The time was August 1958 and the place was Harlem. More than 50 of the baddest, hippest, swingin-est cats around laid down their instruments and struck a pose in a black and white that has stood at the highest echelon of jazz photography for more than half a century, and they called it “A Great Day in Harlem.” (Top photo.)
The time is September 2014, and the place is Liberty Bar. More than 50 of the grooving-est, dirtiest, and soulful-est gatos in San Antonio put on their Sunday’s best and do their darndest to create a photo that may stand for the next 50 years, and they call it “A Great Day in SA.”
A spark of cool energy in all black and shades to match, jazz singer and flautist Katchie Cartwright helped to engineer the congregation of talent from all across generations and genres.
“One of the reasons we did it at this time, is we want to highlight local talent that put things like Jazz‘SAlive on,” Cartwright said. “We want to raise the profile of the jazz community, which is old and distinguished.”
Cartwright called herself a greenhorn, a newcomer to the jazz scene. “I wanted to know the story, and once I started diggin’ in, I noticed the deep tradition,” Cartwright said. “The music has been here, the whole spectrum came through and would lead late night jams.”
One may associate names like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ray Charles with higher octane metropolitan centers, but truth be told they came right through San Antone as well during their heydays. “There is a long-standing jazz scene, individuals like Jim Cullum, Spott Barnett, June Parker,” Cartwright said. “It’s been a dream to meet June, and I got to do so today.”
Dressed in vermillion and lipstick to match, June Parker sat down at the ivories to tickle out a tune with Cartwright’s husband and local saxman Rich Oppenheim, playing “Hard Times” by Ray Charles. “Some things never die, music is everlasting,” Parker said. “You can go back to the bible with music. It said, ‘make a joyful noise’!”
Parker has played in San Antonio for many years and has watched the city grow. “It certainly has grown as far as musical education is concerned,” Parker said. “I’m from another generation though, play the classics-jazz, blues, gospel.”
What Parker loves about the music she plays is how everlasting it is. “Music is soothing to the ears, and the kind of music I listen to, it never goes out of style. It never goes out,” Parker said.
Smooth and sensitive in dress and decorum, vocalist Ken Slavin spoke more directly to the beauty of SA’s jazz culture. “There is a collaborative and very friendly culture in SA,” Slavin said. “It isn’t as starkly competitive as other places, very accepting and warm and has every ethnicity and form of jazz represented.”
Slavin recognizes that San Antone is billed as a Tejano, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Western music scene, but that there is more to it than that. “I did marketing for the city once, and I shared with the public that our city is the only one where guacamole burgers, Tecate, and jazz can coexist happily in the same place,” Slavin said. “To anybody who is trying to learn about SA more deeply, look beyond the obvious and dig a little deeper.”
Barry Brake, pianist and co-founder of the Jazz Protagonists, was riffing alongside Slavin on the lawn of the Liberty Bar, as if they were playing a gig together. “What is happening in SA is what jazz was made for,” Brake said. “Sit a few feet away from the musicians, watch the exchange of ideas, this will never happen again in the same way. It can only happen right then and there, and it’s happening every single night in San Antonio.”
Brake commented that the jazz scene is so bustling that he never truly gets a chance to interact with other musicians on this level. “We’re always filling in for each other, it’s so great to just hang around and see things happening,” Brake said, as he panned to the crowd before him.
Musicians hung out chatting outside, or dug into the awesomeness surrounding the piano inside the Liberty Bar, where photographer Stephen McDowell captured the moment for posterity. As if school children posing for the yearbook, local artists took turns sitting down at the piano with their brass baby or baby grand and tooted a little lick while McDowell shot away.
Jeff Spence, originally from New Orleans, was one of these fellas, and he jumped on the upright for a little rendition of “Big Chief.”
“I came here from New Orleans 20 years ago, and I saw cats today from all the way back when,” Spence said. “I’ve never seen this many musicians in one place, it’s phenomenal.”