House of jazz

Sammons Center for the Arts is home to one of the town's best-kept secrets

The red brick building sits on the high ground overlooking the intersection of Harry Hines Boulevard and Oak Lawn Avenue like a fortress, accessible only by a curving driveway that flashes past drivers almost before it's perceived. For many it's a phenomenon of the commuter age--something that's seen every day yet about which little is known--but once a month in the fall and spring, the Sammons Center for the Arts is a refuge for jazz lovers.

Face it: Most jazz clubs are a hellbroth of food service, mating ritual, noise, and cigar-wielding buttheads. During the performances that make up the Sammons Jazz series, however, one can enjoy food, drink, and music in an urbane and attentive atmosphere that ranks as one of Dallas' best entertainment values. If you're a Sammons Jazz member, $14 gets you a light meal, soft drinks, beer, wine, coffee, valet parking, and the chance to hear the cream of the local jazz crop. If you're not a member, add $4.

It has not always been so. The Center was originally the Turtle Creek Pump Station, built in 1909 and for years the sole source of water in Dallas. Pictures from that time show men in dirty overalls lugging oil cans and wrenches around as they tend the enormous machines that once moved the city's drinking water. Obsolete by the '30s, the building was still used by Dallas Water Utilities; pictures from this period show the building growing ever more weathered, surrounded by bright yellow vehicles or hundreds of old-fashioned water meters. Finally, the pumphouse was relegated to storage space.

In 1981 the Texas Historical and Dallas Landmark Commissions
declared the structure a historical landmark (status is still pending before the National Registry of Historic Places), and plans for its renovation and reopening began to form. Prominent Dallasite Jo Kurth Jagoda formed a Board of Directors dedicated to acquiring funding for the renovations; the old pumphouse would not be easy to convert into the rehearsal and performance space that Jagoda and others envisioned. For one thing, it had no floors: the great water pumps the structure had been built to house were almost as tall as the building itself; they were serviced from metal scaffolding that hung about them.

The building had been modified in 1954 when Harry Hines was widened and the old main entrance had been destroyed, and the entire edifice had fallen into disrepair. Finally, in 1985, Jagoda's group had accumulated enough of a nest egg to allow restoration to begin. In 1987, when the project faced a serious shortfall, businessman Charles A. Sammons stepped in and donated the money necessary to complete the work; the building was named in his honor. The Center opened on March 1, 1988, after a total expenditure of $2.3 million.

Ten years earlier, Chilean-born Vicho Vicencio had left Zurich and his job with the Swiss Radio Light Orchestra and traveled to Austin, Texas to open the Treehouse, a spectacular but short-lived jazz club and restaurant. When the Treehouse folded in 1980, Vicencio moved again, this time to Dallas, where he started a Latin jazz/dance band. Gradually, he made a name for himself in the local scene as he widened his playing horizons. Thirteen months after Sammons opened, Vicencio--representing a group of local jazz artists--approached then-Executive Director Mischa Semanitzky with the idea of using one of Sammons' three large rooms for a jazz concert, perhaps even a series.

"I'd always thought the place looked inviting," Vicencio remembers. "With all that brick, it reminded me of Chicago or New York--of Europe, even--and at the time, it seemed like jazz clubs were dying out, with places like the Recovery Room and the 6051 Club closing. It seemed like the right moment to give people a place where they could sit down and hear good jazz, and to give musicians a place to play where they wouldn't be just background."

The first two concerts were given upstairs in the Skyline Room. "I liked it because it was so much like a club," Vicencio says. The third gig, however--focusing on Latin jazz--generated so much response that it was moved downstairs to the 2,800-square foot Meadows Hall, where the series has been held ever since. "It's had its moments of glory and its struggles," says Vicencio, who stepped down as artistic director last year. "Getting funding has always been tough, but the important thing was that we got all the players around town to play here.

"After seven years, I felt like I had asked everybody I knew to play," he says, explaining his departure. "I'll stay on the Board of Directors, but it was time for new ideas." His replacement will be local musician Roger Boykin, who will definitely fulfill the requirement for new ideas.

"The next four shows are going to feature straight-ahead jazz," Boykin explains. "No fusion, no 'contemporary' jazz, and no Oasis [KOAI 107.5 FM] type stuff. Because so many people leave during the second half of the show, the headliner will go on first, and the second act--instead of doing a rehearsed, polished set--will play stuff that's more loose, like a jam session, with more improv."

The Center also hosts another performance series in addition to Sammons Jazz. The Ethnic Arts and Culture Series features small and emerging arts organizations from specific cultures. Organized as a nonprofit corporation, the Center generates approximately 66 percent of its funding themselves through rental and service fees; the remainder comes from programs like Sammons Jazz, contributions, and a small endowment fund. It doesn't cost the taxpayers a dime.

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