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It’s a chilly Sunday night in December, and Project Row Houses—the community-based arts organization in the Third Ward—is hopping, specifically the row house currently christened The Jazz Church of Houston.

On a custom-built stage inside the small shotgun house, Houston bassist Marcos Varela leads his swinging quartet with tunes from his album San Ygnacio. It’s standing-room-only in the 30-seat venue, which is part art installation, part history museum and part juke joint. Varela, a graduate of the city’s celebrated High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, is just one of many Houston musicians, poets and activists who have appeared at The Jazz Church of Houston since it opened in September 2016. 

Tierney Malone, one of the city’s most distinctive visual artists, is the mastermind behind The Jazz Church of Houston. As one of seven artists from the Round 45 collective selected to show their work this winter at Project Row Houses, Malone has created what he describes as an “action project" and "secular temple” that is a gathering place to engage, enlighten and entertain audiences unfamiliar with Houston’s past and current contributions to the art of jazz. 

By day, the space functions as a museum, with its modular walls hung with historical photographs of Houston jazz musicians, framed album covers, posters and original art by Malone. Upon entering, attendees are greeted by an enlarged photograph taken in 1921 of the King & Carter Jazzing Orchestra of Houston, which shows how quickly jazz traveled from its birthplace in New Orleans to other parts of the country. One room is dedicated to The Jazz Church of Houston’s patron saint: saxophonist and former Third Ward resident Arnett Cobb, featuring several rare photos of “the wild man from Texas.”

At night, the church transforms into a performance venue. No food is served (although beer and bottled water are available for a donation) and cell phones are strongly discouraged. In a city where jazz is all too often presented as background ambience in restaurants, sitting still and simply listening to the music can feel like a revelation.

Malone was born in 1964 in Los Angeles, but grew up in Mississippi and Alabama, where comic strips, movies and, most significantly, music, began to shape his visual aesthetic. “Music was the way I saw the world,” says Malone. “Growing up, I spent hours upon hours listening to records and imagining, with the aid of album covers, what the musicians were talking about.” Those musicians, such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, often appear in name in Malone’s paintings. 

After relocating to Houston in 1982 to attend Texas Southern University, Malone’s research and artistic pursuits led him to uncover the names and histories of countless Houston musicians who contributed to the jazz movement since its inception at the turn of the 20th century. With no institution dedicated to the contributions Houston musicians have made to the development of jazz, Malone made it his mission to bring attention to the city’s musical legacy. And now, through February 2017, there is a space where Houston jazz lovers can learn more and celebrate the city’s homegrown talent. As Malone is fond of saying, “You can’t talk about jazz in America and not talk about the city of Houston.” 

Upcoming events include a talk by visionary artist Forrest Prince (Jan. 8), a jazz-inspired poetry reading in collaboration with Inprint (Jan. 11) and a special live taping of Tierney Malone’s radio show “Houston Jazz Spotlight” (Jan. 14).

The Jazz Church of Houston at Project Row Houses

Thru February 2017. Free. Wednesday–Sunday from noon–6 and performances at 7. Project Row Houses, 2515 Holman St. 713-526-7662. houstonjazzchurch.com

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