The history of jazz in Austin dates back to the height of legal segregation in the south in the 1920s. The black community was largely forced to reside east of I-35. During this time, the city’s social activities were strictly separated by race. As a result, the East Side became rich in African American culture as residents of the community frequented businesses in their own neighborhood, including some of the first black-owned places in Austin.
The famous and historic Victory Grill was one of the sites in the region and remains one of the last original juke-joints of the Chitlin ‘Circuit today. While the space is now occupied by a southern food establishment called the Rolling Rooster, the restaurant still has a stage for jazz and blues, a nod to the place of origin.
Other stadiums existed as clubs such as Charlie’s Playhouse, Big Mary’s / Alabama Club, Ernie’s Chicken Shack, and Doris Miller Auditorium which was established in 1942 and is still an entertainment and recreation hub for the East Austin community today. As part of the Chitlin ‘Circuit, touring artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Ike & Tina Turner graced the stage at the Miller Auditorium.
Further west in what is now the Red River Cultural Quarter‘s Symphony Square, which was built in 1971 and originally designed as a south-eastern extension of Waterloo Park, the New Orleans Club reigned as one of the most popular clubs in the 1950s and 1960s. Over time the venue has developed a rich variety of music in addition to jazz, but it is here that the now legendary black jazz artist Ernie Mae Miller performed regularly. With a career spanning over 50 years, Miller was a child prodigy after learning to play the piano at the age of 5. After leaving Austin for a while, she returned and enrolled in Huston-Tillotson to study music and began her solo career as a jazz pianist and singer. In addition to having a residency at the New Orleans Club, Miller has also performed at Flamingo Lounge and the popular Jade Room.
During the 1930s, swing music dominated the jazz scene. Originally from Austin Teddy Wilson, one of the genre’s most accomplished swing pianists, has performed with legends such as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Wilson later joined the Benny Goodman Threesome. Another native of Austin, Oscar moore, was known as the jazz guitarist of the Nat King Cole trio.
In 1963, graduated from the music education program at Huston-Tillotson, Dr James Polk emerged on the music scene as a professional blues and jazz keyboardist. He is known for his work as organist / pianist, writer, arranger and conductor of the Ray Charles Orchestra. His most recent jazz ensemble, Peace at the center, still performs regularly in Austin.
jazz singer Tina Swamp was the frontman of the Creative Opportunity Orchestra of Austin, a pioneer of the Austin jazz music scene from 1982 until his death in 2009. The orchestra featured local and international jazz artists, bringing together the entire artistic community with innovative compositions in avant-garde jazz and improvisational music. Find records of Marsh’s work at the Austin History Center and the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas.
Austin native and extraordinary trumpeter Martin Banks‘bio reads like a who’s who of jazz through the years, from swing to avant-garde jazz. A graduate of Anderson High School in East Austin, Martin worked and toured with artists such as Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and others on the New York bebop scene of the 1950s and 1960s. He returned. in Austin in the 1980s, bringing his knowledge and moving expertise to Austin and teaching an entire generation of musicians – both on the bandstand and in the Austin ISD classrooms.
One of the greatest musicians of the Austin jazz scene, pianist Rich Harney was a regular presence at the Elephant Room until his death in 2020. A prolific composer of swing and post-bop tunes, Harney was a brilliant jazz pianist, the first musician to play Austin’s acclaimed award-winning Liberty Lunch. numerous local and national awards, and mentor to other local musicians.