Sunday, June 20, 2010

Houston Mixtape #2: The Ink Spots Museum

Photo of The Ink Spots Museum by Chris Becker

As a recent transplant to Houston, I am just beginning to take in the breadth and variety of the city’s cultural scene, especially its music. Each article will focus on contemporary composition, improvised idioms, and performances that integrate theater, visual arts, and/or dance. Inevitably, my love for rock, folk, blues, jazz, country, zydeco, and all out noise will creep into future writing. The goal is to expand people’s perceptions (including my own) about how and where one can find innovative music.

There may be a connection between Houston’s lack of zoning laws and the way that the past, present, and future inform each other throughout its landscape. Maybe that sounds like a cliché. If you’ve ever ridden the Houston’s Metro 80 bus through the Third Ward up Dowling Street, past Emancipation Park, and—just before turning left at Sparkle’s Burger Spot toward the glass cathedrals of downtown—observed an unfenced horse enjoying some grass in someone’s front yard, you know that I’m not talking some tourist board hogwash. There are many “zones” throughout this city dedicated to celebrating its history and nurturing its creative spirit, and they sometimes seem to appear out of nowhere.

The Ink Spots Museum (located in Houston Heights) is dedicated to archiving and celebrating the life and work of Texas born guitarist, singer, and educator Huey Long. Anita Long, Huey’s daughter and the museum’s curator, welcomed me and my wife for a visit earlier this month. Like many Houstonians I’ve met since our relocation from New York City, she generously shared her knowledge of Houston’s cultural scene. All the musicians I know would take great comfort in knowing that a family member like Anita would take care of their legacy after they departed. The museum and its accompanying website (featuring plenty of photos, audio, and video) serves to remind people that the history of American music includes the collective participation of many artists, each committed to his or her respective craft. You may know that Huey Long was a member of The Ink Spots from 1944 to 1946 with Bill Kenny as their leader, but you may not know that he also played guitar in ensembles that included Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Father Hines, Sarah Vaughn, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and many other luminaries of 20th-century jazz and popular music.

Frank Davis' Louisiana Jazz Band (Photo courtesy of Anita Long)

Huey Long, who remarkably lived to the age of 105, was born in 1904 in Sealy, Texas. For the people in Sealy as well as on the farms in surrounding areas, music was a vital part of a day-to-day lifestyle dominated by hard labor. By the time he was a teenager, Huey was working as a sharecropper. Describing those formative years in Sealy in his pictorial autobiography The Huey Long Story, Huey recalls the names of no fewer than four different pianists (including his brother Sammy) playing “rags” on the pianos in people’s homes. “Ragtime” was indeed heard in Texas in the early 1900s, as was a style that would later become known as “the blues.” Huey’s sister Willie, also a pianist, studied music at Wiley College in Houston. She brought classical and popular sheet music back to Sealy to play note for note when “grownups” were in the house and improvise from when the youngsters were on their own. Some parents considered improvisation almost sinful behavior.

In addition to classical, popular, and ragtime music for piano, Huey was exposed to the uptempo groove-oriented blues played on guitar at all night “suppers” that included plenty of dancing, eating, and gambling as well as its more somber and sorrowful counterpart known as “slow blues.” Huey began playing both guitar and piano, eventually adding ukulele, an enormously popular instrument at the time, to his repertoire. After striking out on his own at age fifteen and relocating to Houston, he began playing banjo (tuning it like a ukulele but an octave lower) and joined the Frank Davis Louisiana Jazz Band. This was a popular and well-respected band in its timethat played for both whites and blacks in Houston’s segregated communities. He began playing guitar after relocating from Houston to Chicago and joining Texas Guinan’s Cuban Band, which traveled to Chicago from New York City to play the 1933 World’s Fair. Later, Huey would join Fletcher Henderson’s Band and Earl “Father” Hines’ All Star Band.

Fast forwarding a bit...

Two sessions Huey did around 1946 with trumpeter Fats Navarro, tenor saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, pianist Al Haig, bassist Gene Ramey, and drummer Denzil Best were released on two separate records: In the Beginning…Bebop (a compilation of sessions by three different bands) and Fats Navarro’s recording Nostalgia. These recordings feature some truly kick-ass guitar playing from Huey who definitely holds his own in the company of two phenomenally creative horn players. The rhythmic interplay between guitar and piano is incredibly funky, as is the interplay between bass and drums. This music was probably inspired by the music heard at Sealy’s all night suppers—danceable, unpredictable, and filled with sly humor.

Huey Long in 2008 (Photo courtesy of Anita Long)

Teaching and composing music, including several chord melody solos based on themes from European Classical repertoire, would become a major part of Huey’s life along with researching his family tree and creating an exhibit of his life’s work that would become The Ink Spots Museum. Anita talked to us about the possibility of the museum one day becoming a virtual exhibit, and there is plenty of history and music from Huey’s life that should be shared with the world. For now, there is this small museum, a standing structure in the midst of Houston’s unzoned landscape that you can make an appointment to visit. The museum’s website is available at:

Signing off for now...

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