Austin's Historic Victory Grill
photograph by John Carrico
There were no dealers on the corner shoving crystalline product at me, nor were there prostitutes and thugs waiting to intrude on my music-seeking mood and separate me from my wallet. There was just the Victory Grill, standing stoic and alone on the now decimated eastern side of 11th Street. Downtown yet not downtown, on the avenue, but the wrong side of the tracks. A musical haven in a surprisingly calm area. So where was the threat, the danger that keeps the visitors away? That's what the owners of the Victory Grill are wondering as they attempt to bring back to life one of the most integral fixtures in the history of Austin music.
The Victory Grill stands poised as the link between the glorious past and the all-too-mild present, ready to make a leap into the millennia as the savior of blues and jazz in Austin. Disconnected from booking monopolies and Sixth Street economic pressures, the Eastside club exists for the purposes of cultural revival and community through music. It operates under a uniquely non-commercial philosophy of music not as a means of selling drinks, but music as cultural preservation and advancement. But there are obvious pluses and minuses to this approach.
The venue could be exactly what the flagging market and oft-criticized scene require to re-establish Austin as a legitimate spawning ground for blues and jazz. First, though, people have to cross the unspoken line between what they know as the civilized city and what they've heard is the dark and dangerous unknown. That, and of course the almighty dollar, are all that stands between a barren street and a full-blown musical explosion. It may sound drastic or unreasonable, but it makes perfect sense. More than the perpetuation of stale and costly summer festivals with no cohesive identity, more than a slew of commercially reborn and heavily invested locally legendary barbecue joints and stages-cum-restaurants, Austin needs this venue. As city planning and development run awry and suburban sprawl and musical dilution become the accepted, we need the Victory Grill to thrive, to become the Mecca of community and music that it once was.
The Victory Grill was built in 1945, then consisting of a small icehouse and a patio where people would gather for burgers, beer, music, and dancing. At the end of World War II, the return of the soldiers brought great cause for celebration, but black soldiers stationed at Fort Hood and other central Texas military installations had nowhere they could go to celebrate. Johnny Holmes, who to this day owns the building and the lot it's on, built the Victory Grill for that purpose, and its development as a recognized site for quality music was a natural progression.
The cafe building came soon after, sharing half the space with a dry cleaners, and before long the crowds started growing. One soldier stationed at Fort Hood, Bobby Bland, became a regular at the club, stepping up to house musician, and eventually taking over the house band. Though the sale of food and drinks were a part of the Victory Grill from the beginning, even then it was based on a much larger idea -- the need and desire to bring people together, to be a forum for the furthering of the community's identity.
It was after Holmes' return from Alaska (he was always on the road promoting someone, Bland, B.B. King, or T.D. Bell) that the stage side of the Victory Grill was built. Named after a club he frequented while staying in Anchorage, the word "Kovac" meant "fabulous" to Holmes, and that's exactly what he wanted the Victory Grill to be. And it was. Eva Lindsey, who along with R.V. Adams now operates the club, quotes as a part of her normal rhetoric neighborhood residents who've been around through the boom and the bust.
"The Thomases across the street -- they've been in that house for 63 years (I think they've had the same chickens out back for that long too!) -- talk about the day when 11th Street was just a constant bustle," says Lindsey. "The Victory Grill, Charlie's Playhouse, an ice cream parlor, restaurants; back then you'd have to step off the curb and walk in the street because the sidewalk traffic was so thick. Everyone came out. And it was a family thing, too. The kids who weren't old enough to go in a club when there was a band playing would stay out on the sidewalk and dance."
Yes, the glory days. "I was down at Minnie's [Beauty Salon] the other day," continues Lindsey, "and some folks in there were talking about when Ike & Tina used to come to town. You know? They'd play down at Charlie's Playhouse one night, then Ike would drink and gamble all the money away, and they'd play the Victory Grill the next night just to make enough money to get out of town. You still hear talk about that kind of thing over here -- the people are still connected to it."
These shows were an important part of the community, establishing Johnny Holmes and his club as a keystone of the neighborhood. Both man and club were also integral components in the perpetuation and prospering of the "chitlin circuit," the connected string of clubs and venues extending from the midwest through the south and bending westward throughout Texas. Shorty's Bar in Elgin, Walker's Auditorium in Waco, these places were connected to the Victory Grill with the line extending eastward into New Orleans, up through Mississippi and Tennessee, and on into Kansas City and Chicago, offering continuous opportunity for black musicians to play music in this country and eke out a living doing it.
The linking of cities along this route, the assembly of musicians who otherwise would not have been able to play together, the gathering of the neighborhood folks and the soldiers from nearby posts; this type of synthesis gave the Victory Grill its lifeblood -- a pulse that is now faint, but hopefully growing ever stronger.
photograph by John Carrico
For his part, Adams became involved with the Victory Grill a long time ago. He traveled with Holmes as a kid, cleaning up after the shows that Holmes was promoting at the time. And he stuck with it, working at the club in this and other capacities over the years, becoming intimately involved with the day-to-day operations until he was in charge. In fact, he holds the deed and technically owns the business. This intimacy through life experience is evident in the meticulous attention he pays to the atmosphere of the room on any given night. In preparation for the evening, he'll patrol the floor, adjusting chairs and moving tables a foot here, an inch there, tugging on the tablecloths, adding the additional ashtray -- all the unnoticed creature comforts that create and hone the aesthetic.
The connection runs as deep for Lindsey, who's been involved with the Victory Grill from the beginning. "My father was an electrician, he did the wiring here when they built the place, and he'd bring me along with him," she recalls. "This place has been in my neighborhood, in my life for as long as I can remember. And now it's back again stronger than ever!" Lindsey came back on board two years ago for the club's 50th anniversary celebration and has been entrenched in its revitalization ever since. The road has been rough, the opening of the doors at times tenuous, but survival is the key. The survival of this venue is tied to the survival of East 11th Street and the surrounding neighborhoods, which are vital factors in the survival of the cultural life of East Austin. All of these things are considered as the Victory Grill continues to take small steps toward full operation.
An important step in getting the Grill cooking again is obtaining designation as a historical landmark. The designation wouldn't be on the actual structure, but rather on the cultural and historical significance of the physical space at 1104 E. 11th. In order to achieve this status, a clear tax record (there's approximately $3,000 outstanding) and four votes from the city council are all that's required. Were it to receive a seal in the national registry, the building would be protected as a landmark. More than protection, though, Lindsey feels the place needs the recognition and validation a historical designation would provide, because that would define the club as a point of interest, helping it gain the respect it deserves from the larger community and providing a sense of permanence that would hopefully act as a catalyst for the beginnings of appropriate area development.
With the past full of up--and-down times in unclear succession, a timeline of the Victory Grill is spotty. As a fully functioning entity, the club lasted into the late Sixties, by which time the Kovac room wasn't being used regularly. With the advent of electric, amplified rock & roll, attention was displaced from the intimate performances of jazz and blues and the club was unable to book or fill the room on a regular basis. The cleaners shut down and, eventually, so did the cafe. Since then, the cafe has opened and closed and opened again, as has the Kovac room. Special events like the 1987 Texas Blues Reunion have momentarily shifted the spotlight back onto the Victory Grill, but until 1995, momentary is all it was.
Now, with the cooperation of Lindsey and Adams, all that is set to change. "It's important for people to know that on any given night we will be open and there will be something interesting going on here," says Lindsey. So, even if crowds are not consistent yet, programming and booking are. Tuesdays feature mentor jam sessions, involving older, established musicians and younger, unknown players and students working together to create an educational collective of sorts centering around the development of a big band sound. Wednesdays will continue to house Harold McMillan's Voodoo Jazz Jam, featuring different performers each week. So far, folks like Gregory Boyd, Paul Klemperer, Rob Halverson, Matt Ridgeway, and other local players have shown up.
Thursdays are currently home to different jazz combos or bands playing blues or world music, and will remain flexible and rotational. Thus far, Thursday nights have highlighted the Mexican and Venezuelan rhythms of Correo Aereo, the wonderfully experimental meanderings of SXIP (of the Performance Art Church) in his first entirely musical performance in years, the noodling of Tunji, and some amazing jazz. The J.J. Johnson Trio, in what I hope is a foreshadowing of regular appearances, played the second Thursday in December to a medium-sized and very receptive crowd. In fact, one might say that the events leading up to and during that show mirrored the struggle of the Victory Grill in its re-opening.
Billed as J.J. Johnson with special guest Fred Jackson, a saxophonist from New Orleans, the evening promised a small, solid lineup and some innovative playing; with no chordal instrument in the band and an eager crowd at the Victory, the potential for boundary-bending experimentation was at its peak. But something happened: Jackson didn't show. At first, Johnson and bassist Edwin Livingston seemed concerned. That is until pianist Frederick Saunders offered his services.
Despite the whole tone of the evening having changed and things getting off to a somewhat rocky start, the music would eventually go through the roof. It was after the break, especially, that something happened. The trio came back on stage with a whole new dynamic, as if they'd been holding back just a bit, and now they were ready to push onward. After a couple of Sanders' and Livingston's compositions, onward turned into upward and the group caught the last rocket to Planet Sun-Ra.
Livingston's "Chi-town," which should establish instant credibility for him as a jazz composer, started off as more Rain Dogs era Tom Waits than psychedelic jazz, but a seamless transition and surrender to the moment lit the fuse. I swear they were possessed, Livingston's haunted bowing of the bass and Johnson's unique syncopation in total harmony as Sanders floated and plinked over them masterfully. Spaced-out, free-form jazz as I've never seen it in Austin before. And the thing was, a sax in the mix would have been absolutely beautiful, but the music and the life it took on would have been undoubtedly and irreparably altered. As it was, the show was one of the more memorable to pass through the jazz listings in a while, and an observer had to wonder how much of that could be attributed to the room where it happened.
Eva Lindsey and Johnny Holmes
photograph by John Carrico
And it's undeniable that this element is present here. Car-chasing and prostitution exist in the area, but the overwhelming perception of the streets east of I-35 as some sort of post-apocalyptic battleground are so overblown that it's embarrassing. Really, there are fewer prostitutes here than any given night on South Congress, and far fewer drug dealers than a visit to a few dance clubs downtown would offer. Lindsey believes it will take a cooperative effort to dispel the myth -- both on the part of those who live nearby and must help create a positive image of the area, and those who are merely visitors but have been perpetuating a more dangerous image, which split the city in the first place.
Programming the Victory Grill and bringing in quality talent on a regular basis has also become a communal effort, headed on this end by the DiverseArts production group. Harold McMillan's organization has taken charge of programming the club on weeknights, also filling in gaps on weekends when the big shows they hope to grab don't happen to be rolling through. "We're trying to challenge the notions of boundaries around here," says McMillan. "When you think of a compact city, the people who do the planning consider downtown Austin as stopping at Lamar and at I-35. That's insane.
"In New York, you would walk 10 blocks to see something, no problem. Here, you could also have that kind of breadth, so why stop it? [East of the freeway] is downtown, it's central city. From 11th Street you have a clear view to the Capitol -- go up one more block and all of downtown is spread out before you. If tourism is the deal, we need people to understand that they can feel comfortable and safe walking downtown. Both sides.
"I have a strong personal interest in this place as a musician, as a concerned citizen, as a member of the black community, it's all linked to the cultural life of East Austin." McMillan hopes his East Side Circuit project will soon serve all aspects of this concern, fostering collaborations between artists of color and the more mainstream acts in a way that promotes cultural and economic development on the Eastside and enriches the cultural life and economic activity of the area.
Toward this end, there are no silent partners here. Lindsey and Adams are there for nearly every show, greeting customers and talking to the musicians; Madeline Sosin, who helps McMillan with the booking at DiverseArts, is often behind the bar; even Mr. Johnny Holmes himself frequently stops in just to get the feel of the place -- just to be there. And that's what the Victory Grill has over any other venue in town, it feels good just to be there.
"Without exception," says Lindsey, "the folks who come in here are just shocked. They can't believe they've never come in before. They can't believe the place isn't packed. They just love it. That's what makes it all worth it, recognizing the feelings I have for this place in other peoples' reactions. That's what makes me know that I'm not crazy for doing this."
The room itself is spacious without being too big. There's ample room for a good-sized crowd, but no spot is too far away from the stage, which can hold a good-sized band, seven pieces easy. There is also a dance floor, plenty of table seating, and an elevated balcony stage right, lined with tables and booths. Lit up glass bricks on the stage and the bar, wood paneling authentically aged, original steel and formica tables, red tablecloths, the lack of neon beer lights, the tiny little ventilation fan in the top grated window, all of these micro-elements link to form the feeling that the Victory Grill gives. It's a serene pause in the otherwise frenetic space-time continuum of frequenting clubs and shows.
Adams is greatly responsible for this, paying amazing attention to the minute details of comfort. Table arrangements, light levels, where to lay the ash trays -- everything. But trying to explain the appeal of this room is like trying to convey what was so special about Chicago's Wise Fools blues bar, or the necessity of a weekly meal at Juan in a Million, or why Billie Holiday can alternately make you love the world or want to open a vein and end it all. In the vaguest of terms, all of these things exude a certain sense that they are exactly what they should be at that specific moment in time. In the most specific sense, it just feels right.
cover photograph by John Carrico
And this idea, like all the ideas being tossed around at the Victory Grill, is more than just talk. In the future, Tuesday nights will be dedicated to this purpose through the aforementioned mentor jams. "It's such a wonderful thing to bring these people together," says Lindsey. "It goes right along with the philosophy that we're operating under here at the Victory Grill. We want to bring things together, erase boundaries and preconceptions and misunderstandings."
In an unlikely move, Lindsey and Adams have decided that New Year's Eve will be a night off. They're not programming any shows, nor are they accepting private parties, though requests have been numerous. This has left a whole bunch of people disappointed, but that doesn't change anything. "I spend New Year's with my family every year," explains Lindsey. "It'll be time for a day off, and if there's gonna be a private party, I'm here, you know? And I don't want to be here until all hours of the morning watching and cleaning up after people because on New Year's Day my granddaughter is turning six and she wants her party to be here. That's another little bit of feedback that makes this seem right. She's had her last couple parties at the Chuck E. Cheese, and this year she said she wants cheese pizza, a movie, dancing, and a microphone, all at the Victory Grill. I mean, she picked this place over Chuck E. Cheese! I know I've arrived."