesty of his mission that McMillan is truly appreciated and loved by everyone who knows him-musicians, community members, club owners, professors and music lovers.

Inside his life's endeavour resides the valuable gift of those historic personalities who felt impelled to contribute positively to social life through cultural production communication. Cool and attractive, calm but always on the move, McMillan illustrates, with harsh elegance, the importance of combining a local grounding and open-minded global thinking. A firm cultural warrior, his trajectory has already offered plenty of soul but will surely face new turning points. Harold McMillan might never become a nationwide known figure, but here's a man against which we can mirror ourselves.


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