Jeff Aycock makes a pretty good case for predestination. Recalling his childhood in the far-South Dallas Bon Ton neighborhood, he remembers that "everyday, on my way home from school, I'd pass this pawn shop and see all these instruments in the window, and I'd imagine playing them."
Thirty years later, two things provide Aycock with his bread and butter: his Swap Shop, the culmination of a rewarding career in the pawn business (although not a pawn shop itself) and his music. The South Dallas saxophone player's business sits at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Oakland, among the fish stands and curb-sitters blankly eying passing cars. Aycock sits at the back of the store, past the stacks of gray government-surplus desks and old tennis rackets. It's close and humid in the non-air-conditioned space, but his brow is almost completely dry. You want your jazz men to be cool, but this is ridiculous.
"Feel my skin," he says, proffering a forearm. "Pinch it," he orders, and when you do, you notice that the skin has an almost brittle feel. "I never even broke a sweat until I was in my 20s," he explains. "My skin is very, very thin; it's a condition."
Thin skin? That's not very helpful for someone trying to get ahead in the realm of local music, but Aycock's childhood--as the the fourth in a series of 13 kids, all growing up together in a three-bedroom house--prepared him for the hustle and elbow-to-the-throat bustle of the music business.
Musically talented, Aycock at an early age learned that his abilities were a good way to stand out in a knee-high herd. He started singing at age 8 for Shorty Clemons, a barber who played sax on the side. Clemons made him into sort of a Little Stevie Wonder-type attraction in the neighborhood.
"I don't exactly know how I got to singing in his band," Aycock says. "I think it was part of my mother's doing. He [Clemons] used to play this big gig at the Prestonwood Country Club, and he asked my mother if I could come and sing for him, because I was such a mimic. I always was good at being a clown, but I could also sing like Louis Armstrong; can you imagine that?"
To prove his point Aycock runs through a credible Satchmo imitation, singing "Hello Dolly."
In the seventh grade Aycock got into the school band, starting out on bass clarinet and switching to the short-handed saxophone section later. At Pearl C. Anderson High School, band director Allison Tucker noticed the kid whose leadership skills had been honed dealing with his dozen siblings.
"Jeff always had a will to succeed, to do well," Tucker, still a teacher, recalls. "He was a natural leader, and aggressive."
"I used to say that I owed everything to [Tucker]," Aycock remembers. Tucker let Aycock use a school sax--a new one was far beyond the family's means at the time--and encouraged him to become Anderson's drum major, a post he held his last two years there. He also played with the all-city band, the all-city jazz band, and the all-city marching and concert bands, placing at the state level.
Scholarships helped him move on to Wiley College, in Marshall. "I wanted to be a professional sax player, but I did it [college] to get away from my crowded environment at home," he admits. At Wiley, he continued to study the saxophone and briefly entertained thoughts of becoming an opera singer, but abandoned them, finding opera "too feminine."
He started gigging during his sophomore year, but love, marriage, and a daughter pre-empted the rest of his academic career; he returned to Dallas and started working in pawn shops. His ability to determine the quality of jewelry made him a natural at the business, and he gradually advanced until he could afford his own place; he's been at the corner of MLK and Oakland for nine years.
Now the elements familiar to most musicians--day job, night gig, family obligations--were in place. Aycock played around town; in 1980 he went on the road with Johnny Taylor, working with him for six years before starting on a series of his own bands. He even went on the road with Billy Preston, but that life no longer has any attraction for him.
"It takes a lot of energy, and it's expensive," he says of the road. "Call me arrogant and stuck-up, but I'm not going to do it." A pause. "Unless I was the headliner," he adds with a loud laugh.
Starting in the mid-'80s Aycock concentrated on his career, going into studios, writing the original songs that make up his 90-tune repertoire, and working on a video. It's hard to cover much ground when you have to get up in the morning and work a straight job; the video, Just Hold On, took him six years to make.
In 1991, he released a self-produced four-song EP, also titled Just Hold On. It's a bit surprising: Given his forthright manner--the aggressiveness that Allison Tucker noticed--you'd expect him to be into hard bop or some other difficult, confrontational milieu, but the music is gentle and soothing, ready-made for radio.
"I'm more into communicating," he says, explaining his preference. "Not just satisfying myself. If I can play the saxophone and impress you, or make you feel better in a productive way, then that's where I come in. The songs [on the EP] were written during a time of heartache, and I wasn't really thinking commercially...I was trying to express myself tastefully."
Aycock plays tenor, alto, and soprano sax, and although he gets a big, muscular tone when he plays, he disavows consciously following in the footsteps of big-throated Texas tenors like Illinois Jacquet. "It may be a bigger tenor sound, but it's quite different," Aycock maintains. "I think people want to hear the beauty of the tone, not a bunch of shivering and clowning around."
"I like Gene Almond and Grover Washington," he says. "I listen to all of them, but Gene had so much heart in his playing, so much soul--he had the technical ability and the smoothness, more than a lot of players who got more recognition."
It all comes down to practice: "You're supposed to be able to control the instrument just like you control your fingers, and that comes from constantly preparing, practicing scales, whole tones, and different patterns," Aycock advises.
It may be paying off for him: Although the first video he made was a bit amateurish, he's currently working on a second one that's considerably more polished; it's been shown on "Smooth Jazz," KDFI-TV Channel 27's Saturday-night jazz, music video, and interview show. He's negotiating with a major label, and expects to be signed by January. "My confidence is way up," he says.
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It's taken a long time to get there--many sweltering afternoons in the Swap Shop--but Aycock begrudges none of it. "I'm thankful for everything--my creed, my color, every situation in my life--because I know that my God says that nothing's going to happen before its time, and everything has its purpose," Aycock states. "You just have to concentrate on the positive side of that purpose.
"Being able to put all your feelings into something that you can share with another person makes you...powerful," Aycock says. "The best concert I ever saw was a Miles Davis concert; it was so electrifying. Here was this monster everyone knew, and he just turned into this gentle performer who had something to share, and he showed us that he was everything we thought he was and a whole lot more, too. That's my philosophy: Whatever you think I am, I might be that, but I'm also a whole lot more that you can't see."
REO Speed Dealer has been signed to Minneapolis-based Spanish Fly Records. The label is owned by Lori Barbero, the drummer for Babes in Toyland. The contract obligates the theatrical white-thrash hellions in Dallas' REO to produce one album--their eponymous debut, due out in August--with options for two more. The band has also joined forces with Tough Guy Booking (Kelley Deal 6000), which plans to put the group into heavy rotation on the road, starting sometime in late August. It'll probably be a while until REO gets get back to town, so look out for its tentatively scheduled show with Brutal Juice and Tenderloin...
Hey! Didn't anybody notice that Ur-bluesman Charley Patton's name was misspelled in the July 4-10 issue? It would bum Street Beat out tremendously if nobody knew--or worse yet, cared--about this kind of stuff. Bust Street Beat's chops in the name of Truth at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.