James Polk: Recipes from the Doctor (2)

Music in Austin: A Turning Wheel

“I didn’t go to school to study to be a doctor. I learnt everything I learnt out in the street which is probably more than what I would have to learn at school.”

James Polk at Antone’s (photo: Victor Engel)


Read James Polk: Recipes from the Doctor (1)

What are the main changes you have seen in the music scene since you started?

The music scene has changed somewhat. 6th Street, back in the late forties and early fifties, used to be totally black. All those were black clubs and I saw that change. I saw that go down completely and it was revived again under, I think, Carol Keaton who was the mayor of Austin then. She decided that she wanted to revitalize 6th Street and make 6th Street like Bourbon Street in the French Quarter [of New Orleans]. And with that came a lot of clubs right there on 6th Street. Of course, when it first started there were two or three jazz clubs down there. That changed because they weren’t patronizing the jazz clubs as much as they were the other ones.

What I have seen a lot change is the music scene in Austin with the beginning of 6th Street. A lot of musicians came here. A lot of rock ‘n’ roll and blues bands came to 6th Street. Now is the Warehouse District, down on Colorado, that particular area. Back in the early and late seventies, 15th and Lavaca. There’s two hotels over there now, but that was more or less the area of interest. There were a lot of clubs right there in that little area. Blue Parrot, Casablanca, Castle Creek… those were some of the names of the clubs. Rick’s, Italian Spaghetti House… And on Lavaca, there was a big record store. Record Warehouse, I believe it was called. That was more the area of interest and of course the Drag had a lot of clubs back in the sixties and seventies. There was what you call the Beatnik Era.

During the beatnik days there were a lot of clubs on the Drag, on Guadalupe, because we played in a lot of clubs over there. I saw all of that change. Now the areas of interest, of course, will be 6th Street and the Warehouse District, and, of course, some of the outer areas. During that time what we call the strip malls, there weren’t any. There was no Lincoln Village, there was no Anderson Mall, there was no Barton Creek Mall, there was nothing like that. The first mall that came to Austin was Capital Plaza, right over there in IH-35. They didn’t have any clubs in there but a lot of these other places started opening up, and you started getting these clubs.

University of Texas at Austin campus in the 1950s (texastowers.com)

Austin has always been a high cultural city, because of the number of colleges and universities here. Of course, with Huston Tillotson College, where I graduated–now Huston Tillotson University. Before that, the Black institutions were Sam Houston College and Tillotson College. They merged in 1952 and became Huston Tillotson University. You have Huston Tillotson, Concordia which moved off IH-35, you have Saint Edwards, you have the University of Texas and you have the ACC, Austin Community College which started in the seventies, I believe it was. So you have a large influx of students, of young people that would frequent those places. You know, your clubs, your music scene because on the weekends that’s what they live for. Students live to go out, and drink beer and get drunk, fall down and have a good time. Which I guess is all part of growing up because I did it too. We all did the same thing.

So that’s what I have seen changed. It was more localized when I was a youngster because there were a few clubs in the Black side of town, but that was as far as we could go being a black kid and a black student coming up here in Austin. I couldn’t go to those other places because there weren’t so many anyway. Only in the seventies, we saw that changed. I was working for IBM during those days, and I saw all of that change to where it is now.

People don’t go to the Drag very much anymore…

No. That used to be real popular, man. Like I said, back in the beatnik days, what we call the Beat generation, the Drag was very popular. There were a lot of clubs on the Drag. I saw, in the papers, they wanted to close that Cactus Club. That used to be a real popular club on the campus. They used to have a lot during the beat generation, when clubs didn’t have tables or chairs. They just had these big throw pillows on the floor. People would come, sit on the floor and listen to jazz music, and it gave that ambiance of being more in touch with the people. It was a lot of fun. Those were some good days.

There’s nothing like that nowadays. People would listen to jazz music more than they do today. Now people go out to these clubs and laugh and talk, get drunk and don’t pay any attention to what the music is going on. Very seldom. I know the Elephant Room is a prime example. I’ve worked there a lot with my newly formed band called Centerpeace. We just played there this past Saturday night and people there keep more noise than the band. But that’s the way it is.

James Polk, Tony Campise, Jeff Lofton, Chris Jones and Butch Miles at the Elephant Room

Do you feel that music appreciation is different in overseas than it is in the States?

Yes, absolutely. Music is incidental here. People, even club owners, don’t really care that much. They’re more concerned about how much that cash register is bringing up, how many drinks they’re selling, you know. They wanna get the musicians in to play in these clubs and don’t pay them anything. That’s what happened a lot here in Austin. You have young musicians who come to this town and are not really concerned about being able to make a fair wage and live of what they are doing because they probably got their parents supporting them at school and stuff like that. So they don’t really care about how much money they are making; it’s just the fun of being able to play.

Well, that messes over the guy who’s looking to make this a livelihood. You can’t live off of a hundred dollars a week, man. You can’t do that. Two hundred dollars a week, three hundred dollars a week… you can’t. And there’s a lot of people that exist over that because a lot of these young musicians are all pooling together, living in the same place. And they eat fritos and drink beer… [Laughs] You can’t do that. I can’t do that! I can’t live like this, man. [Laughs]

What do you think about Austin being named the Live Music Capital of The World?

Every city has to have some kind of motto, some kind of handle that you would recognize the city for. Something, let us say, well we are owned by this. I’ve heard Austin called the river city because of the Colorado River going through. That’s how they call San Antonio, the river city. That’s good for Austin. Now, I’ve been all over the world playing music and I can say this for a fact that Austin does have more live venues than a lot of other major places per capita. Like if you would even talk about New York, it probably has more clubs that musicians can play live in than New York. I know they do more than Los Angeles, per capita, because I lived in Los Angeles for ten years, and I know that Austin does have a lot of live music.

It’s good to be known as the live music capital of the world because it attracted a lot of musicians here, for that simple reason. They say, “Hey there’s a lot of music happening in Austin, Texas,” which it is. There are a lot of clubs here now which attract and they have live music. I’m glad that they consider this the live music capital of the world because it gives a spotlight on music. It focuses on music, no matter what kind of music you’re playing its still music, which is good for musicians and it’s good for the economy.

South by South West, you know how that guy started. The guy started South by South West because he wanted to give the club owners the chance to make some money over the weekend. Very few musicians get paid for coming here for South By South West, and they get probably over a thousand bands that come here. So he started that idea which was a good idea, it wasn’t bad, but the only thing I think is they’re using the musicians. Musicians pay their own way here from Spain, from the Netherlands, from Japan. They pay their own way; nobody’s paying for them to come. So they pay their own way just to come here and play in some of these clubs with the thought of maybe securing a record contract. So far, as I know, there hasn’t been too many–maybe there’s been some–but there hasn’t been many record contracts gotten from South By South West. But it does the economy good. They pump over two or three million dollars within that week, or whatever it is, which is good for the city of Austin. I can’t really say anything bad about it but I don’t really participate in it unless they’re gonna pay me. If somebody pays me, I’ll play. But I’m not playing for nothing, I’m too old. I probably would have done that when I was twenty years old. Long time ago…

Making His Way in the Market

“I started Twink Records because I wasn’t getting any label.”

When did you start Twink Records?

1969, I believe is when I first started. There was a guy here by the name of Bill Josie, who had Sonar Beat Records. He recorded a couple of my songs and he was going to put out a 45, but he died before it got out. His son took over the record company and didn’t do much with it. As a matter of fact, I got an email from him a couple of years ago. He’s out in San Francisco. They never did much with that 45, but some guy sent me a copy of that from Europe; he found a copy. I don’t know how these guys find these things man, but they did. That’s kind of the reason why I started Twink Records, because I wasn’t getting any label.

There were no major labels down. There was only one big record company down in this part of the country which was Duke-Peacock Records, down in Houston. They were blues, they didn’t do any jazz. I knew I didn’t stand a snowball chance in the eighties for getting in that record label. I said, “Maybe I should start my own.” So I did. Of course, it takes a lot of money breaking for an independent label because this was pre-Internet and pre-everything. You had to have a lot of money to be able to get it. Distribution is still the hardest thing to do. Even now it’s still hard, even with the Internet. You got companies set up now that all they do is distribute but is hard to get them. I’ve got all my CDs listed with Amazon.com and CDBaby and places like that, but, still, if you’re not a well-known artist and they’re not spinning your CDs on radio or across the country, people just don’t know who you are. So chances are you don’t get it sold that much.


I noticed your two CDs, When the Evening Comes (Twink, 2001) and Go with The Flow (Twink, 2007) both have a different sound.

Yeah. Well, [in When the Evening Comes] I went for more, what they call Smooth jazz. They named it Smooth jazz. I kind of went for that more than traditional straight-ahead jazz simply because it was selling more. And of course, I like the music. I like all forms of music. It comes easy for me to write, it comes easy to play so I decided to put that out. I like it all. Of course, straight-ahead jazz is probably my first love, but I do it all, and I decided to do something like that. No major label has picked me up even to this day so I decided years ago that I would start my own record label, which I did.

Right know we got out about four different CDs on my record label. Years ago, back in the sixties, there were 45 RPMs. A guy called me the other day, well he sent me an email from Germany and they got one of my 45 RPMS over there. I’ve had guys come over here from Japan. I’ve had guys come here, right at this same table, from England wanting those 45s. And they’re selling big in Europe, but I don’t get a dime for them. That’s awful, but I called BMI and they said there’s nothing that they can do. That’s what they told me. A guy just emailed me a couple of weeks ago, and he’s doing a compilation CD, and he wanted one of my songs so I said fine. Let’s see how that works.

I’ve noticed that musicians in Austin work a lot on a live basis, but it’s not so much about recording.

No it’s not and that’s a shame. It really is, man. It’s big money behind putting out CDs, because [if] you think about the amount of money a musician makes for playing a gig, it’s nothing like it would be for doing recording CDs. Just to record a thousand CDs it’ll cost you a thousand dollars. But those major record labels, when they print, they print fifty thousand, sixty thousand, one hundred thousand at a time, so the small independent label doesn’t have the cash flow to be able to do that. That’s the hardest part about it. What the independent labels try to do is, if you print up five thousand copies, and you can sell a whole lot of them of the bandstand and places like that, you can recoup some of your money back. But then you gotta get them into the records stores.

There’s still a lot of records stores around. It’s hard. What you do is put them on those record stores on consignment and they usually don’t take more than ten copies at the most. If you sell your CDs for fifteen bucks they are only going to give you maybe ten dollars, if they give you that much. They’re gonna sell it for fifteen so they’re making five dollars off your record. And most of them won’t take them for that because you are unknown, so they’re not gonna sell your CDs for 15 bucks. They might put them up and they say, “Well, OK, we’ll give you ten dollars apiece for these CDs.” Then they sell them for seventeen or eighteen dollars. They tell you they’re gonna sell it for ten, which you only get maybe six dollars of that and then they’re selling them for seventeen or eighteen bucks. So the money is going to the record store, not to the artist. It’s really a tough area to get into. It’s really a tough area. Of course, I haven’t been doing as much with it lately as I have done in the past but I hope to someday get it going again.

Playing with Ray Charles

 “The only thing Ray Charles couldn’t do was see. He could do everything else, everything.”

Ray Charles, James Polk & Rudy Johnson

What did you learn during the time you worked with Ray Charles?

I learned quite a bit from Ray Charles, because I worked with him on a one-to-one basis a lot. It was just he and I, many times, in the studio. He did all the engineering himself ever since, I guess, the seventies on. He did everything. I learned a lot about engineering from him, and a lot about orchestrating and writing music for bands, because he was a great arranger, a great orchestrator, and a great creator of music. It was just a great learning experience for me. He was a hard worker, man. And I learned a lot about blind people too. The only thing Ray Charles couldn’t do was see. He could do everything else, everything. I even tried to trick him one time. The control room, where he worked a lot on the board, had carpet on it and one day I was tiptoeing in easy so that he couldn’t hear me, and he stopped what he was doing and said, “Come on in, James.” I said, “How did you know I was here, man?” He said, “I heard your heartbeat.” Great ears, man. It was a wonderful experience. I learned a lot, a lot.

Did you both play piano?

I played piano before he would come out. See, he travelled with a 36-piece group: five female singers and 17-piece, 18-piece orchestra. I played piano with the orchestra before he would come out and start singing. When he would come out and start singing I would go on to the other side of the stage and played the organ. That’s how it worked out. It was great.

Another Texan who was famous for playing with Ray Charles was David “Fathead” Newman.

Good friend of mine. As a matter of fact, I did a concert with him… was last November, I believe it was, he came here. They have an Episcopal church, St James Episcopal Church, and they bring people every November for a few days and I played with David. He told me then that he had cancer and he passed soon after he went back to New York. But I have known David for many, many, many years.

Styles, Memories and Something to Look Forward To…

“We had group listening sessions where 5 or 6 of us would get together and put a record on.”

One of the things you’re well known for is your knowledge of music. You’ve always tried to teach the musicians around you and, of course, you’ve been a university professor. Does the teaching go together with the playing?

Well, when I finished college with a bachelor’s degree in music, I started teaching high school band. I was the high school band director. I just kind of progressed from that point on and I ended up finishing my career by teaching at Texas State University in San Marcos. I was the associate director of jazz Studies program down there where I taught jazz history, and a lot of the jazz courses. Of course, it’s always been a learning process for me, as well as the students. Whatever I learned, I tried to expose that to my students. I tried to give it back to my students. I tried to find the easiest route to learning what jazz music is about, learning what creativity is about. We’re all born with some kind of creative instinct. Everybody.

A lot of people go through life and never realize what it is but those who are fortunate in music and learn what that creativity thing within them is have a chance to pull it out, and it was my job to try and recognize that in that person and try to pull it out of them. You know, “you can do this.” I’ve always tried to maintain a real positive attitude because I love jazz music. Jazz music is my first love. Ray Charles used to teach me, there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. What makes it good is that if you do it right. If you do it wrong is bad. It’s simple, you know.

My motto when I taught at school was KISS which means Keep It Simple, Stupid. [Laughs] The other one was “Don’t Forsake the Groove.” You’ve gotta always make the music groove. Make it groove and make somebody else feel good by listening to your music. The way to do that, you play the music correct, put yourself into it, make sure that it’s technically right… It’s either gonna be right or it’s gonna be wrong. And why do it wrong the first time? If you do it right the first time you won’t have to go back and do it again. I have some simple rules. I use to tell my students “If you can say the first seven letters of the alphabet you can be a musician. A, B, C, D, E, F, G” and then you start all over again. [Laughs] That’s great, man.

Where does the name “Doctor” come from?

I have an honorary doctorate degree of music. Huston Tillotson offered to give me a doctorate degree of music, which is Doctor of Music. I didn’t go to school to study to be a doctor. I learned everything I learned out in the street, which is probably more than what I would have to learn in school. Oh yes, and a lot of people have trouble with that. I’m not a classically-trained musician. I never taught classical music because that wasn’t my thing. But there are very few people around [that] know any more about jazz music than I do. I put myself up against anybody at any university as for as knowing anything about jazz music. That’s simply because I’ve been doing it for so long and I’ve learned a lot about it.

Huston Tillotson recognized that talent in me and decided to say, “Hey, this guy deserves this,” so they gave me a doctor degree which gives me the same privileges as anybody who went to school. And it says that on my degree. They paid me for down in Texas State so they increased my salary because I had a doctor degree. That’s where that came from, the doctor degree. That it is simply because I have learned a lot about that particular form of music.

David Fathead Newman and Dr. James Polk (Jim Johnson)

Some decades have been associated with different styles of jazz. The thirties had swing, the forties had bebop, then came cool and hard bop… What do we have now?

Confusion! [Laughs]. Well, I see what you’re talking about. As jazz music is concerned, the guys are kind of reaching back getting some of the things that were more popular, more of the traditional jazz. Of course you still got traditional jazz. You don’t have free jazz, as much; Ornette Coleman was the main exponent of free jazz. So, what I see now is smooth jazz—a combination of traditional jazz, R&B and funk. They mix that together. And even some of these jazz musicians are mixing hip-hop with that jazz. Hip hop is not new, man. People don’t know that they were doing hip-hop back in the 1800s. You know, what they call rap music. I can give people some classical records where these guys were doing rap, back in the 1800s. It surprised me, when I heard it, but that’s what it was. Nothing’s new.

Everything is rehashed over again. So the only direction of jazz is not much new coming by way of jazz. What they are doing is polytonal. What I mean by polytonal is polychords; two chords simultaneously played together. The harmonies they are resorting back more to triadic harmonies, more sequential patterns. They’re playing patterns over certain stuff that they learn but that’s not new either. That’s just finding a different way to implement it and to improvisation. Jazz is all based around improvisation. Improvisation means to create, to make up on the spot. You have different avenues that they use now that they didn’t use back in the forties in traditional jazz, because the fact of the polytonal or the chordal aspect of it. They use triads and build sequential patterns out of that. That’s the direction I see it is in now, that kind of thing.

What music are you listening to right now?

I listen to everything, man. Well, I like traditional jazz music, I like smooth jazz, I like that combination of jazz and funk, what we call funk music… I’m not so crazy about rap or hip-hop, because what they are doing is good, in the sense that the words and the rhythms they use and are creating over… that’s real unique; how they can squeeze those words into different rhythm patterns. Rap music is more rhythmical than it is anything. A lot of times, they put music that has been recorded already in the background. They’re using those beat box machines, drum machines and things to create rhythms and then put words and stuff over the top. That’s fine; I even listen to that. Some, but not as much as I do my traditional jazz. I like traditional jazz, I like funk, I like R&B, I like blues and, of course, I like smooth jazz.

Do you have any lifetime favorite artist or record?

I like Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), that was Miles Davis. I mean, I think that is one of everybody’s favorite. It was an album that came out then that kind of announced the time for what the music was about. The creativity that went into making that was just great. And how they were playing back there then, you know. People are still listening to that.

That’s when I was really interested in trying to really get my teeth into jazz music and listen to it. We would really listen them a lot to try and figure out what the guys were doing. See, there weren’t any places here in Austin, Texas, where we could go sit down and hear these really great artists play music so the only way we could learn was by listening to those vinyl records. We had group listening sessions, where five or six of us would get together and put a record on and [Kind of Blue] was one of the records we put on. “What did he do there, man? What chord did he play? What did he play over there?” That was how we learned. We went to the piano and try to figure out: “Oh that’s what he did.” That was very interesting, and was one of my favorite.

King Curtis & The Kingpins (Cornell Dupree and Jimi Hendrix on guitar)

A lot of albums and things and music that came along during that time were very special to me. I listened to a lot of stuff. But there wasn’t too much smooth jazz during that time, no. There was a lot of blues. I listened to a lot of blues. There was a guy named King Curtis–tenor saxophone. Oh man, he’s one of my favorites, too. I love King Curtis. And organ players; I listened a lot to Jimmy Smith. Jimmy was a personal friend of mine. I listened to Jimmy, and I listened to Dr. Lonnie Smith and Don Patterson, organ player out of Philadelphia. Oh man, he was fantastic. I played a lot of organ. I thought I was an organist. [Laughs]

I never get the chance to meet him [King Curtis]. He got killed trying to stop a fight. And they stabbed him. That’s how he died. He was coming to his apartment and these people were out the having a fight. He tried to stop the fight and they stabbed him, killed him. Awful, man.

I believe you’re working on a new record right now.

Oh yeah. Well, I’m getting the material together. The group that you heard, Centerpeace, we’re gonna go in the studio and do some recordings. I haven’t picked the date yet, when we’re gonna do that. I got most of the music already put together. It’s just trying to get the funds together. I got the studio, too, where I’m gonna go, but I’m trying to get the funds together to do that. That’s on the horizon in the near future. So keep your ears open.

Selected Discography

Dr. James Polk, When Evening Come (Twink, 2008)
Dr. James Polk, Go With The Flow (Twink, 2007)
Pamela Hart, May I Come In (HartBeat, 1998)
Dr.. James Polk, Jamad (Twink, 1992)
James Polk & Co., You Know The Feeling (Trilogy, 1984
Ray Charles, Wish You Were Here Tonight (Concord, 1983)
Ray Charles, Ain’t It So (Concord, 1979
James Polk & The Brothers, Power Struggle (Twink, 1969) (single)
James Polk & The Brothers, Just Plain Funk (Twink, 1969) (single)

Interview originally published at All About Jazz