Playback: Can Austin Be a Jazz City?
Two venues usher in a new era in Austin jazz. Plus music scholar Bill Bentley brings the Smithsonian Institution to bear at BookPeople.
Austin ain't a jazz town – not in the way the city holds identity in blues, psychedelic music, and singer-songwriters. In fact, some would argue it's been the local redheaded stepchild of genres, overlooked and underbooked to the extent that Herbie Hancock reportedly had no takers on a ticketed gig when he came in to tape his immaculate Austin City Limits performance last year.
Of course we still have heavy happenings in the format. Pedro Moreno's Epistrophy Arts series reps the avant-garde, the Sonic Transmissions fest pushes experimental free jazz, Church on Monday's residency at the Continental Club Gallery remains holy, saxophonist Paul Klemperer holds it down at the Skylark Lounge, and the Long Center, Bass Concert Hall, and One World Theatre bring in jazz legends to variant successes on a regular basis. Even so, the standard's largely been taken up by just one dedicated venue: cavernous Congress Avenue subterranean space the Elephant Room, which presents local players seven nights a week.
"Austin already has ridiculously great musicians, but in order to cultivate the scene we needed to have more than one venue offering 100 percent jazz on the regular," says veteran bandleader Kris Kimura. "You go to Kansas City, New Orleans, New York, L.A., Chicago, there's five or six great clubs. Austin's a big enough city that we shouldn't have just one."
Kimura and partner Eric Leonard’s new joint, Parker Jazz Club – in the basement of the old Spaghetti Warehouse on Fourth and Colorado – opened last month as something different: an elegant showroom that can sustain on Austin talent, while also hosting international stars.
Every table, chair, and open floor space in the candlelit club was occupied last Saturday for Parker's first marquee event: an appearance by Doug Lawrence, tenor saxist who blew with idiom greats Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, and Tony Bennett. His Count Basie Orchestra bandmate, Buda resident Butch Miles – whose credits include Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra – beat up the drum kit, and two brilliant Austin transplants, primo organist Red Young and fleet-fingered guitarist Brian Pardo, rounded out the quartet. The expert combo delighted the packed house with exquisitely melodic standards, kicking solos back-and-forth to loud applause before Lawrence brought up Kimura and his baritone sax to trade some lines on Charlie Parker's "Bluebird."
"I don't think I've ever never known a musician to be so hands-on in opening a club," Lawrence said of his host.
Indeed, immaculate sound design, an electric stage curtain, a hi-fi video streaming studio, a comfy greenroom, incredible house gear, and a large framed photo of Kimura's late local mentor Tony Campise all speak to a new business that doesn't feel as much like a concept as it does somebody's dream. The owner calls the Great American Songbook "jazz's gateway drug" and plans to initially present mainly that while building an audience at his nightly digs. Presently, he's expecting heavy hitters in the last week of February, when Dexter Gordon's widow Maxine brings the legend's annual birthday celebration – previously held at the Lincoln Center in NYC – to Parker.
Better still, the Downtown start-up isn't alone.
Another upstart portending a real moment for Austin's jazz community has been Monks, a pop-up speakeasy that launched in 2016 and currently inhabits Fast Folks Cyclery on Cesar Chavez. Shows at Monks, occurring a couple times a month, host audiences that hoot and cheer when a musician blows their top, but they never talk.
"I want people to have their ears open instead of talking about Trump and kneeling in football," says Monks founder, pianist Collin Shook, about the listening room mentality. "I want them to hear the extra flam on the snare, the nuances in the bass tone, and I want everybody to be present in the moment."
Last Friday saw the bike shop packed with patrons sitting at tables and standing for world-class Japanese pianist Miho Nobuzane, whose samba-influenced compositions and playful vocalizations translated into pure happiness. Local backing did her right, too: Monster upright bassist Daniel Durham (Church on Monday) brought a Mingus touch, while Michael Longoria added hard-hitting world beat drums.
Shook, who has a penchant for hard bop, relishes the improvisational element of Austin players backing international artists.
"It's about creating catharsis and passion – taking it to the edge of the cliff and teetering over."
He says the next step in growing Austin's jazz scene is one for the venues to take.
"There's a lot more talent here than booking agents and venue owners give space to," he stresses. "It's up to them to foster the scene by giving it more consistent opportunities."
Bill Bentley: Live and Unseen
If you drilled up a core sample from the bedrock of Austin music you'd find traces of Bill Bentley throughout.
Original music editor for pioneering alternative rag The Austin Sun, early publicist for Austin City Limits, and drummer in the Bizarros, the Houston native also founded KUT's enduring R&B specialty show Twine Time. Heeding a call from L.A. Weekly in 1980, Bentley went national and soon transitioned from writer to record label flack, working publicity for Slash Records and Warner Bros./Reprise Records, where he walked with giants including Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., and Neil Young.
All the while, Bentley continued to champion Austin music.
In 1990, he produced the Roky Erickson tribute album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye (revisit "Record Store Day Unearths a Roky Erickson Rarity," April 21, 2017), so when the books arm of Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution invited him to tell the story of rock & roll via 147 artist essays, he included passionate passages on Doug Sahm, 13th Floor Elevators, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Alejandro Escovedo. That coffeetable book, October's Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen, gets local promotion this Friday at BookPeople, 7pm, where Bentley and Escovedo will be in conversation with Chronicle Music Editor Raoul Hernandez, who edited the book.
In a supremely Austin musician move, Bentley follows the appearance with a Bizarros reunion at Hole in the Wall that night.