To be or not to bop

Texan Jazz unveils the Lone Star contribution to jazz

Texan Jazz is a travelogue set to a boogie-woogie, bebop, and blues beat; it traverses dirt roads in the outlying towns, excavates the old juke joints, and speaks the long-forgotten names of bands that never recorded but filled Deep Ellum nightclubs in the '20s and '30s. In one terrifically revelatory chapter, Oliphant resurrects such bands as the Alphonse Trent Orchestra--which had a radio show on WFAA in 1925, the first black band in America with such a venue--and the Blue Devils, which would turn out the likes of Buster Smith, Eddie Durham, and even the immortal Lester Young during the '20s and '30s.

In the end, the book is the jazz equivalent of Bill Malone's Country Music U.S.A., a narrative masquerading as history. It's even something of a mystery with a surprise ending each few pages, revealing yet another jazz hero or anonymous contributor who was born here, who played here in obscurity, or who died here after a fruitful career. In Oliphant's world, Texas Tenor James Clay--who died in Dallas last year, a leading light of the bop avant-garde dimmed too soon--receives his proper due alongside Ornette Coleman.

Oliphant doesn't necessarily try to find the common links between these musicians, and doesn't try to bind them by a single thread. They're all Texans, but the leap between Scott Joplin and Fort Worth native Ornette Coleman--who even now sounds a revolutionary honk--is one Evel Knievel wouldn't even try to make.

"That's why I didn't call the book Texas Jazz," Oliphant says. "I do think there are certain stylistic practices that are peculiar to Texas, but I just wanted to avoid that whole issue by focusing on Texans. I mean, the blues certainly appears in all the great Texas jazz musicians, and it's a certain kind of blues that dominates.

"I think when I talk about [Vernon-born trombonist] Jack Teagarden, it's that wide-open freewheeling feeling you get when a Texan plays. [Dallas-born baritone saxman] Bud Johnson, even as late as 1965, on the song 'Sometimes I'm Happy,' blows and goes, and it's free--highly imaginative. It seems like these Texas guys are more relaxed. It's hard to define, but when you hear it, it's like a fresh breeze blows in."

"Street Beat" welcomes e-mail comments and tips at StreetBeat@dallasobserver.com.

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