Organ Great James Polk Works Wonders Outside the Limelight
We speak with Austin’s esteemed multi-instrumentalist and former arranger for Ray Charles
Cogent and considered recollections of older black men from Texas and the broadly American South below the Mason-Dixon line generally bear a sobering universality. One of these gentlemen, Dr. James Polk, Austin's esteemed multi-instrumentalist, world-class organist, and former arranger for the great Ray Charles, speaks in these measured hues. The literal key(s) to native saxophonist Elias Haslanger's Church on Monday residency above the vaunted Continental Club on South Congress recalls invisible borders occasionally traversed.
"You have to remember this was the Sixties. We rarely went across the highway – unless it was on Sunday," says Polk, 78, during the second week of January. "Because on Sundays, in particular, what used to be the Jade Room on Guadalupe [now UT "Drag" staple and Thai haunt Madam Mam's Noodles & More] was made available for swinging jazz played by black performers. It was segregated back then, y'know?
"Shit, it still is," he chafes.
Trumpet/cornet legend Bobby Bradford of free jazz provocateur Ornette Coleman fame emphasizes that same "hard line." Once a roommate of Polk's at Huston-Tillotson College (now University), he recalls Austin's racial exclusion with candor and clarity.
"Don't sanitize it," says Bradford when asked about his friend and peer's musical accomplishments vs. inversely proportional renown. "I'm an 84-year-old man from the South, and this is still Texas. You've got a guy where more people probably know him in Europe than Austin."
Since Polk returned to his collegiate headquarters in 1987 after a decadelong, Grammy-nominated run with Charles (1930-2004), his appreciation as an elder statesman of Austin's stout musical history continues on a need-to-know basis. Because the aforementioned demographic that includes Polk and Bradford remains predominantly ecclesiastical, the Book of Mark's chapter six comes into play – its start, in which a notable deity returns home:
"'Where did this man get these things?' detractors asked, offended by his facility. 'What's this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son?'
"The Christ replied to his men, 'A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives, and in his own home.'"
All That Jazz
James Edwin Polk entered this life on Sept. 10, 1940, in the Southeast Texas town of Yoakum, but moved almost immediately to Corpus Christi. Settling in the all-black and Mexican area today known as the Northside, his musically inclined parents, Mattie Mae, a homemaker, and Maryland Lethridge Polk Jr., a mechanic, provided their two children a sturdy upbringing. Alongside older sister Gwendolyn, the Austinite belonged to the congregation at Calvary First Baptist Church.
"Oh, they were strict," says Polk. "They weren't abusive. They just didn't take no bullshit. My mother and father told me one thing: 'Treat people the way you want to be treated.'"
Music appreciation prevailed at the Polk household. Mattie graduated with a degree in music from St. Philip's College in San Antonio, and Maryland, a broad autodidact, taught himself piano. That instrument became a focal point for the foursome and their extended family. With his father's blessing, Polk embarked on playing paid gigs at age 13.
Initially, he'd begun formal lessons in violin, but wound up playing trombone from middle school through graduation at Solomon Coles High School. Presented limited choices for higher education within the state, he chose Huston-Tillotson, in part to stay away from Prairie View A&M University and his sister, who maintained a watchfulness over him rivaled only by their mother. Per an interview with Philadelphia website All About Jazz, the pianist recalled that Corpus Christi "had one radio station .... that allowed a black disc jockey to play [R&B] late, 30 minutes, from 12 to 12.30 everyday, and on Saturday."
Country, conjunto, and Tejano flourished as the popular genres of the day, but Polk learned about "progressive jazz" from a neighborhood musician and tastemaker from Austin, who suggested he attend "Sam Huston," which unbeknown to either Texan had fused with the all-girls Tillotson College years before. The implication proved clear and accurate, nonetheless: If you wanted to become a great player, head for the state seat of government. By 1958, Austinites such as trumpet great Kenny Dorham and Motown arranger Gil Askey drove their respective scenes.
Just Plain Funk
Graduating from Huston-Tillotson in 1962 with a young family to support, Polk embarked on teaching, one of the few white-collar jobs an educated African-American could attain during the era. He taught at all-black Washington High in Elgin while pursuing a master's at Texas A&M University-Kingsville (then Texas A&I), where he spent hot summers enduring discrimination and racial epithets. The educator recalls the installation of lights at the former institution to keep his black students in the school marching band away from the all-white Elgin High.
Gigging around East Austin, Polk employed his talents in writing and arranging to start James Polk & the Brothers, with trombonist Larry Collins. The group, initially blues-centered, later featured Austin luminaries Martin Banks, W.C. Clark, Matthew Robinson, and Angela Strehli.
"We were mostly trying to keep up with the Billboard Top 10 – the Beatles, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly," says Stevie Ray Vaughan influence Clark, who first met Polk in Corpus. "Anything that was in the Top 10, we would play it."
Skills sharpened to steely points in the clubs around Rosewood Avenue, then nicknamed "Bucket of Blood" for its nightly exsanguinations. Haunts east of the interstate, including Charlie's Playhouse on 11th, became proving grounds for the band, especially Strehli, an Anglo cutting her teeth in the blues.
"I had to decide whether I was going to take myself seriously, because although I was certainly being watched and heard, I knew the standards [at black venues] were high to be an entertainer," says the singer, forever synonymous with Antone's.
The last iteration of the Brothers exhibited a heavy funk/soul lean, with booming 1969 Twink Records singles "Power Struggle" and "Just Plain Funk," which continue making the rounds abroad in collectors' circles and on imported compilations. "Twink" preserves the nickname of the proprietor of popular East Austin club the Hide-A-Way Lounge, who permitted Polk to use the name for his label. The band also cut unreleased tracks for Bill Josey Sr.'s Sonobeat label, including the 1969 Yvonne Joseph smoker "Stick-To-It-Tive-Ness."
The Brothers fell apart once Polk took up vibraphone sovereign Lionel Hampton's offer to tour Europe for four months as his bassist. The local met the legendary bandleader while opening for him during a weeklong run at an upscale San Antonio club. Hampton's bassist didn't show, so Polk's bass player sat in, to an adverse effect. The thumper suffered stage fright to the extent he couldn't pull strings, which left Polk offering his services. Right place, right time.
After a five-year break, James Polk & Company started up, in part, from the insistence of a young Roscoe Beck, who says he regularly landed at Polk's house with a Herbie Hancock or Weather Report record. The talented bassist, who found success with Robben Ford, Eric Johnson, Jennifer Warnes, and Leonard Cohen, harbored ulterior motives for the semiregular visits.
"I would say, 'James, you've got to get back,'" he chuckles. "'You've got to get back to it, to playing music full time. You should quit IBM.'"
Polk did quit IBM, where he worked for a decade as one of the century-old tech firm's first black manufacturing buyers. Fronting Polk & Company for a brief period, he ran into an old playing buddy employed by Ray Charles. Two weeks after reaching the bandleader, he got the fateful call.
Polk confirms his former boss' ability to identify a person's race and vitals simply by shaking their hand. He calls Ray Charles a jazz musician at heart and claims the "What'd I Say" singer would sometimes fly his own plane. Soul brother No. 1 was also sucker for a great joke.
"Ray would sit up front, and the captain would voice commands and steering positions," remembers his former bandleader. "One time I was like, 'R.C., it's all right for you to fly this plane, but don't you try to land this motherfucker."
He calls Charles nothing less than genius. When the Georgia-born keyboardist and saxophonist wasn't writing out song arrangements, he came to the Texan with charts entirely mapped out in his head. To the note.
"He would dictate to me, give me eight bars at a time – each instrument," says Polk. "Also, he would call out each note of each instrument."
Beginning as an organist, JP evolved into Charles' mainstay arranger, writer, and conductor. Grammy nominations for 1979's "Some Enchanted Evening" and 1983's country-tinged "Born to Love Me" followed. While his tenure in the big band didn't bear much fruit for Charles' record-charting prospects, Polk made his bones as an arranger of note in the music industry. The Austinite also released the excellent soul/funk burner You Know the Feeling in 1984.
A moderately scarce album favored by collectors, its grooves run similar to the Brothers' singles. The album also serves as a reminder that its creator's work might well rank highest amongst crate diggers. So much for royalty income.
Leaving Charles in 1987, Polk came to a number of conclusions. Chief amongst them, Los Angeles traffic and superficiality turned him off. Roadwork throughout the late Seventies to the mid-Eighties also reached a breaking point.
"You would be out on the road for nine months," he says. "If there were any break, you would be left wherever you were. Ray would fly back to L.A., but we had to stay on the road. You only got two weeks off. After a while, you forget what day it is, what time it is. I finally just decided, 'I don't need this.'"
Already twice divorced, he longed for Austin and familial stability, so on Thanksgiving 1987, Polk decided to remarry his ex-wife Imogene in Las Vegas – 12 years after the couple divorced. Settled locally, he fulfilled a promise to his mother and finished his master's under far less abusive circumstances at Texas State in San Marcos. Earning an honorary doctorate from Huston-Tillotson, he completed his teaching career 30 minutes from home and retired as professor emeritus of jazz studies.
Revered for preternatural organ skills, he currently leads his group Centerpeace when not accompanying one of his longtime admirers in supremely talented saxophonist Elias Haslanger for Church on Monday. Likewise, Polk stepped into the role of unofficial father figure to the likes of trumpeter Ephraim Owens and drummer Scott Laningham. Roscoe Beck calls Polk "one of my top two mentors."
And yet, where James Edwin Polk's musical virtuosity ranks him as one of Austin's greatest art practitioners, he's never been universally acknowledged.
"I believe a jazz and blues scene has to be multigenerational," offers DiverseArts Culture Works founder and archivist Harold McMillan. "I continually use James and [trumpeter] Martin Banks as examples, because considering their résumés and pedigree, they should've been anchors of the local scenes – the granddaddies, the maestros. It's taken a while for James to be somewhat treated that way, and I don't know that Martin was ever treated that way."
Guitarist for Church on Monday, Tommy Howard reasons bluntly, "It's a racism thing and it's there, whether people want to talk about it or not."
He continues: "I think his white contemporaries in Austin get a lot more recognition than he does. In my opinion, he should be up there with Willie [Nelson], Ray Benson. Of all the Austin legends, he's one of them."
God Saw to It
For his part, Dr. Polk speaks of his relevance and legacy in Austin with a touch of reservation earned by a gifted black septuagenarian who's weathered a psychological jungle of horrors few in his peer group can fathom, much less fully comprehend.
"He's dealt with some profoundly evil shit," stresses Laningham, drummer in the Church on Monday. "The stuff he's described, it would break most people I know."
On a sunny day at Halcyon Coffee, the man himself chooses the courage of side-stepping a bitterness he wouldn't be blamed for harboring.
"My dad did not lie when he told me, when I was young, that people are always going to be envious because you do whatever you do well," he ultimately answers. "I've accepted it."
Despite this explanation, it's possible he's grown weary enough to stop fighting it, but he acknowledges his existence as predetermined, a vessel. Plus, he's not needy for wider acceptance. The seduction of anyone's gaze has long passed, perhaps to his detriment even in present day.
"I know who I am," Polk insists. "'To thine own self be true.' I had no choice to be who I am because God saw to it."
Verses five and six of Mark, chapter six, continue: "He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith."
Church on Monday continues its six-year residency at the Continental Club Gallery, every first day of the workweek, 8:30pm. $5.