Harold McMillan: Inspirational Commitment
by JOSEP PEDRO
Deeply involved in Austin’s music and art community, Harold McMillan has been providing access and exposure primarily to traditions derived from African American culture for more than twenty years. Initially he started the Blues Family Tree Project, a documentary collective first conceived as an oral history project, which ultimately contributed to the founding of Diverse Arts Culture Works in 1994, four years later.
A non-profit multidisciplinary cultural arts organization dedicated to the long-term development of the African American Cultural Heritage District in East Austin, Diverse Arts has produced annual jazz festivals and performance series around blues and jazz, including the Clarksville Jazz and Arts Festival, Women in Jazz Concert Series, Austin Acoustic Music Festival, African American Month Concert Series. McMillan has also been executive producer for selected touring shows by different jazz artists, including organist Jimmy Smith, pianist McCoy Tyner, saxophonist James Clay, trumpeter Roy Hargrove and Crisol, percussionist Ray Barretto, and trumpeters Kermit Ruffins and Nicholas Payton, among others.
Locally, McMillan-who functions as publisher/editor, music producer, documentarian/cultural historian, gallery owner and performing musician, has put together the single largest collection of documentary materials on the East Austin musical community, especially the history of the East 11th and 12th Street Entertainment District, where two key places where he operates can be found: the Historic Victory Grill, the most unique cultural club in Austin, and Kenny Dorham’s Backyard, an outdoor venue dedicated to the bebop trumpeter who once was a resident of the neighborhood and a student at Anderson High School.
Convinced by the power and impact of community action belief and day- to-day work, McMillan keeps demonstrating the importance of personal and cultural integrity, a reminder that music is not only entertainment but also a complex language where individual and collective voices relate at different levels. Overall, with his particular production-research combination and an understanding attitude towards the past, present and future, McMillan is tracing a valuable piece of history that celebrates the richness of East Austin’s past, showcases the contemporary creative community and contributes to the bridging of cultural gaps between various Austin communities.
This article was inspired by an encounter with Harold McMillan about two years ago, during time spent in Austin; a series of intensely concentrated experiences that come out as a collective story in which significant places, people and circumstances should be mentioned.
Largely ignorant of Austin’s fascinating music history, I arrived in the Texas capital willing to search the music for myself, which made it all the more exciting. After a few days getting myself together and attending the nearby country bar Donn’s Depot, I looked for the Texas Music Museum, also located in East 11th Street, just a few meters away from the Victory Grill.
Feeling the intense Texas summer heat, I took bus number 4 and started to walk from the Texas Capitol. I crossed I-35, the dividing highway between Downtown and East Austin, historically a separating border- line where Blacks congregated, and finally arrived at the Texas Museum. I contemplated the exhibits and ended up playing twelve-bar blues on a piano upstairs; enough for Clay Shorkey, Texas Music Director, to approach me for a welcoming conversation and another tour. A charming, chunky Social Work professor, Shorkey proved to be a very helpful and active-documentarian connoisseur of local musicians. He took me to the Victory Grill, where I met Clifford Gillard, who shares the production management of the venue with McMillan.
Founded in 1945 by Johnny Holmes as a celebration of the returning black soldiers from WWII, the Victory Grill was part of the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a series of clubs and venues where black artists performed while touring around the South. Also a breeding ground for new talent, the Victory Grill “represents a time and a culture that cannot be recaptured or cannot be erased,” Gillard explains. “It provided an opportunity for black people back then, a space that they could call home, a space that they could call their own.”
That same night I attended the Monday Blues Jam that Harold McMillan organizes at the Victory Grill. Delighted by its impressive facade with portraits of Johnny Holmes, pianist Grey Ghost and singer Lavelle White. I walked in through the backdoor; there was hardly anyone there. I talked to the bartender, with whom I went out for a smoke. I met McMillan, who said he would lend me a guitar if I liked to play. We talked about my “Ethnography of Austin Live Music” course at the University of Texas. Then it was time for the music to start.
The jam started off with the house band, the East Side Blues Syndicate, playing a long, slow, instrumental blues that set the mood and broke the ice patiently. Featuring Woody Russell on guitar and vocals, Jose Ruiz on harmonicas, Harold McMillan on bass and Doug Marcis on drums, the band played some personal classic covers like “Every day I Have the Blues” and “I’m Ready,” and reached a great emotional peak with “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” After that, different musicians started coming onstage and, to end the show, they appropriately played Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On.” The friendly atmosphere made it special, and it felt authentic. Wrapped in its fascinating history, as the blues filled the walls inside, the Victory Grill radiated magical vibes.
It was a meaningful place to embrace the music in an appropriate environment. Not only for its past, which holds the culture of a community that locally lived the blues in their own way, but for its present spirit. With the right attitude, being at the Victory Grill on a Monday night blues jam meant a form of dialogue, imagination and understanding through music. Far from a commoditized version, it was a breath of fighting peace in the midst of today’s dismantling policies.
Since then, I have followed McMillan’s labor from a distance, as the jams kept evolving and bringing in a larger audience and different musicians, most notably bluesman Matthew Robinson, whose tandem with McMillan inspires confidence and excitement. McMillan has also gone through the horrible experience of being roughed by Houston Police Department officers when he traveled to that city’s Memorial Hermann Hospital to collect the wallet of his recently deceased brother. All the charges against him were finally dismissed, with local support from friends and allies who started different initiatives to denounce the situation and help him.
Nowadays, McMillan is back to work and it’s best to join him in his day-to-day concerts and exhibits. Although many of us can’t make it, it’s necessary to keep spreading the word so that when you go to Austin or talk about the “Live Music Capital of the World,” you remember the best options. It is precisely for making things happen and for the honesty of his mission that McMillan is truly appreciated and loved by everyone who knows him-musicians, community members, club owners, professors and music lovers.
Inside his life’s endeavour resides the valuable gift of those historic personalities who felt impelled to contribute positively to social life through cultural production communication. Cool and attractive, calm but always on the move, McMillan illustrates, with harsh elegance, the importance of combining a local grounding and open-minded global thinking. A firm cultural warrior, his trajectory has already offered plenty of soul but will surely face new turning points. Harold McMillan might never become a nationwide known figure, but here’s a man against which we can mirror ourselves.
Harold McMillan Interview
All About Jazz: When and why did you come to Austin?
Harold McMillan: I got an undergraduate degree at East Texas State University, in Sociology. So I came to Austin as a graduate student as an Administration and Planning Specialist. I did half of the program and encountered a dispute with the School of Social Work. Ultimately, I won my case, but by that point I already decided that I wouldn’t finish the program.
At the time, I thought I was headed to being an activist lawyer with a specialty in social service and assistance planning. But after being in Austin for a little while, I realized there was an underemployed lawyer on every corner, so I took those things off the list. I decided to focus on cultural programming and advocacy because, in my head, those are the same kinds of issues that compelled me to go into social work. The work that I do here also has that kind of drive behind it.
AAJ: What is the main idea behind the different projects that you have started, including the work at the Victory Grill, Kenny Dorham’s Backyard and the gallery, among others?
HM: Most of the projects I’ve started over the years, it’s because I saw a need, and I just felt like those needs were not being addressed, that nobody else was doing it. I wanted to jump out there to see if I could get some of this stuff going.
Pretty much everything that we do has a purpose in Central East Austin as an African-American cultural district. We are trying to make sure that there is representative cultural program content. Although for years it was largely a segregated African-American community, Central East Austin is very much not that now. It’s in the midst of redevelopment gentrification, and a lot of the evidence of an African-American past in the community has disappeared. So I consider the work that we do a form of cultural preservation. What we want to promote is a view of art and culture that doesn’t have a specific meaning to being a painting that hangs on the wall. There’s creative output and artistic production in a lot of ways: dancing, writing, reciting, playing music, painting, building …
Part of the reason why that was in my head was that in the cultural life of many West Africans peoples, there’s not a whole lot of separation in between things that are beautiful and things that are functional. Some people have explained that there are not separate words for “sing” and “dance” or “music” and “dance” because you can’t disconnect them.
AAJ: How was the musical scene in Central East Austin during the 1940s and 1950s, specifically in places like the Historic Victory Grill?
HM: In order to look at the period of post-WWII, the thing to remember is that East Austin was segregated. It was where most of the black folks in Austin lived. There were pockets around the city, but Central East Austin had the highest concentration of residences, neighborhoods, churches, schools and businesses that were run and served by African-Americans.
With the Victory Grill being launched in 1945, the years that followed saw a development phase as a venue. It started out as a hamburger stand, then it expanded to the cafe, which is the front part of the building, and after that they added the “Kovak” room to the back, which is the music room today. At that time, the commercial quarters would have been 7th street, 11th street and 12th street. Then there’s a section up 11th street, where Rosewood starts, that kind of runs in between 11th and 12th street. That’s where the cafes and juke joints were. It was “downtown East Austin.”
At the time, if you were Ike and Tina turner or some other blues or jazz touring act, and you came to Austin, chances are that you were not playing downtown, maybe at the University of Texas, probably not. The venues for you to play were by and large run by black folks, and the audience was by and large black. You played at the Victory Grill, Charlie’s Playhouse or, if it was a big show, maybe you played at the Doris Miller Auditorium. I wasn’t around, but I’ve done a good number of interviews with people who were, and some of the people make the comparison that East 11th and 12th on the weekends during the heyday was not so dissimilar to 6th street today, just in terms of tracking- different kinds of businesses, obviously.
There were single people, families and couples out on Saturday night going out to eat or going out for dinner and a dance or listening to an after-hours blues performance that might be happening at the Victory Grill or at Charlie’s. There was nightlife. Blues Boy Hubbard tells a story of having an early gig at Charlie’s or at the Victory Grill and then his band packing up their stuff and playing until early in the morning at the Chicken Shack.
It was largely segregated, but one of the things that is fairly true, I think, is that by and large African-American businesses, schools and churches were never segregated by African-Americans. So, although the band that might be playing at the Victory Grill was a black touring band, T-Bone Walker or whatever, and almost everybody in the audience was black, there were some white people, too, who liked the blues and knew who T-Bone Walker was. Service was not refused to them; that wouldn’t have been the case the other way round, on the west side of town.
Many of the stories that I get from interviews are, at some level, romanticized with an element of nostalgia. But in some ways, it was a healthier African-American-specific cultural situation for the people that lived in the community because they had ownership, freedom to move about and do business with whoever they wanted to. They weren’t asked to go the back door if they wanted to go into a cafe and get a hamburger.
If there was a hot blues band in town, most of the other people in the venue that night looked like you. Troubles were not about the black- white issue. That element of social tension did not exist. There was a feeling of community identity and sense of place that made people feel comfortable.
AAJ: What famous musicians played at the Victory Grill?
HM: I’m careful about a lot of the names. What I think is probably better is to think about the people who were on their way up in their national touring careers. If they played in Austin, chances are the places they would play were Charlie’s Playhouse and the Victory Grill. I know that people like Bobby Blue Bland, B.B. King and Ike and Tina Turner played there. It has been rumored that Billie Holiday was there. I don’t know if she was on stage or was travelling and just visited… I don’t know if that actually happened, but I’ve heard people say it over and over.
Bobby Bland had a close connection to the Victory Grill and to the woman who was running the Victory while Johnny Holmes was out of town doing some work, perhaps in Alaska or West Texas. Her nickname was Big Mary. She kind of adopted Bobby Bland as a favorite performer, and some people even refer to them as having a mother-son kind of relationship. Actually, when she died a few years ago, Bobby attended the funeral.
And along with those few names I just mentioned, you have to also think about people that could have been in their touring bands. Wayne Benet would have been one of the guitar players that would have been working with Bobby [Bland] during many of those years, and also Clarence Hollimon, very significant, too. Lavelle White played there, and I would assume that Pee Wee Crayton and T-Bone Walker might have played also.
In some ways, I am more concerned in looking at it from a larger picture now. I don’t know exactly how significant it is who exactly was on that stage, but if someone did some research specifically about that, I would be very happy to read the findings. The main thing is that during those years, if you were on the way up or already famous and touring and black, you played in East Austin, either at some of those venues or at Huston-Tillotson [College] or Doris Miller auditorium.
AAJ: How did you end up producing cultural programming at the Historic Victory Grill?
HM: My engagement with the Victory Grill goes back to the ’90s when I did an amount of programming working with people who previously had the lease there. That changed in December, 2009. With that change, the Victory Grill as a venue is kind of in a transitory limbo status in that there is no business that has a lease in there. But I thought, and to some extent still think, that I’m working towards trying to get an agreement with the family that owns the Victory Grill to program a good amount of music that happens there.
Again, my take on the Victory Grill draws back to the cultural-heritage district and the importance of preservation. It is to make sure that, in addition to the contemporary hip-hop, R&B and soul, that there is a direct link to more traditional forms of African-American music. Pretty much everything that I do at the Victory Grill is tied to jazz, blues, gospel, soul, R&B … It’s not that I don’t like contemporary music; I just think that the historic nature of the venue is conducive, and there should be jazz and blues happening there.
Ideally, what I would like to see is regular appearances on the stage of the Victory Grill of those guys who are alive and remaining from the older East Austin black-music scene. But I don’t ask those guys to come up and play unless I can afford to pay them a decent fee to come out and play, because I do respect. So when I get funding, I produce shows to feature Clarence Pierce, Blues Boy Hubbard, Lavelle White, Hosea Hargrove, etcetera. In my estimation, those are the people who should have home base in the Victory Grill. If I could make that larger group of players have regular gigs there, it would be the most legitimate blues room in Austin. So, in other words, I’m probably frustrated that we’re in this limbo period without a real agreement about what direction it’s gonna have.
If I were to set up properly in the venue, I would focus on money for talent fees, marketing, staffing… It could be run like a real cool historic, functional blues joint, chitlin’-circuit juke joint, that would do business. If that happens, the venue will be a successful ongoing concern because it is absolutely and totally unique in Austin. But the full advantage of that uniqueness and legacy of a cultural capital is not being effectively exploited right now.
AAJ: What are the current management details of the Victory Grill?
HM: The family of Johnny Holmes, the person that founded the Victory Grill, still own the property, the building and the name. Up until last December, at least 10 years, they’ve been operating a lease agreement with Eva Lindsey. I used to work with her and produce shows, too. Her agreement went back to Johnny Holmes, when he was still alive. The lease agreement was to expire this spring, and they had proposed a renewal for a larger amount of time in the future. After the family considered their proposal, they chose not to renew the lease, so Eva vacated the business.
Since that time, the family has not entered another lease agreement with anyone else. Clifford Gillard and I have been engaging conversations with the family, putting the attitude out there to them that, in the meanwhile of coming up with a new agreement and deciding what you’re gonna do, it will make sense to try and keep some momentum going at the grill and not shut the doors. There was a historic marker that was going to be installed, and short after that the annual South by Southwest [Festival] was coming, so we agreed to ask for it, and they agreed to go ahead and try to keep some programming going. The status of that right now, as far as I know, is in that place that I call limbo.
We have submitted a proposal to the family from Diverse Arts as an organization to run the venue as an active-life cultural institution that has a cafe and a bar. The programming policy would be very much tied to traditional music and preservation. In addition to music, there would be community gatherings, screenings, stage talks and art exhibits, along with more contemporary programming. What we are proposing is that the grill becomes less of a call for hire, less of a venue that you don’t know what’s going to be there because that’s dependent on who wants to rent the place. We would run it with a booking policy that establishes an identity for the room, so that after a while you would have some idea of what you’re going to find there.
Today our proposal has not been acted upon by the family. Me-Harold McMillan, personally-and Diverse Arts, organizationally, have backed off some of the energy of investing money, resources and time into the Victory until we have a clear sense of what the future might hold. Having said that, I’m still booking things in there, bringing in instruments… But it’s not an optimum situation.
AAJ: What role did Antone’s play in the history of blues in Austin?
HM: Well, I think it would be a mistake to deny that Antone’s is one of the seminal venues in Austin, in Texas, and some people would say in the world, for a certain period of time. The first incarnation of the club opened in 1975, I believe, and what Clifford Antone was able to do was use his connection with folks that were tied to the Southeast Texas, Louisiana and Chicago music scenes. He created a pipeline situation with many guys who were legends at the time and were not actually getting that much work other than going to Europe and playing festivals. He would call Hubert Sumlin and say, “Hey, you wanna come to Austin, hang out and play for a month?” So during that month, there were times where Mel Brown or Pinetop Perkins were there, so it became a Mecca for first- and second-generation blues legends to have a place to play in Austin.
In terms of a local scene, what Clifford Antone’s club was able to do was to provide, essentially, a blues-mentoring situation where the young, hot white players who were in Austin-being from Austin or that had come from Oak Cliff, Dallas or Lubbock-could hang out and play music. If they were friends of Clifford Antone and that group of folks, they got to play on stage with Muddy Waters, Albert Collins or Albert King. There was a situation that if Muddy Waters is the touring act who’s headlining, then Stevie or Jimmie Vaughan might be the opening act, and they will be really hot and impressive. Then when the headliner comes on and plays part of the set, they would ask Stevie Vaughan to come and sit in with them.
From the linkages that were made in that situation, you had people who were at the center of the local blues scene that got catapulted to a much larger national and international stage. So if Buddy Guy is in town, and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble are opening up for him and then sitting in with him, and Buddy Guy is blown away with Stevie’s playing, then when Buddy goes to play the Utrecht blues festival, he might say: “I know this young white boy from Austin who’s killing! Can I bring him with me?” Because of the kind of community that Clifford was able to put together, you had these young guys hooking up with kind of the last generation of the people who made the music in Chicago or grew up in Mississippi and moved to Chicago. So I would consider Antone’s to be a major cultural institution in that way.
One of the things about the way that Antone’s grew and developed over time that I didn’t understand and I took issue with was that those kinds of opportunities didn’t happen as much for W.C. Clark, Matthew Robinson, Clarence Pierce… But I think the young white guys were just more sexy to the audience and to the group of people that he was putting the music out for. In the early days, in the first incarnation of Antone’s, some of the East Side black blues players were very much part of the scene, but they became less involved as Antone’s became more successful.
AAJ: The process of racial desegregation was crucial for the evolution of social and cultural relationships of the black community. What were some of its overall effects in Austin?
HM: As with a lot of things which have to do with human effect or the result of some legal and social sanction, there were obviously necessary things that were tied to the civil-rights movement and to major civil-rights legislation that happened in America between 1954 and 1965. They were very positive, were late at coming and had to happen. Having said that, I’ve also engaged in a lot of conversation and writing about the paradox and irony of the survival of African-American institutions, churches and expressive culture in Central East Austin over the years, and said that it’s fairly clear that many of those survivals would not have happened without the insulation that was put around the community through racial segregation.
I think the way to weigh these issues out is just to think in terms of what positive things happened because of these social-movement and legal changes, and what negative things occurred. I think any honest conversation about the effects of segregation in America, or in Austin, can’t be just that polarizing conversation from the Black Nationalist or the Integrationist point of view.
One of the connected issues that goes with that kind of dual explanation is tied to the fact that some people think that when you say black people, you are talking about a monolithic kind of lockstep: we all agree and judge the situation exactly alike because were black people. But the truth is that there is a lot of intellectual, social and cultural diversity within the group of people that are called black. Many of us are mixed- raced peoples whose families identify as black. And some of the people in those families don’t identify as strongly as black.
Many of the people that are in similar conversations and arguments, although they exercise the mobility and freedoms that they’re allowed to move around the city and the country, if they were given their choice of how they would live, they would only interact with black people in their personal and social life. I think most people are some place in the middle.
AAJ: What do you think about Austin being named the live-music capital of the world?
HM: I think it is a marketing tagline that is overblown and at some point pretentious and also successful. I think those of us who are in the music industry here don’t really look at Austin as the live-music capital of the world. I also know that when people in the jazz scene in New York or people in New Orleans hear that Austin is the live-music capital of the world, they laugh and chuckle. But in terms of it being a successful marketing slogan and tourism draw, I think it’s successful. At some point, somebody did some kind of math and came up with a formula where they are able to say that on any given night there are more live music performances per capita in Austin than anywhere else.
AAJ: In working with a non-profit cultural organization like Diverse Arts, what are the main problems you have to face in looking for funding?
HM: The situation is complex, but there are some key points. One key point is that traditional cultural-based, non-commercial music is not as sexy to some potential commercial funders. If you look at the big festivals and concert series around town, they are often supported by commercial interests. There’s a big logo above a radio station: a bank, or a technology firm. I think that traditional blues and jazz is less appealing to those people as a potential project for them to put their money into because it’s not a purely commercial enterprise.
Another thing is that culture-based music programming, especially as it’s conducted by a non-profit organization, is in the same boat with nonprofit organizations in general. That situation, locally for sure and also nationwide, is also based on the effects of a bad economy. The level of contribution that comes from corporate and individual services is down; it’s flat. It’s also true that some of the more mainstream traditional sources that are tied to government funding agencies are down also. You hear people talking a lot about all that money that’s out there. Well, there probably is a good amount of potential funding, but it’s not as easy as just picking up the telephone and calling Ford Foundation and saying: “Hey, I got this great little blues venue that needs some support. Can I write you a letter, and will you give me 30,000 dollars?”
Another difficult thing about the nature of some of the work that we do is that there is a perception with some folks in the public and potential funders that if you say that what you’re doing is based in African American culture, perhaps they assume that you’re just trying to appeal to the black folks. And when they run the numbers and they look at the demographics, they see that in Austin, Texas the population of African Americans is even less than 10 percent. If you’re looking for market share that will come with your sponsorship or funding investment, if one has the kind of tunnel vision that assumes that if it says African-American art and culture that’s the only target audience or community that you’re trying to address, then that community is not a very large one. So I think it’s easier for people to say no.
And Austin, Texas still suffers from an American legacy of racial discrimination and bigotry, and that exists in the hearts in the music business-much, much more in the music business than among musicians, but by large Austin is still a very segregated city in a lot of ways. There are a lot of people who still look at East Austin as some other place -perhaps not really part of Austin because it’s where black and brown people live, and it’s poverty, dangerous, drugs and prostitution, violence… There are all of those things because for years that’s what the popular belief has been, and it’s been backed up by selected coverage in the local media.
Ironically enough, for the last several years, Central East Austin, that is right adjacent to Downtown, is not a minority-majority community. Most of the people who live here now are Anglo, under 50, openly mobile, don’t have kids, have a nice imported car and really feel good about living in Central East Austin because now it’s cool.
AAJ: It seems like there is a certain romantic vision about East Austin which is frequently not linked to real involvement…
HM: One of the things about Austin liberals and Austin is that white liberals from all over Texas can come to Austin and be really cool and find community among other white liberals that don’t have to really deal firsthand and personally with some of the people and issues which they have a liberal stance on. Those same people hate Houston, San Antonio and South Dallas. “Why do you hate those places?” “Well, you know, it’s just big, dirty city.” I.e., it’s full of black people that actually own business or are involved in city government and, yeah, shoot and rob and do all the other things that criminals do.
There’s this romanticized version of Austin like this hip and cool liberal kind of place, but a lot of people that speak that way, they don’t really engage on a personal level. I understand I am putting a bias out there. I think it’s based on experience and knowledge, but that’s a general statement. I acknowledge that.
AAJ: Do you think styles like blues, jazz and soul, with so many white musicians playing them, should still be considered black music?
HM: When I started the Blues Family Tree Project back in the early ’90s, my plan was to do a three-part video documentary, and the cultural-intellectual question that was at the head of what I was doing was looking at the situation in Austin and realizing that what used to be the home of the blues was shuttered and was a crack corner. Then, the new home of the blues was on the west side of town, run by Clifford Antone, and was the heaviest blues joint in the nation in terms of elder-statesmen talent, but all of the young guys were white guys.
So my cultural-intellectual question was: What happens to a culture- based, ethnic-specific form of expressive culture when its ability to sustain itself, grow and change is no longer directly connected to the community of origin? I’ve been trying to answer the question that you just asked me for the last 20 years, and I don’t think I have found a clear answer yet.
Part of my motivation for starting that project to begin with was some amount of disappointment that there was no next generation of young black kids who knew the canon and might be interested in being able to play a lot of different styles, would spend some time working on that. Gary Clark, Jr. has that right now in Austin, and he’s no longer a kid. There are a couple of young kids that live in Bastrop, the Peterson Brothers, who are absolutely fantastic. But when I started this work, one of my major issues was: What is happening here? During that time, I had made trips to New Orleans and New York and spent time in jazz and blues clubs, and I was really encouraged to see theses 16-year-old kids waiting in line to jam, knowing the material, the history, wanting to talk about it, and I wasn’t seeing that happen in Austin.
To address your question, black music-jazz, blues, gospel… it is black music because if you created it and nurtured it along… I don’t think that its future is necessarily in the hands of black people. It would continue to grow and change and be taught, and it will always be there. I don’t think that blues is going to suddenly become a major commercial core, but I don’t think that’s the point. I don’t know how much investment black musicians are gonna have in it, but I don’t think that changes the fact that it is black music. I am not from the French Alps. I’m a pretty good musician; I can learn to play French folk music and do it well. But that doesn’t make it suddenly African-American music because I have learned to play it. It’s French folk music.
I feel the same way about blues, especially. The question of whether white guys can play the blues or not is not, for me, a worthwhile question to spend a lot of time debating. I don’t think that’s really the point. In terms of my cultural biases, I do however think that, especially, black folks should know about the music, its history, development and distribution, because for black people, blues is more than music. For some non-African-Americans, blues is more than music, too. But I also think that for some non-black people, blues is nothing but music because there’s a cultural connection that they don’t get, or they’re not interested. But for me, blues is cultural history of black folk.
AAJ: Why do you think the British groups of the ’60s became so popular with their version of blues while other black musicians at the time were not able to become so commercially successful?
HM: Well, if you go back and do a chronological survey of music that’s come out of the African-American community, back to the ’20s, people find out that every 10 or 12 years, something that started out very specifically in the African-American community, that wasn’t highly commercially popular, reaches a point where some major corporate interests figure out how to mainstream it and make a lot of money. Then when that happens, black folks kind of go back deeper into the community and come up with something else.
One of the things that is also tied to this is, a lot of times, stuff that starts out as black music has to be validated somewhere else before middle America grabs it. Europeans liked the stuff, and then Americans started to really like it and to mainstream it. That happened with the British invasion in the ’60s. Again, the guys that ended up finding a home in Antone’s throughout that entire time were doing summer festivals and touring in Europe. That’s why Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and all of those guys knew about Stax, about the records of Atlantic and the blues sound coming out of Chicago. So it had to come back from them, and America goes crazy over this music. They think the guys in Cream wrote “Crossroads.” Eric Clapton is hot, don’t get me wrong. But he was mining material that had been around for 50 years.
Little Richard was a crazy, flamboyant progenitor of rock ‘n’ roll, but people like Pat Boone come behind him and scrub the lyrics. But Pat Boone has got major corporate connections in the major recording companies. He takes crazy Little Richard’s kind of slightly naughty lyrics and scrubs them up, and he gets a number-one hit. Elvis Presley grows up in the south, going to black churches and hanging out with the guys making music. The guys don’t get to be rich stars, he does. But Elvis would say, “This is where I got this from…”
AAJ: Looking at East Austin’s current situation, could cultural tourism be a part of its preservation and redevelopment without wasting its unique value?
HM: It should be. Some people, governments and businesses support projects because they’re just good projects that need support. Some of those people support projects based on something that they can get out of it. The public-art funding system that is managed by the city of Austin is not actually paid by the tax dollars of people who live in Austin, it’s paid by the hotel occupancy tax. So the money that our non-profit gets from the city of Austin did not come from Austin-resident taxpayers. It came because somebody came to Austin and spent a night in a hotel room and was charged a tax.
A lot of the justification for the state of the city to show support for public art, culture activities, historic districts and museums is the promise of cultural-tourism dollars. And that makes sense. Local investment in art and culture for the public does have a return that you can measure economically. So if you help my organization do high-quality performances, exhibits, publications, that blows up Central East Austin to an extent that we’re able to get our word to some potential travelers from New York City or Bangkok. Then it begins to make more sense to the business community and to the government because the connection is made.
If we actually do promote this as a cultural-heritage district, there are people who, when they’re making plans to travel, they wanna go to cultural and historic sites. They want to plan that, and if they can find out about it from a website before they even leave their home, all the better. Then if they get here, and they come to the historic Victory Grill because the marketing works, and the rhetorical bend of all of the writing is actually working so that people know just how cool it is to come there, they’re gonna stay at a hotel down the street or downtown, and they’re gonna get into taxi or take public transportation or rent a car, and they’re gonna come to the neighborhood. And while they’re walking to the Victory Grill, they’re gonna see different places that serve whisky, catfish, Mexican food, etcetera.
Part of what we’re up to is support the argument that local investment in art and culture does have a positive economic impact that begins as small as providing a job to an artist, to actually influencing someone to make a travel decision so they bring dollars to the city. I support the whole historic tours, district promotion and all of that. I think it’s becoming clear that although Austin has a reputation for being really hip and cool, innovative and at the head of the curve, San Antonio does this stuff a lot better than Austin does. Even the smallest little towns in Louisiana invite people from all over the world to come to their gumbo or Cajun-music festivals. They seem to embrace their indigenous culture and promote it worldwide.
I think that Austin is identity challenged. Austin doesn’t know who lives here; this is just a bland, hip and cool Texas city. The cowboys claim part of it, the alternative-rock college music claims part of it… The truth of the matter is that we’re in Northern Mexico, historically. A lot of what is here is because Mexicans built it, and a lot of what is here is because black people built it as slaves when they were here, and the cowboys, too. I think that Austin could do a lot more to pump up the indigenous cultural attributes of this geography and location rather than try to almost be ethnic-less.
AAJ: Of all the different stories you must have lived with cultural programming along the years, is there any recent experience that you remember particularly?
HM: One of the seasonal programs I do is called the Austin Blues Masters Series. The idea behind those shows is to pay attention to perhaps the older guys but definitely the more-established locally iconic blues musicians. Put them in a situation where they are the headliner and in conjunction with the performance do a screening of some of my documentary footage, maybe do a question and answer with the audience or have a moderated panel that talks about changes in the East side.
I did one of the shows with W.C. [Clark] not long ago, and one of the first stages that he performed on was the Victory Grill. One of the first people that gave him gigs as a bassist was T.D. Bell. At the time, his band was probably T.D. Bell and the Cadillacs. That’s the back story. There’s this connection between W.C. Clark, the Victory Grill and T.D. Bell.
So the program that I put together was a feature performance by W.C. and his band, the screening of some documentary footage that was the last thing that my project recorded live, of T.D. Bell from 1998 at Antone’s, and the show happened at the Victory Grill. W.C. was to play and answer questions after the screening of T.D’s performance. We got a screen set up onstage, and the lights are down. Everybody is really quiet and paying attention because it’s really a great performance, and T.D. is tearin’ it up.
It’s getting closer to that time where the film is gonna end, and it’ll be time for W.C. to take the stage, but I can’t find him. I remember that earlier, W.C. was actually onstage tuning his guitar, and as I started to look around for him, I’m listening at the P.A., and I’m realizing there’s a guitar part that is in the room that I know is not part of the footage-I’ve listened to that footage over and over again.
It turns out that while the footage from 1998 is running on the screen, and the audio is on the P.A., W.C. Clark is behind the screen playing along on guitar with T.D. W.C. was kind of emotional about it. He was playing along with his mentor in 2010 from a performance that happened in 1998. I thought it was pretty cool that I had orchestrated the chance for that to happen.
Originally published at All About Jazz
I am so proud that my grandfather, the late T. D. Bell was a part of the Austin Blues Legacy. And I am so grateful to everyone that is moving to keep this rich history alive. Thank you so much!
Ingrid Bell & The Bell Family
Thanks a lot for sharing Ingrid! As you see, there’s always some nice words for T.D.
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