James Polk: Recipes from the Doctor

Josep Pedro By

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Pianist Dr. James Polk's musical knowledge and worldwide experience spans over more than 50 years. His style, deeply-rooted in the blues, is an example of richness and experience. Polk came up along with a group of incredible Texan musicians; jazz and blues artists like David "Fathead" Newman, Russell Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Don Wilkerson, and Ornette Coleman, and his sound has that unique Texas flavor. An accomplished musician who has played almost every instrument, Polk was born on September 10, 1940 in Yoakum, and grew up in Corpus Christi, where he initiated his extensive resume.

In 1959, Polk moved to Austin, where he eventually formed his own band, James Polk & the Brothers, which became one of the first integrated bands in a still largely segregated town. Featuring some of the finest musicians around Austin (Martin Banks, W.C. Clark, Matthew Robinson and Angela Strehli), James Polk & the Brothers also became a "Blakey's Messengers" type music academy for playing blues, funk, and jazz.

Once invited by Lionel Hampton to tour Europe, Polk is best-known for his work with Ray Charles. From 1978 to 1985, he toured and worked as an organist, pianist, writer, arranger and conductor. He was featured on several of Charles' records, including Ain't It So (Concord, 1979), Brother Ray Is At It Again (Crossover/Atlantic, 1980), Wish You Were Here Tonight (Concord, 1983), and The Spirit of Christmas (Concord, 1985), and was nominated for two Grammy Awards.

Polk's determination, and his great work with Charles, led to touring all over the world and appearing on many television specials. Furthermore, Polk has been involved in different projects, becoming the pianist/arranger/conductor for artists including Hank Crawford, Zola Taylor and The Platters, and leading several bands such as James Polk & Company and JAMAD Sextet, where he played and recorded with fellow Austin-based musicians.

Polk's regular performances continue today in Austin, the town transformed by his music. This jazz piano master, who has certainly become a leading figure in the Austin's history and music scene, currently performs as a leader, pianist and occasional singer with his trio, and the Centerpeace jazz Band, with whom he is working on a new album.

Chapter Index
  1. Growing Up With Music
  2. Black & White
  3. Music in Austin: A Turning Wheel
  4. Making His Way in the Market
  5. Playing with Ray Charles
  6. Styles, Memories and Something to Look Forward To...

Growing Up With Music

All Aboutjazz: When did you start playing music?

James Polk: I started playing music when I was about eight or nine years old. I started playing professional music when I was about 13. So it's been a long time. About 57 years ago?

AAJ: Was piano your first instrument?

JP: Yes, I guess you could say it was piano. There was a piano always around my house when I was a kid coming up. Actually, my grandmother's piano. When she died, we moved the piano to my house. My father played piano, my mother played piano, my aunt played piano, my sister played piano... Everybody just played piano, so it was a natural progression for me to learn how to play piano.

But my first instrument in school, when I went to elementary school, was the violin. I hated it. [I] didn't like it at all. I stuck with that for a little while, and then I switched over to the saxophone. Then they wouldn't let me play the saxophone in the band—in the middle school band, when I finished elementary school—because the band director said they had too many saxophone players, so I wound up playing trombone. I played trombone all the way through middle school, high school, and college. I started playing the piano when I got out of college. No more trombone. By that time I had got interested in playing piano.

AAJ: Coming from a musical family, what was the significance of music?

JP: That everybody played. No one was actually professional except my mother. My mother was a vocalist, so she toured when she was a young child, singing gospel music. My aunt, my father's sister, played the piano in church, man, for 60 years. Everybody in my family was musical. My sister played the clarinet and drums when she was in school. She didn't play after she got out of high school. But everybody in my family played some kind of music. I had music in my family ever since I can remember. It was just a natural progression for me to go into music; it wasn't hard for me at all.

AAJ: From your own experience, but also in a general sense, how has church influenced the development of Black music?

JP: Well, the church played a big influence on Black music, because, basically, the music that I finally started going into---which is jazz music, ultimately---it all got it start with slaves, with the slavery. It was a natural progression because the slaves would be singing gospel and sacred music in the fields as they work, and that progression into what we call the blues, which was a natural progression into jazz.

My first encounter with music was, of course, the church because my mother took me to church when I was a little boy. So I always heard gospel music which quite naturally had to influence me. Most black people were influenced by gospel music in the church because it's where they came from. If they didn't go to church, they were still influenced by that because that's where they came from.

AAJ: Which music did you listen to by that time?

JP: I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas—which is South Texas—and the most music that was heard for everyone during that time was what they call Conjunto and Tejano, which was Mexican music. There was a lot of Mexicans in Corpus Christi at that time. The white experience was country and western, so I heard a lot of that. I heard a lot of Mexican music and a lot of country and western music.

The black experience when I was a kid coming up, they had one radio station in Corpus Christi that allowed a black disc jockey to play music late, 30 minutes, from 12 to 12.30 everyday, and on Saturday. That was the extent of it. The type of music he played was what you call rhythm & blues. It was blues, more or less. They called it rhythm & blues because it was an upbeat form of the blues. They didn't put jazz on radio during that time. I got a little bit of that coming up as a kid. Of course when I got to college it was more over it because I went to college here in Austin.

AAJ: Was that rhythm and blues of the late '40s and '50s already rock 'n' roll? They had Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner, horns, piano, and the blues form that rock 'n' roll took, too.

JP: You know, the blues form started in the Mississippi Delta, of course. Down in Mississippi. Usually it was with just a guitarist---this guy playing guitar and singing. Like James Johnson, guitarist, Charley Patton... these were some of the early guys. Blind Lemon Jefferson... They started playing guitar and singing and they were playing the blues.

Now, the reason [why] they started calling it rhythm & blues was because Muddy Waters, who's from down there, moved to Chicago and he added the drummer and the bassist, which gave it that upbeat tempo. Before they called it rhythm and blues, they called it jump music.

Jazz as we know it today was started with the jazz revolution, which happened in the mid-forties. That's kind of the way that happened. But it all came from the blues, which is the first thing I started playing when I was about thirteen years old. I started playing with a blues band. That was a good experience.

AAJ: There are a lot of great Texan jazz artists like Charlie Christian, Ornette Coleman, Kenny Dorham, and Illinois Jacquet, that are often not thought as Texan because they moved up north to follow their careers. Why did they have to go?

JP: Because down in this part of the United States, which is the Southern part of the United States, and due to the history the Southern United States had against black people. Back in the forties and fifties and all the way up onto the sixties they were still lynching black people. They were killing black people and lynching them. Musicians didn't want to expose themselves to all of that trouble so they didn't tour this part of the country. Plus, the money wasn't that great. For instance, Kenny Dorham was from Austin, Texas. He was from right here and a personal friend of mine. I knew him.

Ornette Coleman is from Forth Worth, Texas. I had the chance to live with him about three months in New York, so he's a friend of mine. I knew Illinois Jacquet, and I used to play with his brother [Russell Jacquet] quite a lot in Los Angeles. I knew Arnett Cobb, who was also from Houston, Texas and one of the Texas Tenors. I knew Don Wilkerson. As a matter of fact, I was on the road with Ray Charles for ten years, and [Don Wilkerson] was on the road with me. And James Clay, who's from Dallas, Texas is another good friend of mine. I knew a lot of these guys because, like I said, I came up during the fifties and the sixties, and these guys did too.

I started college in the late fifties, so the only way that we had to learn jazz music was through records. Through listening to what the other artist in New York were doing, because there weren't any places here that would bring those artists down in this area. Maybe to Dallas, every now and then, maybe to Houston every now and then... The difference being, growing up listening to that kind of music in New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Kansas City, up in that part of the country, they had those venues were those guys played. You know, they had the clubs and things were those guys played and you could go sit and listen to them. You couldn't do that here.

Those guys didn't tour this part of the country because of money wasn't there, it was too expensive for them to come here, plus the accommodations... They couldn't stay at hotels. There were no hotels, because there probably weren't too many black-owned hotels in this part of the country. They were a few, and those that were here did accommodate some of these black jazz musicians when they did finally come here, but musicians, black musicians, couldn't stay in the hotels. They couldn't eat in the restaurants. The only clubs that they could play were the black clubs. They couldn't play in the top venues.

The only place where they could do that was in New York, and they had problems there, too. They could play in the Cotton Club, which was owned by white people. [In] the Savoy Room and places like that. But it was more of those places in New York, and New Jersey, and Kansas City, and places like that than there were down here. So, there was no attraction for those black musicians to come to this part of the country. The only way we would learn would be getting the records that they made and sit and listen to them and try to figure out. "What is he doing here? What is he doing there?"

AAJ: There was an area in Dallas called Deep Ellum.

JP: Yeah, and also South Dallas. I didn't know too much about Deep Ellum, but most of the music that came out of Dallas was South Dallas during that period of time, during the fifties and the sixties. I was going to college here [Austin] in the late fifties and early sixties, and I would drive up to Dallas on the weekend just to go to jam sessions. Of course, they had some in Houston too. I knew I was going have a good time and I was gonna hear some good music coming from those guys.



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