Beyond Country And Blues: The Jazz Legacy Of Houston | KUOW News and Information

Beyond Country And Blues: The Jazz Legacy Of Houston

Jun 23, 2016
Originally published on June 24, 2016 3:36 am

When you think of the sound of Houston, you might think of country and western music. Maybe you've heard of bluesmen like Johnny Copeland and Albert Collins or gospel stars like Yolanda Adams. Or, you know, Beyoncé?

But Houston has also produced some of the biggest jazz musicians of today, according to the host of Jazz Night in America, composer and bassist Christian McBride.

"It seems to me that over the last 15 to 20 years, there has been an onslaught of these great musicians from Houston on the jazz scene," McBride says, pointing to the rise of artists like Jason Moran, Robert Glasper and Eric Harland. "All of a sudden you're thinking, where did all these cats from Houston come from all of a sudden? Especially considering Houston is not always a usual stop on most guys' tour schedules, how are all these bad cats coming from out there?"

With a little help from Jason Moran himself, McBride joined NPR's Audie Cornish to consider some of the brightest jazz stars in Houston's history, including saxophonist Billy Harper, pianist Helen Sung and more. Hear their full conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When you try and imagine the sound of Houston, Texas, you might think of country and western music or blues men like Johnny Copeland or a gospel icon like Yolanda Adams. And, of course, there's Beyonce.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUN THE WORLD")

BEYONCE: (Singing) This is how they made me. Houston, Texas, baby.

CORNISH: But Houston has also produced some of the biggest jazz musicians of today. Our friend and host of Jazz Night in America Christian McBride was recently down in Texas, and he thinks he knows why. Hey, there, Christian.

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE, BYLINE: How you doing, Audie?

CORNISH: Pretty good because you have brought a guest - a little help for this one, right?

MCBRIDE: Yes, I brought the great pianist, composer, bandleader and artistic director of jazz for the Kennedy Center, the great Jason Moran.

CORNISH: Hey, there, Jason.

JASON MORAN: Hey, y'all. Hey, y'all.

CORNISH: All right. And Jason, of course, happens to be from Houston. And first, Christian, this was your idea to talk about this city. What is it about Houston and jazz that you thought we should get into?

MCBRIDE: Well, it seems to me that over the last 15 to 20 years, there has been an onslaught of these great musicians from Houston on the jazz scene. If you look at people like Jason, of course, and Robert Glasper and Eric Harland, all of a sudden, you're thinking where'd all these cats from Houston come from all of a sudden? Especially considering Houston is not always a usual stop on most guys' tour schedules. How are all these bad cats coming from out there?

CORNISH: OK, I feel like we should play one of these bad cats just so people have a sense of what we're talking about. Here is Robert Glasper - "All Matter."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL MATTER")

CORNISH: Jason Moran, we know that Robert Glasper has worked with a lot of stars, not just in jazz. Of course, people may know him from work with rapper Kendrick Lamar, Yasiin Bey - formerly Mos Def - and the R and B singer Maxwell. Can you tell us a little bit about him?

MORAN: Well, Robert is an amazing pianist. Let's just start right there. But I think what he's been able to also figure out is how he accesses parts of his taste with regard to R and B and to gospel and to hip-hop music and all of a sudden make this canvas for these artists to kind of come set their stories inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL MATTER")

BILAL: (Singing) A speck of dust in this vast universe, just like a rain drop dropped in the sea.

MORAN: Also, Robert - he was in school with Bilal, singing on this track right here, who is also a Philly dude (laughter).

MCBRIDE: There you go.

MORAN: And so Bilal and Robert kind of were with each other as brothers, kind of charting their progress through jazz. But they were also really profoundly moved by R and B music, too, and they were pretty free radicals in that regard.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

CORNISH: And, Jason, I understand there's also a performing arts high school connection there.

MORAN: Correct. I mean we all are students of HSPVA, which stands for the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, an amazing, amazing school that not only did we all go to, but Beyonce went there, as well.

MCBRIDE: Wow.

MORAN: And we all spent basically four hours a day on our craft at school. And another pianist that went to HSPVA is Helen Sung, but while she was at HSPVA, she was in the classical department. Then later did she figure that she was an improviser at heart, and she switched to jazz. She's an amazing pianist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EACH TOWN")

MCBRIDE: I'll tell you another reason I love Helen so much. I don't know if you know this, but not only is it fun to talk music with her, she is a football junkie.

MORAN: Oh, really?

(LAUGHTER)

MCBRIDE: Hardcore football junkie. Jazz and football - that's my kind of person.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: And this song is called "Each Town" by pianist Helen Sung.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EACH TOWN")

CORNISH: So you've told us about the community, but there's also a lot of history there, especially going back to the Texas Tenors.

MCBRIDE: Oh, come on, now.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: OK, so we're talking about Billy Harper, Arnett Cobb. Who else, Christian?

MCBRIDE: The great Illinois Jacquet. As far as I know, he's pretty much the king, the dean. That's where all that Texas Tenor started.

CORNISH: We're talking saxophone right now?

MCBRIDE: Yes, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ILLINOIS JACQUET SONG)

CORNISH: Let's do a little Texas Tenors 101 (laughter)...

MCBRIDE: Let's do it.

CORNISH: ...With Arnett Cobb. Here's - here he is in 1944 on a Lionel Hampton track called "Flying Home No. 2."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLYING HOME NO. 2")

CORNISH: Jason Moran, this is kind of a sound we take for granted now - right? - that kind of, like, big R and B sax in the middle of a song.

MORAN: We do. I kind of miss those saxophones solos, man. They sound like a big fog horn that sings a melody.

(LAUGHTER)

MCBRIDE: Right.

MORAN: You know, it sings a melody. Rather than playing one tone, they play entire melodies out - you know, out of this sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLYING HOME NO. 2")

CORNISH: You know, thinking back to Robert Glasper and his kind of crossover into hip-hop, it does remind me that I think we're in a moment for hip-hop in particular where people are again embracing jazz instrumentation. And I wonder is there something about Houston where people are willing to engage in that kind of back and forth?

MORAN: Part of me I always like to think though we're only a few hours from New Orleans, which has such a rich, rich jazz heritage, in Houston, we're not known for that. But there's a part that's blues - you know, like Lightnin' Hopkins - and especially gospel music. And there's parts of it that kind of, like, are in the neighborhoods and part of the sound of the community, especially some shuffle blues, you know.

MCBRIDE: Right.

MORAN: But it's not necessarily built on the jazz aesthetic all the time. And so kind of not having something that says, OK, all Houston cats have to do this (laughter).

MCBRIDE: Right, right.

MCBRIDE: I'd be, you know, a little bit ignorant if I said it's freeing for us, but - 'cause I don't necessarily believe that. But I think a portion of that is true - that we kind of, like, are on a constant search for kind of what our identity is.

MCBRIDE: You think we'll see, like, a club down there one of these days that could have, like...

MORAN: Well, see...

MCBRIDE: ...International artists on the - on the regular?

MORAN: This gets serious now because it's a shame in Houston that we don't have a really great jazz club. And so many of us had to leave Houston. And so we do clamor for that ability to go to Frenchy's Chicken and have some food and then go play, you know? But it does not exist. And this is not just a Houston problem, you know, if you think about America.

MCBRIDE: That's correct. That's right

MORAN: And, you know, every time I'm down there, I'm talking to someone - like, yo, just make a club.

MCBRIDE: Yes, exactly.

MORAN: Even if in just two years, you know? But as long as you keep it open.

MCBRIDE: Doesn't have to be big, just, you know...

CORNISH: All right, Houston Chamber of Commerce, if you're listening.

MCBRIDE: There you go.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Well, before I let you go, is there an artist that either one of you would like to throw out there - music we could go out on - who is an up-and-comer from Houston?

MORAN: OK, there's Jamire Williams. Do you know Jamire?

MCBRIDE: Yes, absolutely. Jamire Williams is bad.

CORNISH: Do it.

MORAN: So Jamire Williams is a great drummer who had a band called ERIMAJ, and they made one record. And now he's about to put out a solo drum record, kind of, like, thinking in the similar way that Glasper is about kind of sonic textures that are a little bit different than, say, a traditional jazz record.

CORNISH: That is something to look forward to. Jason Moran is artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center. Thank you so much.

MORAN: My pleasure.

CORNISH: And our friend and host of Jazz Night in America, Christian McBride. Thanks for hanging with us.

MCBRIDE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONFLICT OF A MAN")

ERIMAJ: (Singing) You could be anywhere. Now you see I don't care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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