A little musical history lesson

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Took a couple of hours off work today and went with my wife and five-year-old daughter to a special hour-long program at the Performing Arts Center about the life and music of Bob Wills, featuring John Wooley, a writer and music historian, and Ray Benson and Jason Roberts of Asleep at the Wheel.

Wooley gave a brief historical sketch of Bob Wills' life and career and of the origins of Western Swing music. He gave his working definition of Western Swing, which he said he's still refining: Jazz improvisation, on top of a dance beat, done with instruments associated with cowboy or hillbilly music. I think that about captures it.

Then Ray Benson and Jason Roberts came up, acoustic guitar and fiddle in hand, respectively, and Benson talked about how the musical drama "A Ride with Bob" came to be, and recognized playwright Anne Rapp, who was in the audience. Benson asked rhetorically why the emphasis on Bob Wills -- there were a lot of great Western Swing bands and musicians back in the '30s and '40s. The answer is the spark, ambition, and charisma that Wills brought to the music, and "A Ride with Bob" attempts to give the audience a sense of the man as a performer. At one time, the Texas Playboys was the number one dance band in the country. Benson said that Grammy producer Pierre Cossette said that Wills had more charisma than anybody else he ever worked with.

In the play, Jason Roberts, who has been playing fiddle with Asleep at the Wheel for about 10 years, plays Bob Wills in his prime. Benson and Roberts talked about and played four songs: a fiddle breakdown, "Ida Red," "Faded Love," and "San Antonio Rose." We got to hear the close family resemblance between the old fiddle tune "Nellie Grey" and "Faded Love." You could hear folks in the audience softly singing along on "Faded Love."

They took questions at the end. I asked where we could hear live Western Swing music between visits from Asleep at the Wheel. Someone mentioned that Tommy Allsup and Leon Rausch would be performing in Muskogee on December 30. I'll have to miss it -- we expect to be performing "Bottle Baby Boogie" around our house about then -- but it should be great. Rausch sang with Wills and played bass fiddle in the latter part of Wills' career, and Allsup produced and played bass on the album "For the Last Time." Benson mentioned that there was a Western Swing newsletter -- he probably meant this one. (Afterwards I met a couple with the band Cow Jazz -- they're based and do their performing in the DFW area.) Wooley reminded us that he has a show every Saturday night at 7 p.m. on KWGS 89.5, called "Swing on This."

My daughter got to shake hands with Jason Roberts, who said he had a little girl about her age, and she got her picture taken with Jason and with Ray Benson. (UPDATE: I've added photos, after the jump.)

As we emerged from the PAC, schoolkids were beginning to line the street for the Veterans' Day parade. I wish a lot of them had been inside to hear the music and learn about part of Oklahoma's musical heritage, the music that helped their great-grandparents keep smiling through hard times.

Benson was on KFAQ with DelGiorno this morning, broadcasting over the "sacred frequency" that carried Bob and Johnnie Lee Wills for many years. They talked about the lack of a Western Swing Hall of Fame, something that belongs in Tulsa. (For reasons I don't understand, no Western Swing artist has ever been inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.) The presence of such a facility would be a draw for a niche tourist market -- attractive to a small but intense fan base. There would be good synergy between Western Swing tourism and Route 66 tourism -- transplanted Okies provided a fan base for the music in 1940s California. And a Western Swing museum would be a resource to get the music into the schools, where it could be introduced in the context of Oklahoma history and modern musical history.

I'm glad the PAC set the program up, but I wish more people had gotten the word. There was plenty of space for more, but because they mentioned limited seating and the need to call ahead to reserve a seat, I had the impression it was a much smaller room and would fill up quickly, an impression reinforced when I called Thursday to reserve seats and was told that there were only a few left. I would have spread the word if I'd known the room was so big.

It was a nice start to a day that ended with family, a cake, candles, ice cream, and two CDs: "For the Last Time" and "Tiffany Transcriptions No. 2."

The five year old with Jason Roberts.

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The five year old with Ray Benson.

20051111-KBenson.jpg

2 Comments

heh, I saw that advertised on TV, Michael.

I remember telling my wife that "I guarantee you Michael Bates is going to go to that."

Sounds like you had a great time.

Michael Sanditen said:

Good catch on "For reasons I don't understand, no Western Swing artist has ever been inducted into the OJHF." Shameful.

Bob Wills, what wonderful music.

Got to hand it to the Rodgers family for investing so much effort into preserving the Cain's landmark. And the Mayo family for giving so much care to saving The Old Lady.

It is just awful that the city leadership failed to recognize the value of the Brady district to downtown and Tulsa during the compilation of Vision 2025 benefits. While distracted by team Kitchell/Sager (boy that lasted 2 years) and team Adwon (east soccer stadium boy), the city lost sight of forming an Arts district anchored by the Brady Theatre and Cain's. An asset already in place just desirous of an influx of even a minor amount of civic funding. If we facilitate eminent domain around TU, could we not have initiated a plan to force industrial users in this district out (Mr.Mautino?) to east Tulsa to create a vibrant theatre/music area. The convention "white elephant" center should have come second to this type of redevelopment. But, it is so important to our Mayor to appear major league (something we are not) while ignoring our inner strengths. It would have elevated the recognition of Tulsa as a second tier city like Memphis, Austin, or Nashville whose roots are all deeply entrenched in American music tradition. Rather, city insiders chose a money sucking loser designed by an over the hill architect which will cost taxpayers forever.

Point being, who are the men and women in the shadows of city government who manipulated the priorities in 2025 so badly? And, who are the one's that have turned their backs on western swing culture?

An arts district like the Brady would have generated more jobs, been more of a tourist draw, brought in more retail, created more housing, and strengthened the downtown economic base than anything the fools came to the voters with in package 2025. Not to forget the benefits and savings to taxpayers.

Amazing how many voters got fooled over the past 5 years. I guess they were visualizing having The Rolling Stones come to town. That, and evangelic tent shows....along with Texans and neo-cons. Not enough hotels nearby for the Republican National Convention.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on November 11, 2005 11:11 PM.

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