Free Jazz, Thin Margin

The 33 Degrees record store has centralized air conditioning, but the apparatus isn't built to handle a Texas heat wave -- at least not when nearly 300 people are crammed into the place. On a night like that, 93 Degrees is more like it.

Pedro Moreno

photograph by Kenny Braun

Such a night was July 5, when the freethinking local record store presented a concert by the avant-garde jazz duo Sunny Murray and Sonny Simmons. On one level, the show was no fun at all: The store was sweltering, and only the most capaciously assed attendee didn't feel the hard plastic of the rented folding chairs biting into his tailbone. Yet there probably wasn't a soul in the room who wanted to be anyplace else -- the Live Music Capital of the World rarely showcases live music this thrilling.

Murray, one of the central figures in the history of free-jazz drumming, played hide-and-seek with the beat, looking for it in his snare drum (nope, not there), wondering if it might be stuck beneath his cymbal (uh-uh), checking his kick drum for traces (guess again), and finally deciding he must have left it in his hotel room, so fuck it -- never needed that old 4/4 anyway. Simmons, a piercing tenor saxophonist who retired from music during the Seventies, sounded like he's still making up for lost time. After each of his wheedling, headlong solos, he'd disappear into the 33 Degrees storeroom and let Murray continue the chase. Then, after an appropriate interval he'd walk back in, stiff and formal as a tin soldier, put sax to lip, spot holes in Murray's rhythmic dragnet that no one else could hear, and jump though them.

If it was hot that night -- and it was -- these two visitors did nothing to cool things down.

Once upon a time, free-jazz

shows weren't so rare in Austin. Pedro Moreno, a 31-year-old grad student in UT's library sciences division, heard that in the late Seventies and early Eighties, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sam Rivers, and Anthony Braxton played the Armadillo World Headquarters. By the time Moreno moved here eight years ago, however, saxophone squeals and cluster-like piano chords had become as rare on the club scene as, well, armadillo teeth.

Moreno, a jazzhead who found his way to the music by making connections between Sonic Youth and John Coltrane, responded to this void by immersing himself in the UT library's record collection and spending beaucoup dollars on out-of-print jazz LPs. He knew other people who were into the music -- Sound Exchange always managed to sell Albert Ayler and David S. Ware albums to college students -- but like most of them, he resigned himself to the fact that the live scene was dead.

"We're far away from everywhere," figured Moreno. "This is what we have, and that's it."

Moreno didn't really have any plans to buck that trend until last January, when a friend of his in Houston was given $500 by an art gallery to bring a jazz musician to H-town. When Rice University's radio station kicked in another $500, Moreno figured that if he and his friend could find an act good enough, he'd offer a gig in Austin as a bonus. The two musicians they decided on, solo saxophonists Joe McPhee and Arthur Doyle, were happy to make a second Texas stop, though Moreno hadn't found a space in Austin yet.

"One day I mentioned to the guys at 33 Degrees that I was interested in putting on this show, and they said, 'Well, you know you can use this space if you want,'" recalls Moreno. "I was like, 'Alright!' We figured at least 50, 60 people would show up or maybe 100 people if we got a good buzz. We wound up selling out! We got 220 people for the show."

No one was more surprised than the two musicians.

"When we were driving Joe and Arthur to dinner, my friend asked how many tickets we'd pre-sold, and I said, 'Oh, about 140.' And they just looked at each other, they couldn't believe it."

In fact, the $250 fee each had agreed to doubled by the time they got paid.

Moreno, who'd had no previous experience setting up shows, dubbed his fledgling booking organization Epistrophy Arts and lucked into another deal. In March, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith was heading from his home in California to College Station for an academic conference and agreed to play a solo show in Austin for a $500 guarantee. He wound up holding an audience of 180 spellbound in the bell of his trumpet and pocketed $750.

"He was very pleased," says Moreno. "He said we made his month. He said he loved the crowd, he loved Texas. When he got home, he called me back and told me what a great time he had."

The Sonny & Sunny show was another bit of good luck; 33 Degree owners Bob Coleman and Dan Plunkett met the two musicians when they were in Chicago for a Kraftwerk show and gave them Moreno's number. A leap for the fledgling promoter, the gig required that Moreno pay plane fare, hotel rooms for two nights, and the $1,000 guarantee the musicians insisted on. In all, Moreno fronted $2,000 -- all of which he made back, plus $180, when he sold 280 tickets for the show.

Successes aside, Epistrophy still exists on a pretty thin margin; a recent show by the BMN Trio lost money -- though the new venue, Ceremony Hall at 41st and Red River, proved more comfortable than 33 Degrees. Not surprisingly, the biggest problem is that Austin is way off the beaten path of touring jazz acts. Except for the occasional spot of good luck when musicians are coming to Texas for other engagements, Moreno is forced into the high-stakes gamble of paying for cross-country airfare.

Accordingly, Moreno has begun establishing ties with like-minded people in Chapel Hill, New Orleans, and San Antonio who want to create a southern circuit for this kind of music, but that could be a long ways away. Right now, like so many others, he'd like to see "a more developed arts community in Austin, one that could push for public performance spaces where non-commercial forms of music could appear." Grateful as he is to 33 Degrees and Ceremony Hall, his audiences have outgrown both spaces.

For the moment, Moreno is happy to have proved that there's a diverse Austin audience hungry for unfettered jazz; the folks who offer up standing ovations at the end of most Epistrophy shows are a gratifying mix of UT students, crunchy high school kids, and old-timers who probably bought Coltrane's A Love Supreme the day it came out. Better still, spending time with his musical heroes has turned out to be a nifty fringe benefit for Moreno. When he took the Oklahoma-born, Paris-residing Sunny Murray to Central Market, for instance, the jazzman was in seventh heaven.

"He just freaked," laughs Moreno. "He bought this huge ham, and he was like, 'Oh man, you can't get ham like this in France.' I took him to Sam's Barbecue after the show and he just lost it. Later, he called me after he got back to Paris and said that Austin was the best reception he had in the States on his tour. He said we made him feel proud to be from the Southwest."

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