Keeping Up With the Joneses

A way of life compressed into two lives

Keeping Up With the Joneses
Photo by Jana Birchum

On this second Thursday of June, inside the Texas Music Museum, lies the key to Austin's musical history, and unlocking it for just a couple of hours are the Joneses.

Mr. Jimmie Jones and Dr. Beulah Agnes Curry Jones have more than 100 years' experience in Austin's Eastside music scene, history that spans popular music. Between them, they have entertained dignitaries, presidents, even the Prince of Wales. Before today's conversation ends, they will have journeyed from Jim Crow to Barack Obama without leaving the 11th Street museum (www.texasmusicmuseum.org).

Jimmie Jones was born in Manor, 1927. After a stint in the service, he pursued his lifelong desire to play music, beginning on piano and continuing with bass, saxophone, and clarinet. Jimmie likes to qualify his participation as a musician, admitting that he was older than most students at Huston-Tillotson, let alone a beginning music enrollee. His tenure on the Eastside performing during the 1960s tells another tale, offering a story of perseverance and dedication to craft, community, and church.

Beulah Agnes Curry Jones, who goes by Agnes, is at least the third generation of her family notable for singing, her mother, Beulah Thompson, having shone in the Bright and Early Choir at Ebenezer Baptist Church. She trained with Virgie Carrington DeWitty on vocals, attended Anderson High School like Jimmie, and went on to Prairie View A&M to further study vocals and piano. She's dean emeritus of fine arts and music at Huston-Tillotson and still active in the Ebenezer Baptist Church and greater Austin community.

If you're expecting the requisite portrait of marital bliss, it's not here. The Joneses maintain separate addresses and churches. It's a choice the South is famous for explaining away with the phrase, "an arrangement." The Joneses have an arrangement that suits them. They also have an unmistakable, unshakable affection for each other that evidences itself in the jokes, the laughter, finishing off each other's sentences, playful hushing. What is marriage, if not the platinum bonds of affection and companionship?

400 Block of East Sixth Street

Jimmie Jones: "I started [playing music] at Huston-Tillotson when I was an adult and came back from Germany. I wanted to learn long before that when I was at Anderson High School, but I lost my mother when I was young, and I stayed with my grandmother. It's amazing how sometimes people don't understand about a young person going into music.

"I told her I wanted to play in the band in school. And she said: 'Boy, if you don't get outta here, I'm gonna slap you out that back door. I don't have money to be buying instruments for you to take music. You don't need to be taking music.'

"So I went into the Army. And when I came out of the Army, I started taking music.

"I had to take other courses, but music was my focus. I was a barber down on Sixth Street, the 400 block. It was the kind of place that on Friday and Saturday, you thought you were in Africa. Black people dominated the whole 400 block of Sixth Street, businesses and restaurants. I worked in the Big Top Barbershop.

"The Ritz had been there forever. When I went to it, I had to go sit upstairs. I couldn't sit downstairs. The Chinaman had the chili place, but black businesses were on the block where I worked, a pool hall, hot sauce, and barbecue. The Nicholas Brothers, they had a shoe shop. People would come there from all over – Bastrop, Giddings, Lockhart, Round Rock, Manor, all those. They converged on that place.

"I remember when someone came in and said they were gonna buy the building and change it. At that time there were a lot of raggedy buildings, and I said, 'Well what can they do to these buildings?' Now you see what they done to Sixth Street. It was a way of life, compressed into one block."

Agnes: "When I was growing up, I lived at 1203½ Red River. My cousin and I could go to movies on Saturday, and my grandmother and parents always said, 'Now go down three blocks and turn right, and then go left to the show.' Which took us around the 400 block, but we could look down there and see what was going on. Sometimes, if we got out of the movies early enough, we would go straight through the 400 block. It was just a sea of people, a sea of our people.

"Where Esther's Follies is, was a tavern. The outside of it always fascinated me, with mirror tiles. Then we would turn left at Red River and go home."

Because We Were Black

"I attended Blackshear, Rosewood, then Kealing, and finally Anderson," recites Agnes. "[Anderson] was the high school. The one and the only high school, and you became a Yellow Jacket.

"By that time I had been taking music continuously and had the opportunity to participate in the band. The band director at that time was Mr. B.L. Joyce. Quite a disciplinarian, quite a musician, quite a mentor. He never held back in his discipline verbally; he was a master of that. We would sometimes get carried away with the music. I was trying to learn saxophone, and he said, 'You need to uncross your legs.' He never had to tell me again. There was something intriguing about the saxophone, but I did not actually play in a band except as a pianist."

Teachers: Agnes Jones and Jimmie Jones (below) pass it on. Dates unknown.
Teachers: Agnes Jones and Jimmie Jones (below) pass it on. Dates unknown. (Photo courtesy of The Texas Music Museum)

"I wanted to go to UT to take music, but they told me I was too old," counters Jimmie. "They said: 'We might let you take elementary education, but there's not a chance of you taking any music. We don't take anybody at the college level with a beginning piano book.'

"That wasn't the first instrument I wanted to play. I wanted to be in the band at Anderson, and it probably would have been a clarinet.

"So I went to H-T, and they had kind of the same attitude. They said: 'We'll let you take music for one semester, and if you're doing pretty good, we'll let you continue. Otherwise you have to get a new major.' After that one semester, they said: 'Go ahead. You all right.'

"I was a happy little soul.

"I managed to go to school and learn a little about music. I got a job in Williamson County, which took up about seven different schools, a different school every day. I was the supervisor of music for Williamson County schools, but all these were segregated schools. Some of these schools didn't have but two teachers. The principal in Round Rock let me start a band. They had one at the school in Taylor, but that's the only other band in Williamson County, with all those schools. I had a measure of success in that job.

"Then in '64, the district superintendent called me into his office. He said: 'You black people are running around here wanting your rights, your civil rights and all that. I got a notice here from Washington that I gotta let them little pickaninnies come to my school, but they didn't say I had to let you come. So you're fired.'

"That's how I lost that job. I really regretted it when I left that job, though I went to a better one. Guess the Lord works that way.

"That was April. In May, the president of H-T called me and said, 'I have a job at the Job Corps in San Marcos.' I worked there for 30 years. I really was thankful for that job.

"I had grown up wanting to take music, and that door was shut in my face all the time. But the GI Bill let me go to college and barber school, so I worked in barber school while I went to college. Music was something I never imagined would turn out so good. So while I missed being with the little fellows, I got to teach people from everywhere in the Job Corps."

Agnes nods her head.

"I can't forget my mother took me to Gregory Gym to see Marian Anderson," she says. "It was an unforgettable evening. At the time, it was still kind of like the Ritz. You didn't sit on the floor; you had to buy a ticket that made you sit in the bleachers."

Because you were black?

"Because we were black."

East 11th Street

Agnes: "Having been a member of Ebenezer Baptist Church nearly all my life, we could sometimes hear the music that was going on East 11th Street. Sometimes, instead of taking the short way home, we would take the long way home and hear some of the sounds being generated. And they were absolutely magnificent.

"One of my aunts took me to a concert at the Victory Grill. That's how I found out what went on inside there. I also found out Victory Grill had the best pork-chop sandwiches. That was another reason for going to the Victory Grill on Sunday afternoons. They didn't card then, but they would let you know if you were not of eligible age to be there. They wouldn't insult you, but they would let you know to come back in three or four years."

"Mr. Holmes was an astute businessman, and he would look out for the neighborhood young men and women. He let us enjoy, but he didn't let us trespass."

Keeping Up With the Joneses
Photo courtesy of The Texas Music Museum

Jimmie: "While I didn't play music early, I was old enough to go to these places and see a lot of artists there. I remember Jean & the Rollettes. My cousin was Charlie Gilden, who had Charlie's Playhouse. I have to say that was the most outstanding place on the Eastside for musicians and people who loved music. UT students made a trail to Charlie's Playhouse.

"The Jets were the house band [at Charlie's Playhouse], and Charlie geared his club to their kind of music. You could play anything there – country & western, jazz, and every now and then, musicians like B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland would come and sit in with them.

"It wasn't true, but a lot of black people on the Eastside said that when the students came over, he'd make the black people get up so they could sit down. It stayed full in there. One night I was at a table there by myself, and he came over and said: 'Jim, I'd sure like to seat all these people. Would you mind sitting at the bar?' I didn't mind. Why should I mind? It was one whole table and here were people who paid with nowhere to sit. I paid too, but a lot didn't. A lot would say, 'Charlie, I just can't pay, but I want to come in.' His club was the first one on the Eastside to have ... what do you call those people imitators?"

"Female impersonators," says Agnes.

"Female impersonators," says Jimmie. "They brought their groups here from Dallas and Houston."

Strictly Jazz

"I had a lot of relatives that owned clubs," begins Jimmie. "That seemed to be what they wanted to have. My dad's brother, Dad Jones, had a jazz club at 12th and Chicon, but he did not allow blues players to play his club – strictly jazz. B.B. King played a gig on the other side of town, and afterward he came to Dad's club. When musicians play after midnight, they'll go to another place to play, just to sit and hang. So he came, and Dad said, 'I'm sorry, I don't allow any blues in my club.' B.B. could come in, but he couldn't play.

"Dad Jones had such fantastic records on the jukebox. You'd wanna go in his club just to listen to what he had there. All the latest real good music on that box. You could go in there anytime and hear it. He sent all the way to East Texas for an organ player to play in his club. The East Texas All-Stars, they played there all the time, every weekend.

"Back then, James Polk was just starting out with groups, and on Sunday evenings they would have jam sessions. He had one player, Wimpy Caldwell, on tenor sax. Every time we'd go see them, she would always ask him to play 'Willow, Weep for Me.' He would say, 'I'll be glad to play it, but I don't know if James will let me play it.' He could play so well, but James seemed to have a problem with Wimpy playing."

Agnes swats Jimmie lightly on the forearm, a mild attempt at shushing. When he doesn't stop, she leans forward to shield the recorder from his words.

Jimmie: He wanted to be the star all the time. I resented that. I sure did, and I'll tell him today! Let that thing alone!

Agnes: He and James have a good understanding; these things would just happen sometimes. There's no one in Austin who doesn't respect the musical ability of Polk.

Jimmie: I don't want you to misunderstand me; I love Polk like a brother. There was enough clubs from 11th Street to 12th Street to Rosewood to Seventh Street and bands for you to go and hear good music all the time, not like just one little club.

Agnes: We had the chance to play not so much the clubs on the Eastside as the audiences of the clubs, so there was interfacing with a lot of the same people. We had a group called the Sophisticats – I did register the name at the courthouse. We would play two- to three-hour sets at the Holiday Inn, Downtowner, the 40 Acres Club. We did a nice long stint at Steak Island, where Joe's Crab Shack is on Riverside. [Jimmie] and two other musicians were in the group; there were five at one time. I guess music has always been important in Austin, and patrons and supporters who heard us began to ask us to play receptions, and the next thing, I was being asked to play as a single act; they couldn't hire the group. I would do that sometimes.

Jimmie: That's the group she ruled with an iron fist.

Agnes: He's helped me a lot with understanding the lead sheets and charts.

Jimmie: You don't need me to credit you, girl.

Agnes: Charlie's Playhouse, Ernie's Chicken Shack, the Black Orchid, Victory Grill, 7th Street Club, Black Cat – all of those were our major venues. And we didn't use the word venue then; we just said "club." And we can't help wishing there were still places like the Spañada and Charlie's Playhouse, so we're really glad the Victory Grill is being restored and regenerated. It is essential.

Jimmie: I am convinced music will rub rough edges off you. I think there's something special about it, but I won't know what it is until I get to heaven. There's a little music in everything we do. A wedding, a funeral, church, a party. It's a great part of us. I'll probably get up there and Duke Ellington will be with his band on one side and another band on the other.

"I'll just ask if I can sit in."

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