South African guitarist and singer Jonathan Butler headlines this year’s Houston International Jazz festival. Image courtesy of Rendezvous Records.

Necessity breeds creativity. Just ask Bubbha Thomas, who for over 40 years has led Jazz Education Inc., a non-profit program that keeps Houston kids out of trouble by teaching them about jazz. In the late ’80s, the organization began struggling financially, and Thomas desperately needed another revenue stream. That’s when he came up with the idea of the jazz festival, inspired in part by former mayor Kathy Whitmire’s push to raise Houston’s profile around the world. 

“One of the things I wanted to do was get in on the ground floor of her making Houston an international city,” he explains. Thomas contacted the late congressman Mickey Leland about securing sponsors for a festival. “I told him what I wanted to do, and he said ‘Look man, don’t worry about the money. You just get the artists.’ And that’s how it got started.”

The result was the Houston International Jazz Festival, which since 1991 has brought many of the biggest names in jazz to the Bayou City. Past performers include Celia Cruz, La India, Arturo Sandoval, Ramsey Lewis, Stanley Turrentine, Rachell Farrelle, Ahmad Jamal, and Wayman Tisdale. “We’ve had anybody who’s supposed to be anybody in music here in Houston,” says Thomas, who still devotes all the proceeds of the festival toward Jazz Education. 

This year’s festival, beginning August 2, features a special ensemble performance from virtuoso percussionist and former Prince protégé Sheila E., Barbadian saxophonist Elan Trotman, and South African guitarist and singer Jonathan Butler. “I love Houston a lot,” says Butler, who is best known for his 1988 smooth jazz album More Than Friends, which featured the hit singles “Lies” and “Sarah, Sarah.” “I’ve played the House of Blues there before, and I’ve been to Joel Osteen’s church.” 

His latest album, Grace and Mercy, has a hard-edged, contemporary gospel sound. Houstonians who know Butler from his more mellow albums are in for a surprise. “There’s going to be a lot of different flavors going on,” he says of his newest work. “It’s going to be fire.”

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