Thursday, June 10, 2010

Keep Austin Weird

The “Jazz Disease” has always been the carrot dangling in front of my nose. All during my hot and heavy-breathed pursuit of it I have enjoyed what has been for me the extra charm of life in South Texas.

Huckleberry Finn said that his story was told to us by Mr. Mark Twain, “who didn’t tell no stretchers” – at least not too many stretchers. But this isn’t about Huck– only about jazzers – people so entertaining that the stretchers are left at the sideline. In the meantime, I will act as your scout and advance man.

If you take the time to read these blogs, I will hopefully make it worth the regular computer struggle. Probably the best parts of my story are about how jazz emerged here, fighting hard against the cowboy stereotype. But I love everything about San Antonio. Everything, that is, except the relatively new and quickly expanding suburban sprawl.

Today, let’s get out of town.

To the north and the west there’s the Hill Country. Famed Barbeque joints lie in the East. The beach is to the South (and who knows what will happen there with the oil all over the place? Don’t throw away and burning cigarette butts. Whoosh.). Still, there are lakes and rodeos and beautiful lost maples and tubing on the rivers and ranches and so much so that one could never see it all. Drive two-and-a-half hours and you can be at the Rio Grande, beyond which Mexico stretches for 1,000 miles.

To the north, like a beacon, is Austin – its Bohemian lifestyle constantly beating back modernity.

In Austin, there are more tattoos per capita than anywhere. Austin is flooded with artists of all kinds. In fact, you could say that it has more just plain weirdos per capita than anywhere in the world. There are also lot of musicians in Austin – some not so hot – but we can all learn from elementary school math books. The law of averages has given Austin a number of good Jazzers.

People actually go out and dance to good music in Austin. Amazing! They even step to “The Balboa”, a dance from the 1940s. Live music is everywhere, and, you’ll find it at unexpected places.

I often drive to Austin on Monday nights and play at a restaurant called Quality Seafood. There, I am constantly confused for an Italian man by the name of Luigi Spimoni il Capo del Mondo. I go along and speak with an Italian accent I learned from “Life with Luigi,” a radio show from the early 1950.

The Quality Seafood Band is named Aunt Ruby’s Sweet Jazz Babies. The bandleader is “Frankly Divine,” and a sometimes-present cornet player is named Pesci Pete Backbiter. One Aunt Ruby’s “babies” is Tarrton Poúrri who plays clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones (I belong to a cult in which we don’t say “soprano saxophone.” We say “Torture Tube.” It’s always said with a smile and the comment, “Of course, there was always Bechet.”). Other members of Aunt Ruby’s are “The General” on bass and “Speedy” on the trombone. I mention these cats and their unusual names because they are typical of the weird ones who prowl around Austin.

Anyhow, last Monday I was in Austin to have dinner with bassist Ed Wise and his wife, Lizzie, who were visiting from Philadelphia. I’ve known Ed for many years, and, since he’s from out of town, he isn’t weird at all. He’s actually pretty normal, distinguished, in fact, by his swinging bass playing.

So Ed, Lizzie and I are kicking around in the land of the tattoos when we ran into cornetist Pesci Pete Backbiter, who directs us to a new joint in town: The East Side Showroom, 1100 6th Street.

This joint is the cat’s pajamas. No fooling. I am recommending it to you!

Everything about it is pleasing. It is owned and run by two young gals. They serve first-class food and have a full bar, with bottles set check-by-jowl and floor-to-ceiling with creative lighting that highlights every liquor bottle and their time-honored contents.

There is always music at the East Side Show Room. Pesci Pete Backbiter himself plays there one night a week.

According to “The East Side Show Room is a mother and daughter owned Bar and Restaurant inspired by the Cafées and Delicatessens from eastern Europe to Texas in the pre World War II era, the turn of the century Music Halls of Berlin and Vienna, and the 1920’s avant-garde Theatres of NYC; Offering patrons a stimulating, artistic, and social environment to enjoy vintage cocktails, gourmet cuisine, fine wine, eclectic beer, coffee, live music and art.”

I was there three-and-a-half hours in a listless daze. When I die, this is where I want to go. For most of the evening, a screen played Charlie Chaplin silent movies. At 11:00 p.m., the crowd had been stirred into a frenzy by a four-piece Gypsy band. That was followed by a 15-piece ensemble of Austin weirdness that began outside.

The “Minor Mishap Marching Band” blasted in with two snares, a bass drum, gigantic cymbals, three cornets, two trombones, a baritone saxophone, accordion, violin, clarinet and a couple of old alto horns. Out-of-tune insanity ensued. The Minor Mishap marched out 45 minutes later – and kept playing outside, most likely to the last man.

The effect on the crowd was powerful. Grown people stood on their chairs and stomped and clapped. There was dancing and singing along around the tables.
“Wow!” shouted my dinner guest, Ed Wise, who thought he had done all and seen all.

As the Minor Mishap faded, the owners walked amongst the crowd, passing hats and encouraging patrons to tip the marching band. In these Austin joints there is a lot of playing for tips.

But above the tips, Austin musicians keep the wolf away in a heretofore unheard of fashion: The City of Austin works hard to support the arts in general, and some of these starving artists in particular, with medical insurance and grants.

Acting as one of the lynchpins in “Keep Austin Weird,” my daughter, Bonnie Cullum, is a shining example. Having received her Master’s degree in drama in 1988 from the University of Texas at Austin, Bonnie dug in, and, in 1989, set up the Vortex Theatre and the Vortex Repertory Company.

In 1993, after trying some temporary venues, Bonnie began meticulously searching the east side – east of I-35. The east side was continuing its age-old pattern of being a black-only part of town.

A little white-owned repertory company, doing original and strange “Keep Austin Weird” comedies, dramas and musicals was just not supposed to happen over there.

Some told Bonnie: “Whites just won’t come over here and see your oddball productions.”

She’d reply: “Guess we’ll find out if you’re right or I’m right!”

Bonnie set herself up in a derelict, leaky building and did the impossible. Every year, the Vortex, the pinnacle of Austin weirdness, sweeps the Austin Critic’s Awards. The older black neighbors who live around the Vortex have supported Bonnie like crazy.

The reward is a thriving little arts center located on Manor Road, one mile east of I-35. In Bonnie’s wake, about eight restaurants and nine other theatres (many have come and gone), new houses and apartments have sprung up.

Bonnie, who sports no tattoos, is plenty weird in many other ways. She leads the charge. Last year she was inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame. This is the highest local achievement for an Austin artist. Bonnie didn’t receive the award for being weird but for being good at what she does. You can be weird and good at the same time.

Here are your marching orders: Go see a play at the Vortex. Occasionally there is nudity, but never pornography. The Vortex has a beer and wine bar and a café with a limited menu.

After the show, go to the East Side Showroom. On Mondays go to the Quality Seafood Company – music and dancing and eating, 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

There is a lot more going on around there. For example, in the afternoon (free at night), there is swimming at Barton Springs. It is been loved by many as the best swimming hole in Texas for more than 100 years. Beginning in the 1960s, a few female bathers started removing their tops – a tradition that continues now and then.

When and if you’ve had enough, float down to San Antonio and we’ll play you some really hot jazz. Lots of the Austin lovers will be there with you.

The Austin swing dancers show up once in a while at The Landing. After a couple of stomping-swing tunes, the dancers leave the floor panting. I buy them a drink or two and we salute Austin’s weirdness.

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