By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
The Woodman scene flourished like a hothouse flower for almost five years; then, slowly--almost imperceptibly at first--the fire began to burn down. For one thing, the foundations of pop music were shifting. "In the early '60s, the beat started to change." Boykin maintains. "That swing-based 4/4 groove changed to an 8/8, eighth-note based thing with artists like the Beatles, James Brown, and Motown." Desegregation eliminated the constraints on a concentrated black community.
"In 1960, my family--we used to live right there at the corner of Oakland and Tanner--moved to Oak Cliff," Boykin says. "As the city opened up, and better-paying jobs and living conditions became available, a lot of other black families did the same. All of a sudden, you had to drive across town to get [to the Woodman]." As the community expanded, becoming less close, other distractions loomed.
"All of a sudden," Burke recalls, "people went wild for football, and our attendance started to drop."
"When the Dallas Cowboys started winning," Boykin agrees, "that ruined it, because football became the Sunday thing. [The sessions] lost the glow." As more affluent families moved up and out of the 'hood, rougher, less fortunate people moved in to take their place, and the texture of the Woodman's surroundings started to change. Burke and Davis tried to fight football (and, not incidentally, TV) by moving the starting time of the session--first back to 4:30 p.m. in 1968, and then later on into the evening. It only delayed the inevitable, and the two creators bowed out not long thereafter. Liquor by the drink--passed in December 1970--reduced the appeal of bringing in your own bottle and paying for set-ups.
"Different promoters tried to keep it going," Boykin says. "But they could never get the crowds happening again; at the time, nobody knew why." By 1972, the sessions at the Woodman were a thing of the past, swept away by an almost-tidal wave of social change.
But the effects of those after-church jams were apparent even as the feasibility of staging them waned. Ray Charles routinely harvested Woodman talent, including Claude Johnson and Saul Samuels (who also went on to play with Louis Jordan). James Clay's influence on Texas saxophone is huge; Fathead Newman and Marchel Ivery's, still growing. Donnie Gililland went on to play with the late, great vibe man Ed Hagen--among many others--and still can be heard around town. Al Dupree--who played with the Woodmen some in the beginning--is a local institution, and Red King lives and plays in San Francisco.
But the race runs ever on, and time always wins. Nappy Chin is rumored to have died in prison long ago; James Clay, Bobby Saunders, and James Fisher all are more certifiably deceased. Names, dates, and faces slide further and further into the fog, and as they do it becomes more important to summon up the spirit of that golden moment, a spirit that almost all agree the city needs badly, perhaps now more than ever. The weight of the intervening 40 years doesn't hang too kindly.
"It's a nostalgia trip," Boykin says frankly and without apology. Billy Burke is going to be guest MC and historian; Willie T. Albert will be there to play trumpet and lead the band. Worm Halton and Claude Johnson will be there, and Charles Scott will play bass. A.D. Washington will once more man his congas while Dude Kahn drums. Donnie Gililland plans to attend, and Betty Green may sing (the Woodman hosted some stellar vocalists, including Green, Florrie Ann Price, and their longest-running singer, Billy Brooks). Other guests are expected to turn up. The first hour or so of the Sammons show--don't forget, there are few spots to see jazz in this town finer than the Sammons Center--will be instrumental, and the last quarter-hour will be an all-attending-Woodmen jam.
"It's going to be the same type of material we did then," Boykin says. "We encourage all the old heads to come on down and celebrate the 40th anniversary of the start of it. Those who've only heard about it--from their parents or grandparents being there--can come down and see what it was all about."
Which brings us back rather neatly to the spirit thing, that moment--still shining--that Billy Burke remembers as "beautiful...a haven," born out of the will to create and the fellowship that engenders, a bond that can cross almost any barrier.
"Music and musicians have always led the way as far as racial harmony goes," Boykin says before ringing off. "Music is the universal language, every bit as much as humor. People laugh the same, in every country. Music works the same way.