Featured Musician - January 2009

Name : Reggie Houston

Reggie Houston
Photo (c) Brandy Kayzakian-Rowe

Instrument: soprano, alto, tenor, baritone saxophones; clarinet.

Early Years/Education: At home growing up my mother had me in dancing school in junior high, so it was a natural transition to go from dance to piano lessons. Both my parents had college degrees, my mother was a teacher, my dad was a professional musician. They divorced when I was three, and my dad went back to Albuquerque, where his family is from. My mom stayed in New Orleans and raised us with the help of my grandparents. (The Houston side of my family were significant African Americans in the history of this country; my great uncle was Charles Hamilton Houston, a prominent civil rights attorney; the new Harvard law library is named for him). I got interested in the saxophone when I saw my young cousin, Floyd, and his best friend hanging out with their instruments. Floyd played the alto. During this time, Ray Charles was scheduled to play at Lincoln Beach (a Black amusement park) in New Orleans. He had a great band with him and lead the group playing the alto saxophone. I was in the sixth grade, and when I saw the horn, I recognized it, that's the horn Floyd plays! The following year I picked instrumental music and chose the alto sax. My band teacher gave me the nickname “Pagliacci,” because I was always clowning around. During the summers, as young musicians we'd attend workshops put on by band directors from other high schools. We'd compete in district and state-wide competitions. We'd hang out and get to meet all these other kids from around the state. By the time you got to university, you're seeing some familiar faces. In retrospect, we had all of these wonderful advantages in an environment regarded as disadvantaged. I went to Walter L. Cohen High School and graduated from Southern University in New Orleans with a degree in Music Education. After college I worked in social service and got involved in state politics. When I moved here it became about me getting myself together.

Portland: I moved here in 2004 “because I could.” I was invited to play at the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival, so I stayed the summer and got to know much more of the surrounding neighborhoods. Had the opportunity of playing with such diverse musicians as DK Stewart and the Freak Mountain Ramblers. I was playing a wide range of pretty eclectic music. Having a N'Orleans background, I found it easy to make the transition. I actually moved here to shore up my soul and invigorate my humanism more than any music; in very short order I had pretty nice gigs, and been invited to play with the Northwest's best.  Actually, I had been invited to move here some twenty years ago by a friend who had visited me in New Orleans. He observed different projects I was involved with at the time ... playing in the more popular clubs, teaching, had a gospel group, etc. He told me that if you moved to Portland, you could  do all the things you're doing here but you'd be the cat, you'd be in demand.  At that time I was married and had five kids and was very happy in my personal life, but in 2000 I experienced an unexpected  divorce and that changed everything.

Bands: There's a group of young adults who have adopted me, and I've adopted them, called “The Manimals.” They're recent graduates of Oregon State and Portland State. I invited them to play the Waterfront Blues Festival with me. We have a lot of fun playing together. The core of “Reggie Houston's Crescent City Connection” includes Peter Dammann (of Paul DeLay) on guitar, Damian Erskine on bass, Jimmy Sanders on keys, and Reinhardt Melz on drums. “Reggie Houston Arkestra” is the full company I used to do my production/musical called “Rocking the Cradle of Jazz” that  illustrated the evolution of the music with dancers as well as musicians. I've only done this show once but would love to do it again. “Earth Island Band”: high energy world music. “Box of Chocolates”: I   work with them here in Portland more than any group. It's an eclectic acoustic trio with Turtle Vandemarr on guitar and vocals and Tim Acott on acoustic bass and vocals. Occasionally Norman Sylvester invites me to join his gigs; he really got me started playing in Portland even before I moved here. The Ray Charles Tribute Big Band: featuring Patrick Lamb and Thara Memory. I also have a pretty happening gospel group called “Wordless Praise.” For this I'll be working with pianist Janice Scroggins and six singers, including Linda Hornbuckle. We take old gospel music and make it contemporary.

Musical Influences: My first is Gloria Ward (organist at my church) and Geraldine Wright, the niece of Mahalia Jackson. (Mahalia is from my neighborhood and is buried in my mom's family plot).  My biggest was Alvin Batiste and Edward “ Kid” Jordan. Then there's Johnny Fernandez and William Fisher (the composer) who ran a summer music camp through Xavier University. This camp would last for three months and they'd prepare us young, urban “knuckleheads” for university. The band, “Cubanismo,” what great players with their Russian-Cuban musical education. It took us two years to bring them to New Orleans with all the state department red tape.

Most Satisfying Experience: Being offered a job in the Fats Domino band -- at the time they  offered it to me -- has to be the high point. The top musicians in the world wanted that gig. They'd show me pictures of Stanley Turrentine and Urbie Green playing with Fats in Las Vegas. When I got the gig, I didn't formally meet Fats Domino for two years! One time a promoter offered Fats one million dollars to play two weeks in Iceland. We played in a two thousand seat club called “Broadway,” and it was SRO every night. Of all the guys, Fats knew how to take care of business.

Favorite Recordings: “Mississippi Mass Choir”; “Preservation Hall” (original band) with Sweet Emma (a great stride piano player they called the “bell” girl”); “The music of Dr. Michael White” (clarinetist w/Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra) -- this is traditional New Orleans music...);  The early Ray Charles Big Band recordings on Atlantic; The opera Pagliacci, Mozart piano concertos; Meringue music of Juan Louis Guerra; “Mardi Gras Combo” from Cubanismo; Anything by Abdullah Ibrahim; Duke Ellington”s “Black and Brown Suite”; and anything from Count Basie's Band when Philly Joe Jones was the drummer ... like the original “April in Paris.”

Discography: “Makin' Groceries,” Reggie Houston and Friends (2004), done here before I moved here. This was an all-star session featuring guys from my “Box of Chocolates” band; “Urgin' for the Virgin,” Reggie Houston's “Earth Island Band” (2000) recorded live in the Virgin Islands. My then twelve-year-old daughter came up with the title. “The Gospel Saxophone of Reggie Houston” (1999), with organists Ezekiel Williams and Damian Brown.

Gigs: January 10 at the Kingstad Center in Beaverton I'll be playing a benefit with Janis Scroggins and Ron Steen; February 11 I'll be giving a special presentation for the City of Portland for Black History month with Janice Scroggins at noon; February 12 I'll be with Janice at Wilf's as part of the PDX Jazz Festival; February 21 I'll be playing with “Box of Chocolates” at the annual dinner/auction for the St. Francis Catholic Church; check reggiehouston.com for a Mardi Gras gig on February 24  at Tapalya restaurant.

Future Plans: Lately, I've been doing a lot of casuals but would like to play more club gigs. After the first of the year I'm going to start playing at a little restaurant that just opened called Tapalaya. I'm also in the planning stages for a new CD with Janice Scroggins. We may do some of the tracking in New Orleans as well as here. Hopefully, it will be ready for market by summer.

Other: One thing I'd like to see happen here is allowing the young musicians to stay and listen in a club after 9 pm. I'd also like to thank the music community, how they accepted and supported me, and the populace of the Portland metro area ... a very intelligent, obviously intuitive and sophisticated audience.


-- by Rita Rega


Copyright 2009, Jazz Society of Oregon