Camelot in 4/4 time

A golden age in Dallas jazz turns 40

For whites back then, jazz was the domain of the hep; for the black community, things weren't quite so rarefied. "Most of the music black people were listening to then was blues-oriented," Boykin explains. "But jazz is much more blues-derived--and the styles more akin--than most people think. People were in much closer contact with the jazz being played than the young people of today would be. Jazz and pop music are so far apart today--just look at rap--but back then the line was not so distinct. Take Dinah Washington, who today is considered a great jazz singer. Back then, she was on the radio every day, along with people like Gene Ammons and Jimmy Smith. So jazz was not so far above the heads of the people coming into the hall.

"You see, back then the musical groove was a swing groove," Boykin says. "The blues shuffles or even the twist, B.B. King, and Chuck Berry--all that music was 4/4 [time signature] based, so even if people didn't really understand the music, they could relate to the beat; they could still party, still shake their booties and snap their fingers." Even the deconstructions of hard bop had a place. "Worm [Halton] was the John Coltrane of Dallas," Burke remembers. "He was all over the place, doing all kinds of stuff--blurrabiddabiddabapapap--and some people would be going, 'What in the hell is he playing?'"

An entire generation of musical talent was being raised. "One of the most interesting points about the whole thing was that most of us up there on that bandstand were less than 20 years old, really the young lions of that day," Boykin says. Boykin and Johnson were but 17 and 18 respectively; James Clay, a grizzled vet at 22. "Clay had been to L.A. and made a couple of albums," Boykin continues. "His playing had advanced past ours, and he was pretty well thought of nationally. He came home when his grandmother got sick and just stayed; Willie T. Albert was the bandleader, but without a doubt Clay was our inspirational leader and the person we all learned from."

More experienced musicians were constantly sitting in, teaching and sharing what they knew. When Fathead Newman took a break from Ray Charles' band, Sunday afternoons frequently found him at the Woodman. The great Billy Harper--legendary tenor man and the actual author of Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump"--was often there. Ben Martin and Dewey Redman might drive over from Fort Worth, or Austin's Fred Smith come up. Ronald Shannon Jackson sat in; his nickname, according to Boykin, was "Roundhouse." It was a scene positively crawling with creativity and growth.

"James Clay could play flute, so three other members learned," Boykin remembers. "All of these guys could read music and play by ear with equal facility, and several of us--myself, Claude, Red King, and Henderson Jordan--became first-class arrangers, also. During the week we'd break up into two or three groups--I had my trio, Clay his quartet--but on Sundays we'd all come together as the Red Tops; it was our workshop, our lab band."

As word of the creative heat being generated grew, other musicians began to check out the scene, and the lines of influence and interconnection spread. White kids from Denton (home to what was then North Texas State University--now the University of North Texas--and its famous jazz program) such as Donnie Gililland and Jack Petersen started showing up to play within a year, and white faces began popping up in the audience. Dude Kahn--another paleface--often played the trap set against A.D. Washington or Thomas McGee's congas. The influences worked both ways: Kids from Denton encouraged the neighborhood musicians to attend NTSU. Yet even in Dallas--one of the most segregated of the major American cities--there was little or no tension between the races. In fact, there was little or no tension, period. "I don't recall a single fight," Boykin says after a memory-scanning silence, a point on which Burke concurs.

"We had white, we had black, we had every kind of musician there, from all across Texas," he says. "Everybody got along fine. It was just a wonderful time and an education for everybody."

"It was a whole new world. I don't want to get maudlin about it," says Gililland, who went on to play with local mainstay Joe Johnson, "but it was always friendly faces, people happy to see me. It seems to me a time of great hospitality and innocence; there were times when I was the only white face around for miles, but I never felt like it. I could walk up and down Oakland with my guitar. My fondest memories are of going over and they'd get me on the bandstand with Clarence "Nappy Chin" Evans [so named because of his goatee]--I was 17, 18 years old--and we'd trade off parts; they called it 'cuttin' head.' I was totally flattered. I don't know if I held my own or not--probably not--but they were very protective of me and generous with their musical knowledge."

"It was the biggest event in the community and the hippest session around," Boykin says. "Lots of people were there simply because it was the place to be--damn the music."

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