James Polk: Recipes from the Doctor (1)

James Polk at the Long Center Concert (Photo: Rick Haering)


Pianist Dr. James Polk‘s musical knowledge and worldwide experience spans over more than 50 years. His style, deeply-rooted in the blues, is an example of richness and experience. Polk came up along with a group of incredible Texan musicians; jazz and blues artists like David “Fathead” Newman, Russell Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Don Wilkerson, and Ornette Coleman, and his sound has that unique Texas flavor. An accomplished musician who has played almost every instrument, Polk was born on September 10, 1940 in Yoakum, and grew up in Corpus Christi, where he initiated his extensive resume.

In 1959, Polk moved to Austin, where he eventually formed his own band, James Polk & the Brothers, which became one of the first integrated bands in a still largely segregated town. Featuring some of the finest musicians around Austin (Martin Banks, W.C. Clark, Matthew Robinson and Angela Strehli), James Polk & the Brothers also became a “Blakey’s Messengers” type music academy for playing blues, funk, and jazz.

Once invited by Lionel Hampton to tour Europe, Polk is best-known for his work with Ray Charles. From 1978 to 1985, he toured and worked as an organist, pianist, writer, arranger and conductor. He was featured on several of Charles’ records, including Ain’t It So (Concord, 1979), Brother Ray Is At It Again (Crossover/Atlantic, 1980), Wish You Were Here Tonight (Concord, 1983), and The Spirit of Christmas (Concord, 1985), and was nominated for two Grammy Awards.

Polk’s determination, and his great work with Charles, led to touring all over the world and appearing on many television specials. Furthermore, Polk has been involved in different projects, becoming the pianist/arranger/conductor for artists including Hank Crawford, Zola Taylor and The Platters, and leading several bands such as James Polk & Company and JAMAD Sextet, where he played and recorded with fellow Austin-based musicians.

Polk’s regular performances continue today in Austin, the town transformed by his music. This jazz piano master, who has certainly become a leading figure in the Austin’s history and music scene, currently performs as a leader, pianist and occasional singer with his trio, and the Centerpeace jazz Band, with whom he is working on a new album.

Growing Up With Music

“It was just a natural progression for me to go into music. It wasn’t hard for me at all.”

When did you start playing music?

I started playing music when I was about eight or nine years old. I started playing professional music when I was about 13. So it’s been a long time. About 57 years ago?

Was piano your first instrument?

Yes, I guess you could say it was piano. There was a piano always around my house when I was a kid coming up. Actually, my grandmother’s piano. When she died, we moved the piano to my house. My father played piano, my mother played piano, my aunt played piano, my sister played piano… Everybody just played piano, so it was a natural progression for me to learn how to play piano.

But my first instrument in school, when I went to elementary school, was the violin. I hated it. [I] didn’t like it at all. I stuck with that for a little while, and then I switched over to the saxophone. Then they wouldn’t let me play the saxophone in the band–in the middle school band, when I finished elementary school–because the band director said they had too many saxophone players, so I wound up playing trombone. I played trombone all the way through middle school, high school, and college. I started playing the piano when I got out of college. No more trombone. By that time I had got interested in playing piano.

Coming from a musical family, what was the significance of music?

That everybody played. No one was actually professional except my mother. My mother was a vocalist, so she toured when she was a young child, singing gospel music. My aunt, my father’s sister, played the piano in church, man, for 60 years. Everybody in my family was musical. My sister played the clarinet and drums when she was in school. She didn’t play after she got out of high school. But everybody in my family played some kind of music. I had music in my family ever since I can remember. It was just a natural progression for me to go into music; it wasn’t hard for me at all.

From your own experience, but also in a general sense, how has church influenced the development of Black music?

Well, the church played a big influence on Black music, because, basically, the music that I finally started going into—which is jazz music, ultimately—it all got it start with slaves, with the slavery. It was a natural progression because the slaves would be singing gospel and sacred music in the fields as they work, and that progression into what we call the blues, which was a natural progression into jazz.

My first encounter with music was, of course, the church because my mother took me to church when I was a little boy. So I always heard gospel music which quite naturally had to influence me. Most black people were influenced by gospel music in the church because it’s where they came from. If they didn’t go to church, they were still influenced by that because that’s where they came from.

Which music did you listen to by that time?

I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas–which is South Texas–and the most music that was heard for everyone during that time was what they call Conjunto and Tejano, which was Mexican music. There was a lot of Mexicans in Corpus Christi at that time. The white experience was country and western, so I heard a lot of that. I heard a lot of Mexican music and a lot of country and western music.

The black experience when I was a kid coming up, they had one radio station in Corpus Christi that allowed a black disc jockey to play music late, 30 minutes, from 12 to 12.30 everyday, and on Saturday. That was the extent of it. The type of music he played was what you call rhythm & blues. It was blues, more or less. They called it rhythm & blues because it was an upbeat form of the blues. They didn’t put jazz on radio during that time. I got a little bit of that coming up as a kid. Of course when I got to college it was more over it because I went to college here in Austin.

Was that rhythm and blues of the late ’40s and ’50s already rock ‘n’ roll? They had Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner, horns, piano, and the blues form that rock ‘n’ roll took, too.

You know, the blues form started in the Mississippi Delta, of course. Down in Mississippi. Usually it was with just a guitarist—this guy playing guitar and singing. Like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson… these were some of the early guys. They started playing guitar and singing and they were playing the blues.

Now, the reason [why] they started calling it rhythm & blues was because Muddy Waters, who’s from down there, moved to Chicago and he added the drummer and the bassist, which gave it that upbeat tempo. Before they called it rhythm and blues, they called it jump music.

Jazz as we know it today was started with the jazz revolution, which happened in the mid-forties. That’s kind of the way that happened. But it all came from the blues, which is the first thing I started playing when I was about thirteen years old. I started playing with a blues band. That was a good experience.

There are a lot of great Texan jazz artists like Charlie Christian, Ornette Coleman, Kenny Dorham, and Illinois Jacquet, that are often not thought as Texan because they moved up north to follow their careers. Why did they have to go?

Because down in this part of the United States, which is the Southern part of the United States, and due to the history the Southern United States had against black people. Back in the forties and fifties and all the way up onto the sixties they were still lynching black people. They were killing black people and lynching them. Musicians didn’t want to expose themselves to all of that trouble so they didn’t tour this part of the country. Plus, the money wasn’t that great. For instance, Kenny Dorham was from Austin, Texas. He was from right here and a personal friend of mine. I knew him.

James Polk with Ornette Coleman, Texan music friends

Ornette Coleman is from Forth Worth, Texas. I had the chance to live with him about three months in New York, so he’s a friend of mine. I knew Illinois Jacquet, and I used to play with his brother [Russell Jacquet] quite a lot in Los Angeles. I knew Arnett Cobb, who was also from Houston, Texas and one of the Texas Tenors. I knew Don Wilkerson. As a matter of fact, I was on the road with Ray Charles for ten years, and [Don Wilkerson] was on the road with me. And James Clay, who’s from Dallas, Texas is another good friend of mine. I knew a lot of these guys because, like I said, I came up during the fifties and the sixties, and these guys did too.

I started college in the late fifties, so the only way that we had to learn jazz music was through records. Through listening to what the other artist in New York were doing, because there weren’t any places here that would bring those artists down in this area. Maybe to Dallas, every now and then, maybe to Houston every now and then… The difference being, growing up listening to that kind of music in New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Kansas City, up in that part of the country, they had those venues were those guys played. You know, they had the clubs and things were those guys played and you could go sit and listen to them. You couldn’t do that here.

There was no attraction for those black musicians to come to this part of the country. The only way we would learn would be getting the records that they made and sit and listen to them and try to figure out. “What is he doing here? What is he doing there?”

Those guys didn’t tour this part of the country because of money wasn’t there, it was too expensive for them to come here, plus the accommodations… They couldn’t stay at hotels. There were no hotels, because there probably weren’t too many black-owned hotels in this part of the country. They were a few, and those that were here did accommodate some of these black jazz musicians when they did finally come here, but musicians, black musicians, couldn’t stay in the hotels. They couldn’t eat in the restaurants. The only clubs that they could play were the black clubs. They couldn’t play in the top venues.

The only place where they could do that was in New York, and they had problems there, too. They could play in the Cotton Club, which was owned by white people. [In] the Savoy Room and places like that. But it was more of those places in New York, and New Jersey, and Kansas City, and places like that than there were down here. So, there was no attraction for those black musicians to come to this part of the country. The only way we would learn would be getting the records that they made and sit and listen to them and try to figure out. “What is he doing here? What is he doing there?”

There was an area in Dallas called Deep Ellum.

Yeah, and also South Dallas. I didn’t know too much about Deep Ellum, but most of the music that came out of Dallas was South Dallas during that period of time, during the fifties and the sixties. I was going to college here [Austin] in the late fifties and early sixties, and I would drive up to Dallas on the weekend just to go to jam sessions. Of course, they had some in Houston too. I knew I was going have a good time and I was gonna hear some good music coming from those guys.

Black & White

“Everything that was coming into this side of town just dried out and stopped because black people could go to other places and white people weren’t coming over here. They didn’t have to.”

Did you have the first integrated bands in Austin?

Probably not the first, but I did have one of the earlier ones. After I got out of college, I started teaching. I was a high school band director in Elgin, Texas, which is a few miles down the road. That’s when James Brown was really popular, that style of music. I had some guys, and I’ve always liked to put my best foot forward when it comes to music. I didn’t like to spend a lot of time learning by rote. What we mean by rote is putting on a record and try to learn what these guys did. “What is he playing there? What note did he play here? Why did he do that?” That takes a long time, in order to learn that way. So what I did, I wrote the music. I did the listening and I figured out what they were playing. I wrote the music for the guys to play, and there weren’t too many black musicians that could read the music. I had a few, but there weren’t too many. So my option was to find somebody that could read the music.

I ran into some guys who had finished UT [University of Texas], and could do just that. It just happened that they were white. So I said, “Well, so?” I’m looking for the best quality. I found out that if I did that, then I could get my band into a whole lot of clubs that were not hiring just black bands. There were a lot of clubs hiring black bands, but chances are that they would hire my band quicker because I had black and white personnel. I had a young lady by the name of Angela Strehli, who’s a pretty big name in rock ‘n’ roll. I gave her, her first gig. She used to be an English teacher, and she decided that she wanted to sing some blues. She loved the blues, so I said: “Hey, why not? Let’s try.” A guy by the name of John Reed was the guitarist. He was playing with a country band but he always wanted to play some blues, so I said: “Well, OK. Come on man, let’s try!” And I had a guy by the name of Don Luppo, a white guy that played bass.

Polk & the Brothers musically contributed to breaking racial barriers in Austin, Texas

The rest were some guys around here, in this area. Larry Townsend played trombone. Martin Banks, who had lived in New York City but had moved back to Texas, he played trumpet. I had a guy by the name of Don Shoaf, known as Donny Boy, and then I had a guy by the name Aaron Littlefield Jr. that played drums. And Matthew Robinson, who’s a big name now. WC Clark played in my band. We had a lot of fun, man. We did a lot of travelling. I bought a big old school bus and we use to travel around in a school bus. We had a lot of fun. I painted it green and white. All the school buses were yellow and I didn’t want ride around in a yellow school bus so I painted it green and white. We travelled around. We hired a driver, so we wouldn’t have to drive. That was a lot of fun, man.

WC Clark told me that he played in your band. Was he playing bass?

Yeah, he also played guitar. He was good, man. Then I left and moved to California, and when I came back he was a big name. He did good, and he’s still doing great. He’s a great guy, man. Nice fella.

After the interest of white college students in East Austin, how did integration affect the East Austin music scene?

Here in Austin, the only affect came in the black area of town. It didn’t affect the white portion of town that much. Some of the larger venues closed, simply because the owners probably died out and stuff like that. They passed on, and those places closed down. One was called the Jade Room. It was owned by a guy by the name of Dr. Funk—that was his name. Margorie Funk, that was his wife. And there was a place called the New Orleans Club, which used to be on Red River and 12th Street, I think.

Of course, there were a lot of venues on this side of IH-35, Charlie’s Playhouse being one. Well, during those days the students from UT would come over to Charlie’s Playhouse. Charlie owned another club way further east, which was called the Chicken Shack. It was an after hour place that opened up like at one or two o’clock in the morning and stayed open till like six o’clock. A lot of white students from UT would come over to this side of town to hear rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll—if that’s what you wanted to hear–because they knew they could get a better rendition of it over here.

James Polk & Company – You Know the Feeling (1984)

What happened, in the course of integration, and school desegregation, they finally decided to integrate the schools here in Austin. They integrated schools in 1971, I think. It happened in most of your major cities; they went in and closed the black high school. They closed it. So when the closed the black high school, they started integrating the other schools and busing black students to other high schools. There was a guy who owned a restaurant on the corner of I think it was 10th and Congress, I forget his name, but it was called the Piccadilly Restaurant. This guy was before Lester Maddox, who was down somewhere in Georgia, Mississippi. He stood up in front of the restaurant, with a baseball bat, and said that he wouldn’t let anybody black come in the restaurant. That happened right here in Austin, at Piccadilly Restaurant. The guy stood out there with a baseball bat. Well, he was the last one to hold out, but some of your restaurants started allowing black people to come in, and so black people were given the chance to go to some of those clubs that they were denied many years before.

Black people started going to those clubs. They started going to clubs on the West side of town, the north side, the south side of town that they couldn’t go before. So what happened to the east side? It dried out. A lot of the little clubs started closing. They closed the high school down there, so what happened to the east side of town? Everything that was coming into this side of town just dried out and stopped, because black people could go to other places and white people weren’t coming over here. They didn’t have to. They didn’t have to come over to these little clubs. They had their own. That’s basically what happened here in Austin, Texas and you can see the fruits of that today. Most of the black clubs are going down. There are hardly any black clubs in East Austin right now. And now the white people are buying up property in East Austin right and left, man, as we speak.

Even where I live, right now, this house we’re sitting in, this used to be Fred Acres’ house, the guy who was coach to UT. This is the house he owned; of course, I own it now. But this part of town when I was coming up in the sixties and early seventies… black people couldn’t live over here. Finally, all of that opened up and now black people are more or less able to live wherever they choose. This was in the late sixties and the seventies. That’s what kind of happened to Austin, as far as the Black music is concerned. Clubs started closing up. A few opened up again but most of them are gone till this day. They’re gone, no more.

Read James Polk: Recipes from the Doctor (2)

Interview originally published at All About Jazz