Discover more from Michael Corcoran's Overserved
Dr. James Polk: Godfather of Austin jazz
Ray Charles' former band arranger led the hottest local jazz quintet of the '70s
Jazz keyboardist Dr. James Polk has been a major figure in Austin music since he came up from Corpus Christi in 1959 to attend Huston-Tillotson College. Polk left town from ‘77- ‘87 to play organ with Ray Charles, eventually expanding into an arranger/conductor role, but he had a rich musical life in Austin before and after. The 82-year-old has played with Elias Haslanger’s Church On Mondays at the Continental Gallery for years.
Austin’s jazz scene was happening in the mid-70s, with the Casablanca and Blue Parrot clubs at 15th near Lavaca, Mackedrick’s Treehouse on Barton Springs at Bouldin, Piggy’s on Congress and the pre-roof Liberty Lunch- and Polk was probably the best musician in the bunch. The James Polk Quintet packed Casablanca every Sunday and Monday night.
Fans of Leonard Cohen will recognize the names of JPQ bassist Charles “Roscoe” Beck, guitarist Mitch Watkins and drummer Steve Meador, who all later backed the Canadian songwriting legend. Sax player Paul Ostermayer rounded out the band, which went by Passenger when not backing Polk.
Ostermayer recently posted this soundcloud link to a jazz group with funky drive, recorded live at Casablanca in 1977. “Rated X” is hardcore musicianship you can dance to.
A child of musical parents, Polk was taught piano as a tyke, switched to sax in the early years of R&B, and then played trombone in the high school band. He also played bass, well enough for Lionel Hampton to take him on tour from 1970- ‘72. But keyboards were his domain.
Tired of the ragged road life, and lack of recognition back home, Polk retired from music after Hampton and got a job with IBM. But bassist Beck kept coming around with records by newer acts like Weather Report, to try and light a fire under the big man, and it finally worked. The James Polk Quintet blew everyone away after forming in 1975.
Polk grew up on the Gulf Coast enthralled by the R&B he heard on the radio and from touring acts like Percy Mayfield and Charles Brown. In college in 1960, he played blues at the Flamingo Club (1203 Chicon St.), but his passion was turning to the adventurous jazz of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk. Polk tried to change his style at the Flamingo to freeform jazz, but the crowd wouldn’t have it. “We can’t dance to that shit!” Polk settled in the middle ground- jazz with an R&B groove- that would become his trademark.
“I never wanted to get so far out that the masses didn’t understand my music,” Polk told Ronald Powell in an October 1977 Statesman article titled “Jazzman James Polk Finds His Audience.” The musician talked about the difficulty of being booked in Austin in the ‘60s “because we were an all-black band.” James Polk and the Brothers were put together to cover Stax and Motown for the San Jacinto clubs that catered to the college crowd. But even after they added white singer Angela Strehli and guitarist John X. Reed, they couldn’t get a gig. “The club owners were scared black people were going to burn down their clubs.”
It was easier to get hired playing jazz, which Polk did in 1966 at the New Orleans Club. He was not only a member of the popular Blue Crew, with drummer Gerry Storm and Brazilian guitarist Luis Natalicio, but Polk led an octet, featuring Pat Murphy, Fred Smith and Melvin Scott on saxes, Bob Bruno on bass, and drummer John Whitehurst. Polk and experimental accordionist Bob Sardo were the two most prolific bandleaders in the Austin jazz scene.
James Polk and the Brothers recorded an album in 1969 for Sonobeat, which had hoped to license it to Liberty, as they’d done with Johnny Winter’s first album. But there were no takers and Polk Chops (working title) never came out. Polk put out a low-reaching single that year on the Twink label, named after the owner of the Hideaway on 19th Street, where JP and the Brothers played every weekend.
Polk’s legacy is in leading. A teacher and music director at Booker T. Washington High in Elgin after graduating from H-T in ‘62, Polk has always been a natural instructor. When he returned to his hometown two years later to play the Corpus Christi Jazz Festival, his 16-piece band was made up almost entirely by his high school students. He then went on to teach a whole generation of notable jazz players.