Does Jazz Exist in Houston?

Houston produces some of the country’s greatest jazz musicians. So where’s the local scene?

By David Theis July 25, 2014 Published in the August 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Houstonian pianist and composer Jason Moran at Discovery Green. Courtesy Katya Horner

On a stunningly beautiful evening this spring, 3,000 people flocked to Discovery Green to hear native son Jason Moran, the renowned pianist and composer, perform with his seven-piece ensemble Fats Waller Dance Party. Moran’s band was filled with Houstonians, and local chanteuse Lisa Harris belted out the vocals.

Moran’s music can be cerebral, so it was great to see him cut loose with the Waller gang’s brand of party music. (Full disclosure: my wife Susanne is in charge of Discovery Green’s programming.) It was just as thrilling when he spoke to the audience about his early days at HSPVA, and about how lonely he had been when he moved to New York after he graduated in 1993. “It was just me,” he remembered. His move started a process of HSPVA musicians making the move, which has created such a powerful transfer of talent that now, according to Moran, “Houstonians are taking over!”

And that’s no hype. In 2011, New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff wrote a story about the Houston “takeover.” Over two nights at the 92nd Street Y’s Tribeca branch, over 20 Houston musicians performed a concert in honor of their HSPVA mentor, Robert “Doc” Morgan. The cry of “Third Ward,” went up more than once. Every set included a cover of a song by a Houston artist, from ZZ Top to the Geto Boys to Archie Bell. The finale of the concert, a keyboard face-off between Moran and Robert Glasper, was “the kind of thing that could be made only by people whose lives had been crisscrossing for a long time,” as Ratliff wrote. (For its inaugural concert back in 2008, Discovery Green offered a similar, if necessarily less encyclopedic “Tribute to Doc,” which included Glasper and numerous others.)

We all felt our Houston pride as Moran spoke and played, but, for me at least, that pride turned into a question as I walked away from the park, into downtown—with nary a jazz club in sight. If Houston produces so many truly world-class talents, and has by all accounts some of the best jazz education in the country, then why is it so hard to find the music here? Where is the Houston jazz scene that is actually in Houston? Does it really even exist?

Let me quickly answer—yes. In Houston, most nights of the week you can hear very good jazz, played by musicians who “if circumstances took them to New York, would do very well there,” as Bob Morgan told me in a recent interview. Singer and bandleader Tianna Hall told me that there are over 20 musicians making a full-time living either playing full-time, or mixing playing with teaching.  “In New York there’s lots of work,” she says, “but I know lots of artists on Blue Note [Records] who are playing for $100 a night, if that. But you can make a living [in Houston].” Hall performs six nights a week, making $65,000 a year, an unusually high figure for jazz musicians. 

I’m going to leave out some of the names, but the best and busiest players in Houston include saxophonists Warren Sneed and David Caceres; trumpeter Dennis Dotson; guitarists Paul Chester, Chris Cortez, and Mike Wheeler; pianists Bob Henschen, Joe LoCascio, Paul English, Art Fristoe, and Pamela York (who also sings); bassists David Craig, Erin Wright, and Thomas Helton; drummers Gene Black, Tim Solook and Sebastian Whittaker; vocalists Horace Grigsby; and Hall. There’s no room here to list all their accolades or describe their playing styles, but this is a strong list. 

If this is true, however, then why does their music have such a low profile? For starters, their type of jazz is music for an audience that is willing to remain seated and pay attention. For another thing, local radio doesn’t help spread the word. To describe KTSU as a jazz station is to use the term loosely. Weekend mornings you’ll hear real jazz; the rest of the time you have to settle mostly for smooth jazz, R&B, reggae, blues, and gospel. If you want to hear real jazz radio you need to go online. (Try Paris’s TSFJazz.com.) Even San Antonio, whose local jazz scene is only small fraction the size of Houston’s, has a much better station in Trinity University’s web.krtu.org

Then we come to the question of venues. Houston musicians mostly make their living playing background music in bars and lounges of expensive restaurants, such as Vic and Anthony’s and Eddie V’s, where their music is just one element of the lifestyle package the restaurant offers—and, compared to the steaks, a not very appreciated one. If you love jazz, it’s frankly a little depressing to take a seat at Vic and Anthony’s bar, facing away from the musicians so that they are literally background music, and crane your head to watch them as they play. It’s even more depressing to be the only one who applauds as trumpeter Dennis Dotson finishes a stirring solo, and when you see how grateful the players are for a little recognition.

Cezanne's is the only real “listening room” in town, and it’s only open on Fridays and Saturdays.  (Ovations occasionally offers a jazz listening experience.) Most musicians only get to play for an attentive audience at one of the several excellent jam sessions around town: Phil & Derek's on Mondays, Fedora Lounge on Tuesdays, Costa's on Thursdays. You can find others at jazzhouston.com.

Some might say our scarcity of venues accurately reflects the city's low interest in jazz. After all, Sambuca offered live jazz most nights of the week until six years ago, when it switched to mostly pop and Latin. “There was just not much demand,” manager Josh Jennings told me. Local musician Joe Carmouche opened Legend’s Jazz Café in the middle of downtown in 2008, but soon realized that “everybody was making money but me.” He found himself booking more R&B than jazz. “People like the idea of ‘going to a jazz club,’” he said. “But at the end of the night they want to dance. I had to have people drinking. It’s a different hustle than what I wanted to do.” The club closed in 2010.

But before you write off Houston as simply tone-deaf to jazz, consider the success of Da Camera’s Jazz Series, which brings the best of the best to town (such as Chick Corea in October) including all the great New York–based Houstonians, and regularly draws between 500 and 1,000 people to the Wortham Theater, even for far-out groups like The Bad Plus. “I’m always pleasantly surprised by how adventurous our subscribers are,” said Da Camera’s Leo Boucher.

If this is so, then why doesn’t the local version of the music have a higher profile? Bob Morgan has his own theory: “The jazz centers in the country, and maybe the world, are major tourist centers. If you go to a jazz club in New York, more than half [of the patrons] are foreign. Houston just doesn’t get a lot of tourists.”

I’d like to think that with savvy backing another listening room or two could make it in Houston as the city becomes more urbanized. But who knows—I have lots of fantasies. In the meantime, you can do your part by supporting local jazz. Applaud in Eddie V’s. Hit the jam sessions. Enjoy the city’s hidden bounty.

[A shorter version of this story appeared in the August 2014 issue of Houstonia.] 

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