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 today an entertainment and recreation hub for the East Austin community. 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.