The Tools of the Trade
Southwest Texas State's Jazz Program
Those who do agree that jazz is an art form that deserves examination and preservation often differ on where the institution itself should be examined - in the ivy-covered safe-havens of academia or on the road, in the clubs. Austin resident and seminal piano legend James Polk has had long enrollments in both schools, most recently at Southwest Texas State University, where he's an instructor in the music department.
Except for a six-year hiatus during which he worked as a purchaser for IBM (as the first black buyer in the history of that corporation), Polk has lived jazz. As a young man growing up in Corpus Christi, he was captivated with the sounds emanating from a porch he passed on his daily walk to school, "The porch of a Mr. Ponte Heywood," Polk recalls with a lingering smile. After finally being invited up to sit and listen, Polk fell into a lunchtime ritual of jazz studies with Heywood. "He told me if I wanted to really learn something about jazz, I should go to Sam Huston college out in Austin." In 1959, after the school became Huston-Tillotson College, he did just that.
Polk was soon immersed in all the jazz Austin could offer, studying it in college, hanging at places like the Jade Room and the Top Hat on Sundays, and listening to the Rhythm Kings, Erbie Bowser, and Bobby Bradford. Venturing to both New York and Los Angeles, Polk made a consistent living as a player, including an eight-year stint with Ray Charles. He learned a lot playing with the legendary soul man, the most valuable advice being Charles' telling him to "write something every day." Having always been drawn to Austin, Polk retured in 1989 and was soon enticed into taking at teaching position at SWT by Dr. Keith Winking, Director of Jazz Studies, who offered the pianist a job in the program once he'd received his Masters in music. Now a full instructor, Polk is a big factor in the growth of that program.
The intense road training Polk acquired combined with his time in the world of academia have instilled in him a solid educational philosophy: in a word, persistence. "If you persist," he says determinedly, "no matter what, if you persist you will succeed." And while he agrees that playing out is invaluable for a musician's development, as an educator, he feels that obtaining the degree is still foremost. It's something to fall back on - as all who have considered leaving college have been told - but more than that, it's a time and a place to gather and refine the tools of the trade.
"Jazz players have to be smarter than everyone else," explains Polk. "If you study classical music as a performer, you rely on the basic elements of music to learn it. But that's as far as that goes, the creativity is stifled - unless you go into composition, and that's not too common. You play what someone has written for you, but it's different in jazz. A jazz musician has to rely on all the tools of music to play one piece. You have the form and the structure of what someone has written for you to play, then it's up to you to improvise on that. You are creating melodies as you go, and you need all the tools that you've learned in music to play that. A fellow can't just get up and play jazz."
While there will always be those who believe that the only good education is playing out, the idea of studying jazz in a collegiate setting is gaining ground, especially among younger players who were not exposed to jazz while growing up. In a modern culture that demands immediate gratification, if you want to hear jazz you have to go out and find it, but once you've found it, that doesn't mean you'll necessarily understand or appreciate it. And therein lies the attraction for some: to study jazz as a means of acquiring the tools necessary for understanding.
J.W. Davis, saxophone player and SWT Class of '95, had both the background and the tools before enrolling in school for graduate studies (having spent time in Europe playing with guitarist Franklin Douglas), yet he wanted to expand them both. "School provided a good alternative to just playing out," explains Davis, "because it's possible to go to school and play at the same time. If you don't play enough, you lose your chops, but with a life of just playing clubs, you don't get the knowledge."
Jay Fort, a local saxophonist who's toured with Artie Shaw and Matt "Guitar" Murphy, had the same incentive to attend SWT. He'd begun his education at the prestigious music program at the University of North Texas, but didn't stay. "I was in the 1:00 Lab Band from '76 to '78, but I wasn't really in it for the degree. I just wanted to play," says Fort. That changed after he started at SWT. "Once Polk came to Southwest, it was great. I wanted to get the degree then. It's one of the best things I've ever done. And it was Riepe, too. To study composition with Russell Riepe was something I knew would help me immensely."
For Fort, the presence of Riepe, an acclaimed composer, was enticement enough. Likewise for John Mills, another Austin sax player who returned to school at the suggestion of Dr. Winking. "It was an opportunity for me to get on paper the things I already knew - to refine that knowledge." says Mills. "I wanted to study under Dr. Riepe; it gave me a goal for composition that wasn't geared for a nightclub or a commercial. It was composition for composition's sake.... It was nice to be in a situation where the music means something more than how many drinks it sells. Academia does get a bad rap, but it provides that environment that isn't found anywhere else."
"It was very important, in order to be able to draw people to this school, to have some talented players here," says Winking about laying a foundation for the program. "People who the young guys would want to play with." Polk was one such figure, Mills was another. Together, they were names to entice students to San Marcos. "When John Mills came down here, the standards were immediately set; he raised the bar. When the students in the band played with him, there was no longer any looking around, seeing who was better than who. There was a new standard to be met, and that immediately raised the level of performance."
This developmental method reflects the larger picture of jazz music: The players are what it's all about. When you buy a jazz album, you look on the jacket to see who's playing on it; you might choose a Miles Davis set with Max Roach on drums over one with Jimmy Cobb though you prefer the tunes on the latter. Similarly, you go to a jazz show to see a musician go off, not to hear a certain song. It's the performer and his ability to create - to simultaneously perform and compose, the nature of improvisation - that draws you to listen, and likewise to learn.
In an art form that exists almost entirely in those who practice it, the draw of a name is a strong one. Westmar University, a small college in Iowa, had a prestigious jazz program for a number of years in the form of the Clark Terry Institute. By using the name of the renowned trumpet player, a mainstay in the bands of both Basie and Ellington, the school attracted overseas investors who sunk outrageous sums of money into a jazz education program. This enabled the school to attract quality faculty and recruit students quickly, but when the investors pulled out, the institute closed down.
Terry visited SWT in 1996 to put on a clinic and was impressed by it, calling the music program "the best kept secret in the U.S." The closing of his institute sparked an idea down in San Marcos, and they've since tried to incorporate his institute into their program. In order for this to happen, however, all faculty and students had to come with it, and this was a financial undertaking SWT couldn't withstand.
The idea, though, has not been abandoned. There are currently discussions about starting an institute from scratch, incorporating guest lectures, clinics, and a full library. The faculty and administration are behind the idea, so much so that a normal, multi-year waiting period has been waived, and if the okay is given from the other side of the table, the institute could begin as early as next summer. Suffice it to say, if all happens as hoped, an already respected program will gain increased credibility and will undoubtedly be a kept secret no longer.
The SWT program is the only one of its kind in the Southwest United States, and is in fact one of only a handful nationwide. With a state-of-the-art studio facility and award-winning faculty on hand, this as much as anything is attracting students in multitudes. There's a musical proficiency requirement, as well as the university-wide academic requirements - below only UT and A&M in all of Texas (party school, huh?) - and a stringent math proficiency requirement, which makes admittance a difficult process. They take 12 new students into the program every year, so they can be picky. "In fact this year, we had to turn away kids with SAT scores close to 1300, because between GPA and test scores and the audition [for music proficiency], there were kids more qualified," says Winking.
A new student about whom Winking becomes very animated, Paul Armstrong came to Texas in the Spring of '96 after a four-month bout with motion sickness as a trumpet player aboard a cruise ship. His reasons for moving to San Marcos and going back to school reflect many of the reasons that so many people end up in Austin. "When I first got here, it felt like home," he says. "I just wanted to be here and I've never felt like that before. I have a wife and three kids, so to make a decision like that, it's pretty powerful."
At 34, Armstrong is anything but the typical college freshman (a sophomore in the fall). He did a full term in the Air Force, serving a couple of those years in Europe where he was able to feed his trumpet jones with the Air Force band. While in the service, he submitted a tape to the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition, a prestigious competition in which the finalists receive recording contracts and the winners large sums of money (this year's grand prize is $20,000), and whose past winners include Joshua Redman. Armstrong made it to the semifinals and earned a trip to play at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., but that was it. "I did well considering the circumstances," says Armstrong, "but basically I was a West Coast boy getting eaten alive out there."
Times after the service were hard, though, and after completing his sentence on the cruise ship, he was ready to call it quits. "My friend, another trumpet player, Bobby Shue, told me to check out my options, and he introduced me to Keith Winking," recounts Armstrong. "Dr. Winking gave me a tour of the school and of the recording facilities, and by the time I left the Fire Station, I had decided that this was what I wanted. I had never seen anything like it. It's a small program, kind of in the middle of nowhere; students have access to the award winning producer Bobby Arnold... there's just a good vibe, everything is very loose. I've been in about eight colleges and I've never seen that in a school."
Winking's unimposing demeanor made an impression on Armstrong, and "James Polk's reputation precedes him, of course," he says. But it was the SWT program that pulled him in. Two weeks after he hit dry land, he was in Texas and on his way to school. Now, a year later and off for the summer, he can hardly wait to get back to it. "This fall I'm studying MIDI [Musical Instrument Digital Interface] with John Mills; I'm really excited about that. It's a two-year course, I can't wait." In addition to the SWT focus, Armstrong is studying piano with Polk and playing in the jazz combo. "Dr. Polk is a great teacher," he enthuses. "My piano level when I got here was zero, I had no idea. He's been very patient with me. I need it; I mean I want to be involved in recording."
The Fire Station is a two- story brick building separated from the campus by a comfortable few blocks, a technological outpost that provides training for SWT students using industry-standard equipment. Chief Engineer Bobby Arnold sees his mission as getting students as much hands-on time as possible. "The only way to know this is to do it," he says. "The more they do it, the better they get, and the more likely they are to get a job. And that's what this is all about, getting them work in the field."
The experience students gain is more than simply recording themselves during a jam session. In their third year, SWT enrollees, with assistance from Arnold, are required to produce an internationally released commercial album. The Texas Tornadoes, Bad Livers, and Wayne Hancock, among scores of others, have made use of the staff and facilities at Fire Station. "When you leave school here and your resumé says you worked on all these records instead of saying you went to this other school and worked on just this equipment, who's gonna get hired?" poses Winking. "There's no other school like that. Our very first graduate of the program, just a year ago, got hired by Willie Nelson. That's one of the best engineering jobs in the country."
And just to bolster the credibility a bit more, Rupert Neve, inventor of the NEVE mixing board, is teaching a workshop this summer. "It's the equivalent of having Leo Fender, who designed Fender amps, teaching here," says Winking.
Though it seems the demand for time in a studio of this sophistication with a staff of this caliber would be overwhelming, the commercial and academic interests have not yet clashed. "We like to keep the students interacting with as many pros as possible," says Mark Erickson, Director of the SWT program. "When classes are scheduled there's no commercial traffic through here." Thus far, scheduling time has not been a problem, though the school would admittedly have to consider financial matters if demand became so great as to force a decision.
And what of publishing and copyrights for student recordings? The students have ownership of the recordings they make on their own (for which studio time is free), but what they can rightfully - or honorably - do with those recordings is not currently held up to regulation. "That's something we haven't had to deal with yet," says Erickson.
Though a fairly young program, having begun only five years ago, the progeny of the Fire Station are already garnering national recognition for their product. Last year, John Moore, drummer for the local band Zion and a student on track for his B.A. in Sound Recording Technology, won a Downbeat Award, given yearly by Downbeat magazine, for student production. And this year, guitarist Jason Moore (no relation) took the same prize. It's no wonder that the SWT program has been a recruiting boon, pulling in Armstrong and Pat Murray, whom Winking excitedly calls "two of the best young trumpeters in the country."
While technology is a huge draw, SWT's music program remains focused on the players. One of the new ones tipping the academic scales toward the Southwest is Elias Haslanger. Austin born, bred, and educated (he received his B.A. in Music from UT), Haslanger, along with trombonist Freddie Mendoza, is now a teaching assistant in the music department at SWT. With a semester's study at the Manhattan School of Music and two CDs to his credit (the latest, For the Moment, has been on the Gavin charts for 13 weeks), as well as a Downbeat award for soloist of the year (an award also given to Mendoza), Haslanger is not only the premier young sax player in Austin, he's also a name that's attracting a whole new generation of players to SWT.
He views his education with an appreciative though not quite idealistic eye. "Some say that jazz education is an oxymoron, and there's some truth to that," says Haslanger. "It's a good opportunity if you're a really focused individual and you can take care of business while you're there, but you just can't get professional playing experience in school, you can't." His experience in New York, though relatively short-lived, was invaluable to his playing.
"The six months I spent there, compared to the four or five years I've been back here, it's not even funny," he says. "There's something about the energy there, it takes hold of you and makes you do it. But though I liked it there for all the players and the inspiration, I needed experience. And in New York, you try to get a gig and you're competing with Joe Henderson. It's crazy."
Since returning to Austin, Haslanger has been getting that experience, keeping himself busy with his own septet and other combos, including the Lucky Strikes and a project still in the works, a harmelodic trio - one with no chordal instrument - alongside drummer J.J. Johnson and bassist Edwin Livingston.
"I'm going to ride the wave like I've always done," he says. "As long as there are people playing on a high level, I'll be here. There are great musicians in Austin - the greatest are not here, but no one really knows where they are. I've seen guys playing the [French] Quarter for tips that can outplay veterans and guys with contracts."
If you're looking for those "great musicians" Sanders talks about, look no further than Hot Buttered Rhythm, a sextet fronted by Brannen Temple. The band is a double rhythm section - two keyboards, two drum kits, an electric bass and a string bass - and in addition to Temple (possibly Austin's premier drummer) and Sanders, drummer J.J. Johnson (the other possibility), bass player Yogi, and double-bass man Edwin Livingston round out the regular lineup, with Ollie Jones and Mark Rubenstein trading off at the other keyboard. Jones and Livingston have also put in time at SWT, Jones having just received his Masters Degree this May. Their unique, high energy approach to electric jazz is earning them a growing following, as well as a trip to Toronto this month for the North by Northeast music conference, a South by Southwest offshoot.
"It's turning into something that's pretty happening," says Livingston. "Lots of people can connect with this music." Hot Buttered Rhythm have been playing regularly at the Victory Grill and the Mercury Lounge, both venues that could be pivotal in the development of a larger, dare I say mainstream, audience for jazz. The Mercury, just east of the heart of Sixth Street, sees a lot of foot traffic every night, and the funky tones jumping through the doorway during a HBR show have pulled many the curious passerby in for closer inspection. Whether or not any form of jazz can sustain a solid audience and fill big venues in Austin is another question altogether.
The future is usually a cautious subject with jazz players in Austin - optimism tinged with pensiveness. This is a good place to get the practice coming out of school, but can the city accommodate a larger and more talented professional community? "I could see it, but I'm just not sure how it's gonna come about," says Livingston. "The people who come are very appreciative, they pay attention, but there needs to be more of them."
While Austin does provide a good training ground for young performers, Haslanger is skeptical about the city's ability, or willingness, to support a large jazz community. He says he will most likely return to New York after he gets his degree. "You can grow in Austin to a certain point, but once you hit the ceiling, that's it," he says. "I've played here enough to become familiar with most of the players around. There are some really great musicians here. There aren't many places to play; I mean we don't have many real jazz clubs, and that can be limiting."
Recently, Haslanger had the opportunity to open for sax great Kenny Garrett at Austin's State Theater. Garrett's quartet includes drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts and pianist Kenny Kirkland, arguably the best at their respective instruments on the scene today, and it was an experience Haslanger didn't take lightly. "That was nerve wracking," says the local. "[Garrett]'s one of the guys who is really doing something new. There was definitely a gap between his playing and my playing. I want more of that kind of exposure for that very reason. You need people from all over the world bringing new ideas to the table all the time, and we don't have that here."
This idea is not unknown to artists of any sort in Austin. The flip side to the comfort factor here is that it can be creatively stifling; it's the same people doing the same things for a long time, and that can turn stale. SWT is in a position to change this as the traffic of talented young players flows in and out of its grounds.
SWT's recruiting brochure reads "The Ideal Balance." The music department has found that balance between faculty and technology, which could ostensibly attract the strongest talent in the world. They are fortunate to have the facilities they do, and by focusing on the teachers and musicians involved, they ensure that the motive behind studying jazz remains, for the most part, pure. The focus of the program is to sharpen and improve the technical skills of musicians while educating them to the significance of jazz, certainly a cultural institution, but quite possibly this country's greatest art form.