Un-Cross Talk with Jacqui Sutton, June 2017
Following in the tradition of Miss Ann’s Playpen, I welcome you to Jacqui’s version of the Playpen, known locally as the Frontier Jazz Orchestra—a chamber style jazz ensemble that is described as where jazz meets the American Frontier. The playpens and playhouses that populated Houston’s Third Ward were musical, sonic refuges for everyday folks to jam and sing the blues. You mixed it up and you learned and you grew.
I created the Frontier Jazz Orchestra as a kind of musical refuge—a safe space to experiment with the fusion of jazz, bluegrass, blues, musical theater, classical, Americana—whatever mood seems to want to present itself.
Houston itself has been home to a wide range of musical expression: from the jazz-oriented Jewel Brown, to the big-band maestro Conrad Johnson, to the weedier blues of Leonard Tyson. And let’s not forget the world-renowned blues-influenced sound peeling out of Arnett Cobb’s tenor saxophone. All of these voices in some way synthesized jazz and blues into a uniquely Houston/ Texas sound. It seems ever to have been a place where styles slip and slide together, and make room for each other.
Synthesis is the operative word here. Back in the day of the playpens and playhouses, the elements were jazz and blues. Today, with the Frontier Jazz sound, the elements include jazz, bluegrass and whatever other influences catch my fancy—but predominantly jazz and bluegrass. They are uniquely American art forms that until recently have seemed very far apart, and the communities seemed more balkanized. In the last 20 years or so, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones blew minds by melding jazz and Americana instrumentally, with Bela making his mark on the banjo. The walls between the two styles have since been slowly breaking down. The Carolina Chocolate Drops blended African American Appalachian roots music with R&B and hip-hop. Cassandra Wilson has consistently infused her jazz songs with the Americana and blues sounds of her native Mississippi.
I had no idea that moving to Houston in 2008 would place me, a yet-to-be-realized female bandleader, in the greater Houston context of absorbing the different textures of sound and creating something new.
Marie Adams [1925-1998] had a hit record, recorded in Houston entitled “I’m Gonna Play the Honky-Tonks”.
“The well-known refrain features the singer-songwriter’s defiant assertion that she will cross class boundaries and do as she pleases by having fun in all types of venues. Proclaiming that she is no longer willing to submit to other people’s notions of what she should or should not do, she announces her intention to patronize ‘high-class joints’ as well as ‘low-class joints’ and even ‘honky-tonks’”.
This kind of unapologetic boundary crossing is the essence of the Frontier Jazz sound. It simply wants to express the style that is coming from the heart at that moment, and if the styles slip and slide together, even better!
There’s also a kind of “go big or go home” ethos. In describing how Texas tenor sax players promulgated a big tenor sound (criticized fairly or unfairly), Conrad Johnson put it this way: “Well, I hate to say this, but maybe it’s just because everything coming out of Texas is big! You know, it’s a concept that we live with. But for some reason, the tenor sound here is not a puny sound. It’s just not puny! It’s a rich, vibrant sound. So I guess that’s it.”
Houston’s own Jewel Brown talks about the flexibility of musicians in this part of the country.
“… they called some of us jazz singers, and you know, that’s hip. You do whatever it takes to make a living, whatever club you can work in and whatever they want in that club.”
I discovered this same attitude in the musicians that I would ultimately cast my lot with to create the Frontier Jazz Orchestra: jazz and classical musicians who were flexible and willing to mix it up with bluegrass and other musical styles.
Who knows? Maybe it was a session musician’s mindset: “Hey, this is probably cool. I’ll do the gig; I’ll record. And if the checks don’t bounce, even better!” (You’d have to ask them!) But to my surprise, the musicians took to the sound and have owned it, and pour themselves into every note.
Those musicians include: Henry Darragh (piano); Paul Chester (banjo/guitar); Anthony Sapp (bass); Max Dyer and Patrick Moore (cello); Dennis Dotson and Eddie Lewis (trumpet), Ilya Janos (percussion); and Aralee Dorough (flute).
So, the Frontier Jazz Orchestra is playing it big, because going home is not an option. And it is my hope that the sound of Frontier Jazz, will be considered a Texas creation, with a specific sound, promulgated by this ex-New Yorker who didn’t want to choose between jazz and bluegrass, so she opted instead to sing them both.
I’ve been fortunate to receive a grant from the Houston Arts Alliance to compose original works of music, continuing the Frontier Jazz tradition. The project is titled Un-Cross Talk: Jazz and Bluegrass Slip ‘n Slide Houston Style. It will be an immersive, multi-media concert, performed at MATCH Houston on March 16, 2018. Mark your calendars!
In my next blog post, I will describe in more detail the aim of the Un-Cross Talk concert. Future posts will discuss women in jazz and bluegrass, female bandleaders, and the uniqueness and American-ness of jazz and bluegrass, and why these two styles should (and can) meld culturally and musically.
See you next time! In the meantime, if you want to stay up with all things Frontier Jazz, feel free to join my mailing list by scrolling down the home page.
Yours in music,
1. Charles Roger Wood and James Fraher, Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues: Issue 8 of Jack and Doris Smothers series in Texas history, life, and culture (Austin: University of Texas Press), pages 88, 111, 113, 114.