Remember San Antonio

In South Texas, an inventive initiative aims to celebrate and strengthen an often-overlooked scene

The San Antonio Jazz All-Stars perform Aaron Prado's "San Antonio Jazz Suite," Oct. 23, 2011 (photo courtesy of Trinity University)
Saxophonist Jim Waller and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro during the reading of "Charlie Parker Played Be Bop," Oct. 23, 2011
Pianist Aaron Prado and the narrator of his "San Antonio Jazz Suite," former San Antonio Spur Sean Elliott; Oct. 23, 2011

1 of 3      Next

In San Antonio, Texas, a tourism-driven city deservedly obsessed with its own history, guided sojourns into the past are plentiful. But for jazz people, the most engaging local history lesson can be found in a conversation with Jim Cullum Jr. If that chat takes place in a historic Tex-Mex restaurant during the wee hours and continues while traversing downtown in Cullum’s sports car, even better.

Outside of San Antonio, Cullum, who will be profiled in an issue of JT this spring, is one of the premier cornetists and bandleaders in traditional jazz, a rare Dixielander whose reach, thanks to his group’s long-running syndicated radio show, extends far beyond early jazz’s niche following. Within city limits, however, he’s much more: a tourist attraction, a hometown hero and a noted businessman whose club, the Landing, which he technically no longer owns, has been an enduring landmark along the city’s vaunted River Walk.

I’d come to S.A. with hopes of seeing the Jim Cullum Jazz Band perform in its natural habitat, but last-minute renovations bumped its Oct. 20 gig. Unfortunate, but not a deal breaker. There was action elsewhere.

San Antonio is the second-largest city in Texas and the seventh-largest city in the country, but its music scene is trumped by nearby state capital Austin, the self-proclaimed “live music capital of the world.” Musically curious travelers would probably sooner seek out Tejano and mariachi over jazz-besides, of course, Cullum-but a sturdy local scene exists, and it seems to fill the commercial needs of the community more than the creative needs of the artists. (Musicians will understand how that isn’t necessarily a put-down. Work is good.)

There were fine crooners, like Ken Slavin and Johnny P., whose muted trumpet took him into Louis Prima territory; Bronx-born Latin-jazzer Henry Brun, a local linchpin of sorts; the South Texas Jazz Quartet, swinging robustly through Jobim and “Moanin'”; and a very young and very good quartet called the Midtown Jazz Sound, who enlivened Real Book repertory at a hip spot that felt willfully cosmopolitan. (It was called, not incidentally, SoHo, and Cullum sat in while I was there, working his supple-toned middle register on a couple standards.) On the patio of the Landing, open for business and hosting small groups, a trio of alto saxophonist Richard Oppenheim, pianist Mark Hess and drummer Kory Cook swung speedily and with grit, playing bop as if it’d just been invented.

At Carmens de la Calle, a homey tapas bar, drummer Brannen Temple’s trio enjoyed something closer to listening-room club atmosphere. An Austin staple whose studio and touring credits include Chaka Khan, Janet Jackson and blues guitarists Robben Ford and Chris Duarte, Temple was stylistically more akin to the youngish drummers currently chopping the beat up in jazz’s edgy postbop groups-think Kendrick Scott or Damion Reid. Temple’s band, with keyboardist Will Menefield and Dwayne Jackson (a.k.a. D-Madness), a rare electric-bass virtuoso who slaps and pops with taste, evoked Robert Glasper’s electric work in its organic meshing of postbop, ’70s funk and fusion and contemporary urban music. Impressively, Temple’s original music maintained a strong sense of head-nodding groove and thrust even as it shifted through sections frequently enough to suggest a kind of through-composition. A ballad by Mal Waldron was a nice reprieve from the Jazz 101 tunes heard elsewhere in town.

Temple aside, I mostly saw players working hard for dinner, cocktail and brunch crowds, collecting tips, enduring drunks and taking requests. It’s a scene that should benefit greatly from something like “Year of Jazz,” an initiative launched by Jazz 91.7 KRTU to celebrate local music as well as the station’s first 10 years in a jazz format. KRTU, based out of Trinity University, has exceptional facilities, a deep collection and uncommonly hip programming. (During a visit I heard Wallace Roney but also Roland Kirk and Dave Douglas.) “Year of Jazz” is a series of 14 concerts by South Texas artists, held in cultural institutions around the city and sponsored by local nonprofits. Not long before the opening festivities, an undisclosed organization stepped in to front the bill, relieving financial pressure but allowing the nonprofits to keep their promotional entitlements. The shows are free or cheap, and members of the participating nonprofits gain admission to all events.

The community focus of the program was initially motivated by solvency. In the past, KRTU had hosted names from jazz’s A-list and lost money-the exception being a sold-out Herbie Hancock concert. Over time, however, “Year of Jazz” shaped up to be something more interesting, and more ambitious, than corporate logos and name acts. It seems unusually self-sufficient: a series of local concerts underscored with the promotion and prestige usually reserved for touring bands, with support coming from the community and revenue going back into it. (Players are getting paid, from what I heard; each member of the large ensemble that premiered the suite described later was compensated for the performance and the rehearsals.) Based on the Oct. 23 kick-off event, with attendance of more than 2,500, the “Year” is already making good.

Held on a pleasant Sunday at a rustic amphitheater just north of downtown, opening day provided an inclusive, family-friendly introduction to both jazz and the yearlong program. Things started off in mid-afternoon with local youth orchestras, and continued with a diverse program sponsored by various nonprofits; all the while, concertgoers milled about the nonprofits’ booths. The focus began to settle on the stage around 5:30, when San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, with local kids at his feet, gave an unrehearsed reading of a children’s book entitled Charlie Parker Played Be Bop. With musical punctuation from strong-toned tenor saxophonist Jim Waller, who blew “A Night in Tunisia” at the top, the reading was cute and clever, playing out like beatnik coffeehouse activity on children’s television.

Up next was the main event, the world premiere of the 50-odd-minute San Antonio Jazz Suite by S.A. native and resident Aaron Prado, a 32-year-old pianist and composer with New York credentials and broadcasting experience. (He worked at WKCR during his undergrad days at Columbia and returned to the city later to earn a master’s from NYU, where he studied with Andy Milne, Kenny Werner, Vijay Iyer, Ralph Alessi and others.) His suite, which was, remarkably, his first commission and large-scale compositional undertaking, combined jazz big-band, a string quartet and live narration. The script, also written by Prado, as well as the music, relayed San Antonio’s history with an accessibility that was necessary for the general, stroller-heavy audience. And there was some requisite star power in retired San Antonio Spur Sean Elliott, who made for a solid and affable narrator.

Channeled through an augmented version of San Antonio’s King William Jazz Collective (dubbed the San Antonio Jazz All-Stars for the occasion), Prado’s piece worked the modern-mainstream big-band playbook to a t. Big, punchy unison lines abounded, as did powerful solos bolstered by terse, tight section phrases. The feels shifted from swing to funk to ballad to Afro-Cuban to mariachi and more with ease, and most of the eight movements ended with brassy exclamation points. It didn’t call to mind Prado’s New York mentors as much as postwar Duke Ellington, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, the better TV studio bands of the ’60s and ’70s, and West Coast ensembles like Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band.

Conceptually it hit the mark, too, smartly conjuring the events and places behind Elliott’s brief spoken segments. When it came to the Alamo, flitting lines were passed around the horns to signify the crossing of the courageous. The fighting began with swinging drummer Darren Kuper’s downbeat, and carried through an inspired tenor battle between Morgan King and Cody Brown. Melancholic strings imagined the loss and sadness that followed the carnage. Certain sections, like the Alamo movement and a reflective finale, were serious, earnest creations. Still, fun and humor prevailed. Heavy grooves portrayed party time on the River Walk-Gilbert Garza, on muted trombone, killed a la Fred Wesley here-and the Spurs were indicated via a recasting of the early ’90s sports anthem “Get Ready for This.” As for the composer, his piano work primarily served the ensemble.

It’s a pity at least a bit of the suite’s swing couldn’t have rubbed off on the San Antonio Symphony, who followed with a classical-goes-big-band program. A world-class organization that persists, like so many orchestras, despite financial troubles, the symphony succumbed to the rhythmic rigor mortis that usually marks such exercises. Still, its orchestral glow was often transfixing, and the repertoire included some surprises. Duke Ellington was saluted at length, and Debussy’s interest in ragtime was explored, but a following medley included homage to some dance-band leaders whose once-great popularity has become obscured by history, among them “Waltz King” Wayne King and Guy Lombardo, whose Royal Canadians the symphony embodied on “Auld Lang Syne.”

That age-old melody, with its intimations of hope for the next 12 months, took on special meaning on this night.

For more information and a schedule of events,