Skylark Lounge, 6pm Friday, and it's dark as the daybreak inside. A party of 16 has reserved the farthest front table for the evening. They're enjoying themselves, too, listening to the piano gospel soul of native East Austinite Margaret Wright.
Celebration tonight fêtes a 65th birthday, so the all-African-American group is decked out: suits, hats, cake, confetti. A big sign, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY BOBBY," hangs above the venue's stage. Everyone gets up and dances, hugs, then sits back down in different seating arrangements. Wright calls up her friend Larry Hargrove for a duet.
Excluding Bobby's landmark occasion, tonight's audience at the Skylark runs 60/40 white/black, with the latter segment's older clientele mixing in along bar stools and booths amongst a much paler segment of the East Austin neighborhood. The club's got beer, wine, and BYOB (liquor) set-ups, plus free popcorn and a pool table. Bartenders introduce themselves upon your first order.
Skylark owner Johnny La Touf mentions festivities like Bobby's when we meet to talk about his Eastside joint, the newest iteration of a space that's been both Airport Club & Grill, an iconic black hangout, and, more recently, Bernadette's, a beloved queer dive bar. He hosts quite a few birthday parties, he says, "for African-Americans who don't have a place to go."
La Touf grew up in East Austin and used to frequent the Airport Club & Grill. He remembers the scene there, a predominantly black crowd gathering for the watering hole's packed happy hours. Thanks to Wright, the vibe's creeping back. To that effect, the owner's retained the bar's original furniture and chosen to steer clear of any significant lighting. Eternal guitar workhorse Blues Boy Hubbard is on the marquee often, as well as Soul Man Sam, to go with Wright's two-hour session every Thursday and Friday.
"The floor's a little rougher," says La Touf. "Bathroom smells different.
"It's really about preserving the culture of what this once was," he stresses. "We recognize the location and how it used to function. We don't want to make changes that would further ostracize people from coming. They actually got pushed out of it. Bringing them back in means not making fundamental changes to the space."
As has been documented locally over the past three or four decades with varying results, East Austin once functioned as a vibrant black community, with a string of bars that filled up for blues guitarists like Hubbard on a regular basis. Bobby Blue Bland, Albert Collins, W.C. Clark up on 12th Street at Sam's Showcase, and Ernie Mae Miller at the New Orleans Club on Red River all came, went, and even stayed. That was well before the neighborhood spread out in the Sixties and Seventies, broke down in the Eighties, and began gentrifying ever after.
A report published in May co-authored by University of Texas assistant professor Eric Tang details Austin as the only booming city in the country to be losing its black citizenry. According to him, 5.4% of that demographic moved out of town between 2000 and 2010. Over the past 25 years, the Texas State capital has seen its African-American population whittle down from 12% in 1990 to 10% in 2000, and then bottom out in 2010 at an alarming 8%. That amounts to a segment of only 60,700 within the city limits, with many moving to areas around Highway 183.
Correspondingly, the eroding influence of black culture in Austin came to a head in early March when Cameron Road's Midtown Live, one of an alarmingly few black-owned, black-frequented nightclubs in town, filed for bankruptcy. One of the last beacons of old Austin was suddenly on the verge of quick extinction. The Studio is no longer. MoJoe's recently lost its liquor license. For many blacks here, Midtown's their hang.
The shortage of similar venues appeared all the more striking one afternoon in April when, over a plate of green beans and fried pork chops, Midtown owner Michael Cash handed me a laminated copy of the Capital City Argus, a defunct black newspaper, that listed 90 different black bars in Austin. Including familiar landmarks like the Longbranch Inn and Victory Grill, the grouping documented forgotten haunts such as Ernie's Chicken Shack and Three Musterneers. Overlaid in black print atop a white circle on the piece, date unknown, it reads "The Capital City Argus Honors the Survivors," with the names of seven bar owners and their respective venues.
Today, of that septet, Cash and his Midtown are the only pairing left in Austin. White Swan, still open, has operated under the ownership of Beerland's Randall Stockton since 2011. Chester's shut down in 2007. Ira Hill's Eastside Lounge went away shortly thereafter. H&H Tavern, which operated on Webberville Road until last year, reopened in April as Bar 2211 under the ownership of Rainey Street bar owners Jeremy Murray and Jason Steward.
"I talk to Thomas all the time," says Cash, 61, of his relationship with Thomas Perkins, the longtime owner of T.C.'s Lounge, which moved out to Manor in 2011, its space on Webberville taken over by the Sahara Lounge. "Sweet-Pea [who owned C U Later, on Porter and Montopolis, south of the river] moved to Corpus. I talk to him a lot, too. I keep in touch with all of them. We're all friends."
Cash harks back to when he used to pop over to the Victory Grill after hours, peep through the door, and see Johnny Taylor playing until morning. Or when Collins and Davis would post up on stage at Charlie's Playhouse, the first black bar to welcome white UT students onto its dance floor.
"The Eastside ain't got nothing no more," laments Cash. "Y'all got it, and you're happy about it. But y'all ran us out. That ain't cute. That ain't no fun for us."
Difficult to pinpoint exactly when this city, with its long-running history of segregation and prejudicial practices, began to witness the demise of its centralized black culture, but pianist Dr. James Polk suggests it began in 1955, with the desegregation of city schools, and accelerated through 1967, when City Council passed the Fair Housing Ordinance outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, color, or religion in the selling, renting, and financing of a home.
Buses crossed the highway to take Eastside kids to traditionally white schools starting in the late Fifties. When the housing laws passed, blacks looking for something new could move to wherever they pleased. Not separate, but still not equal either.
"Kids could go to the schools, but they weren't allowed to participate in extracurriculars," remembers Polk, who moved to Austin from Corpus Christi as a teenager in the late Fifties. "That diminished the taste for developing music, but it also diminished the culture wherein black people had someone to look to in the community. They used to see the guitar player and decide they wanted to be that. Now, you've no longer got the opportunity."
Stan Cobble, a 48-year-old promoter who used to work with 2 Live Crew, grew up in East Austin and sees the effect of his generation's dispersement on the neighborhood he still lives in.
"My friends, they left," he says from a picnic table at Chestnut Community Park, where he shares tacos with 35-year-old rapper and social organizer Charles "Nook" Byrd, who lives just up the street. "I have friends who graduated from University of Houston, Rice, and Texas, but they're not in Austin anymore. They didn't pass on the importance of keeping your land, keeping your property. That died."
Cobble spent his 20s away from what had become the drug-riddled corridor at 11th and 12th streets, eschewing the White Swan for Downtown clubs like Catfish Station. By then, hip-hop had supplanted jazz and blues as the musical genre of choice among black youths, making the generational gap much greater. Young rappers couldn't turn to the Eastside venues their parents grew up frequenting, so they turned their attention elsewhere.
"We'd throw parties in the parks," says Cobble. "We had Givens Park off 12th Street, and Rosewood Park," which sits between Chestnut Avenue and Pleasant Valley Road.
Nook understands the value of park parties. As an Eastside teen, he staged the Jump on It shows.
"Everybody would come," remembers Black Mike, a younger rapper tied to DJ Rapid Ric's Whut It Dew family who grew up admiring Nook. "All ages, all walks of life. Every Wednesday, he'd let us perform."
Mike credits Jump on It with providing him an outlet to perform, and do so among an assembly of other spitters.
"We don't have anything like that anymore," he bemoans. "We don't have an organization that caters to a large group of black people the way that we used to."
Nook tried to revive Jump on It in March the week after South by Southwest, throwing a party on Rainey Street after he couldn't get permits to use his East Austin park preference. Rather than 1,500, the revival drew 200.
"Youth are falling through the cracks," nods Nook. "If you go to our neighborhood association meetings now, none of the natives that were here are represented. Jump on It was a big part of edifying the area. Gentrification was already in the process, but we made it cool for blacks to want to stay. With the absence of Jump on It, there hasn't been anything for us, nor have we felt comfortable bringing anything here."
Black Mike grew so frustrated with the opportunities for hip-hop that he got out altogether to start promoting R&B shows, working largely with MoJoe Room Bar & Grill near Highland Mall until the venue lost its liquor license this winter. He drew more than 1,000 people to MoJoe's for Chrisette Michele in October and Musiq Soulchild in mid-January, but the venue's struggles with Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) forced a Valentine's Day's date with Marsha Ambrosius into the Holiday Inn on I-35 and Highway 290 and only pulled 600 people.
Today, Mike struggles to find a venue he can book regularly. He threw a second show at the Holiday Inn on Memorial Day weekend – a Friday concert featuring Jagged Edge – but notes that "the staff was under the impression that it was going to be a lot of rowdy hoodlums and weren't helpful at all.
"When I do a venue, I've got to bring in my own team," he explains. "I bring in my own security, sound guy, and lights. You're basically paying to rent the building. As long as I give them my insurance policy, they move back."
Only temporarily it seems. The space is never Mike's.
The decline of black venues in Austin coincides in perfect parallel with the ascent of hip-hop among young listeners. So much so, in fact, that a cadre of local rappers tasked to name a place where they can perform to largely black audiences had trouble rattling off any at all. They name strip clubs, coffee shops, restaurants, and recreation centers. Some cite Lucky Lounge and Red Eyed Fly.
After two years of persistent performances, Riders Against the Storm, Kydd Jones, and League of Extraordinary Gz continue to curry success at Red River hallmarks including Red 7, Mohawk, and Empire Control Room, where the former duo has carved out a monthly Okayplayer-sponsored residency called the Tipping Point. Riders' profile has grown considerably in the process. Overall, however, local rappers making music consumed mostly by blacks have encountered stringent roadblocks.
"It's the difference between hip-hop and rap," reasons Malcolm "Casino" Richardson, Nook's former hype man, who in recent years has become the chief wrangler of the Frat House Gang collective. "I can fit Dat Boy Supa into hip-hop, but I do urban music, and there's not an urban scene here. To sell the other half, I have to hit the road."
He's speaking of Texas Terror, Mack Davinci, Kazanova, and female rapper Fe'rarri F'fifty, the ones he calls "more hood." They're who Casino sends up to Dallas and back through San Antonio: Seguin, New Braunfels, Killeen.
"Word of mouth spreads quicker [in those places]," says Kazanova, from Frat House Gang's in-house studio two miles south of Slaughter Lane. "Here, you're trying to get stage time. You go there, and it's open and accepting."
Casino brings up the venture that loaded into Antone's former home on West Fifth, Infest. The club famously flamed out in January after trying to succeed as a DIY punk and hip-hop space Downtown. Nook says the writing was on the wall.
"When clubs in Austin start letting blacks into it, they're either going out of business or hurting for money," he muses, and he's not alone in thinking. Harold McMillan, a longtime jazz bassist in Austin who runs the DiverseArts nonprofit in East Austin, says, "Club owners are still afraid of certain hip-hop acts.
"It's dangerous music," he continues. "That's what people think."
So, too, is the crowd that comes with it.
"The age demographic that hip-hop brings is going to attract that kind of friction," suggests Black Mike. "You're looking at 18 through 23. These are kids; college kids. It's rowdy. But when you guys do it: 'Oh, they're just drunk.' When we do it, we're hoodlums."
Back at Frat House Studio, Casino mentions the Back Room, the space now occupied by Emo's on East Riverside. "That was a great place for local guys to start cutting their teeth," he says. "The first time I met Collie Buddz was at the Back Room. And Chalie Boy. Basswood Lane and Carnival Beats. All the guys who were regional successes. That was where we met them."
On the last day in May, the Victory Grill on East 11th hosts a charity drive called Music for the Hungry II. Murals of Roosevelt Williams, venue founder Johnny Holmes, and still-thriving Austin soul diver Lavelle White color the club's western exterior. The historical landmark, opened in 1945 and a staple of the Chitlin' Circuit – bars and clubs across the segregated South (revisit "Juke Joint Blues," July 13, 2007) – boasts marquee stopovers including Billie Holiday, James Brown, and Ike & Tina Turner.
Reminder of the black renaissance of a half-century ago, the Victory Grill became a relic once Sixth Street began thriving in the Seventies with the establishment of the Home of the Blues there, Antone's. The club experienced a brief rejuvenation in the mid-Nineties through Eva Lindsey and R.V. Adams, before going strictly part-time last decade. You'd be hard-pressed to find any regular programming at the Victory these days.
New Era Wednesdays have run weekly since 2012, but that's essentially an open-mic. A blues show here, an evening of food and jazz there – not much else. One show, June 28's Mista D album release, dots the Victory Grill's foreseeable calendar.
White trio Soulfresca has already taken the stage when I arrive at 11pm Saturday night. The humble crowd inside is largely black. A few bump up towards the stage, but mostly everybody hangs back or on the balcony, standing around tall tables drinking waters and Dos Equis.
Dat Boy Supa and Casino go on at 11:20, and those still up front respond well to the duo's liveliness. There are about 30 in the room by now. By midnight, when headliner G-Jet hits the stage, it's up to 50. Dat Boy Supa looks jazzed after his set. He should have a place to cut his teeth more often.
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