Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The newest neighborhood ghosts... and the dead living again

Hello folks- I figured it was about high time I updated this blog, and this morning I found the perfect (though I hate to call it 'perfect') inspiration to do just that.

This morning I logged onto trusty Facebook, only to discover one of my friends had posted he was 'sad to see a part of his old neighborhood go down in flames.' Curious to learn more, I didn't have to do much more sleuthing then to read the comments from other facebook folk. Alas, I was very saddened to hear that at the center of all the news was the loss- by fire- of one of my favorite buildings in all of old east Dallas, the grand art deco structure that housed Terilli's, Mick's, The Greenville Ave. Bar and Grill, and The Hurricane Grille. The building dated to the early 1920s (I believe it was originally a grocery store among other things), and had been part of the lower Greenville Avenue scene for years.

The fire broke out around 5:45 the morning of Tuesday March 2, and spread throughout the walls of the structure, moving into the rafters and finally the attic, until it ballooned up to the 4 alarm fire that eventually took the grand terra cotta roof, which collapsed sometime soon after the fire broke out- and helped seal the fate of the building. With the roof collapsed, it seems all hope is lost for the building, but hopefully, there will be a way to save the facade, which fire fighters worked long and hard to save.

The fire reminds us Dallasites of another Greenville Ave. loss- the 1924 Arcadia Theater, which went up in flames in June of 2006. The Arcadia Theater that most would remember was a far cry from the place it once was, since it had been bastardized over the years as nightclub after sleazy nightclub.During the late 1920s, the theater was the only one in Dallas to boast Vitaphone equipment for sound films. The theater was a beautiful one in its day- and the only thing sadder then the fire was the fact that development plans had begun- an investor was looking into purchasing the building and restoring it back to its former glory, an attempt to bring the Arcadia back to what it had been.

To lose two buildings like Terilli's and the Arcadia is a shame most anywhere, but in Dallas, the loss is agumented by the fact that Dallas is not a city known for preservation. As oppose to New York, Philadelphia, even Los Angeles- Dallas is no champion of preservation- here something is deemed ancient if it's lasted more then 10 minutes. The fact that these old structures are substantial buildings with lots of life left seems to fall on deaf ears here in Dallas. That is why I'm glad to see such buildings as the Old Parkland Hosptial building alive and well (pardon the pun). The grand old building which sits upon a 9.5 acre lot is now occupied by Crow Holdings, and serves as their corporate headquarters. As the Dallas Observer puts it- a splendid example of 'adaptive reuse.'

The Stoneleigh Hotel is another great example... and while I don't exactly like that their new 'boutique' hotel outlooks results in a remodeled interior no different then an upscale La Quinta, I do very appreciate that they kept much of the original beauty of the hotel intact- and kudos for restoring the sign, which now looks better then ever.
Interestingly enough, the top floor used to broadcast big band music during the 1940s and 50s- if only I could get my orchestra there!

So where am I going with all of this? Well, the loss of the Terilli's building inspired me to write this little entry, and how the 'death' of such a beautiful building is just one more ghost we now have in our fair city. A city with such a lack of instinct towards preservation cannot afford to lose many more buildings- we've already seen the disapperance of too many. Which is what makes the loss of Terilli's or the Arcadia such a terrible loss. Take away too much of the past, and someday, we won't know where we came from! On the other hand, it is entirely possible for these old ghosts to live again, to once again see life.

George Schmidt is banjoist and vocalist of the New Orleans based revivalist band, The New Leviathan Oriental Fox Trot Orchestra (taking their name from a former ocean liner once billed as 'The Largest in the World'). The orchestra, and Schmidt, have truly been personal heroes of myself for a few years now, and I must confess, a lot of inspiration for my own group, The Singapore Slingers, has come from them- including many of the songs and arrangements (Palesteena, Old King Tut, and so on). Someday I hope to catch them live!
In a 2003 article in Offbeat magazine, George quotes a favorite obscure book of his from 1430, "When I do a painting that's the dead living again." And I think a lot of that can be said for historic preservation. He goes on to say playing a record is the same way, and it's the only true way to go back to the past.
Whether it's the music that George is talking about (which I completely agree with!) or the buildings I mentioned above (and trust me, there are MANY more out there), I feel it's all some extension of myself, and in many ways to let the 'dead' live again is to let myself live in 2010. Seeing these fabulous old structures reused instead of hastily scrapped does me a great deal of good... which is why I sincerely hope that the facade of our dear departed Terilli's building can be saved.

Historic preservation has long been an interset of mine, going back to the second grade, if not earlier. But at the age of 8 I had a next door neighbor give me a tape she had titled 'Music of the Cotton Exchange.' The Cotton Exchange was in reality, nothing more then an office building here in downtown Dallas that was built in 1926 (from the late 19th century on into the 30s Dallas was actually quite an important cog in the cotton industry- the building was actually one of the busiest in the nation for the cotton trade during the 20s and 30s), and sat vacant from the late 1980s until it was eventually town dorn in 1994. For some odd reason, this building struck a chord with me, and I began to obsess over it, reading anything I could about it. I suppose my bizarre fascination (especially at age 8) caught the attention of my next door neighbor. During the spring and summer, my parents and I always opened the windows to let air in, and often times she did the same, and many times she would play her piano, and the ragtime music she played would waft into our house, where it caught my ears. I began to ask her about the music she played, and that was how I first discovered ragtime and traditional jazz. The 'Cotton Exchange' tape she gave me in reality was an album by The Coffee Club Orchestra (formerly the house band on A Prairie Home Companion) entitled 'Shakin' the Blues Away.' The album was where I first heard so many of the great songs of the roaring twenties, and it was largely thanks to this old building, The Cotton Exchange.

From there I began to explore other music of the era- I also began to explore other areas, telling myself 'if the music is that good, how about the movies?' I would eventually say the same thing about clothing, automoblies, bicycles, you name it. I would later add into the mix slang, and even to some degree, personal conduct and behavior... often times too much for my own good!

As time wore on I would go on to accumulate clothing, books, posters, furniture, lots of 78 rpm records, a lexicon of long-dead slang, radios, office equipment- even such basic appliances as vacuum cleaners, toasters, and fans began to reflect my interest in everything from another era, an era long before my time- and just about everyone else living today.

While it is quite tragic to witness the loss of another great old Dallas building, and the creation of yet another ghost in our neighborhood, some comfort can be taken that someday it will 'live again.' Whether that be preserving the facade and building around it, or creating a new structure from the ground up that 'tips the hat' to the old- we shall see. In either case, I hope I have shed a little light on why historic preservation is so deeply rooted within my being- heck, it's why I enjoy the orchestra so much! I'm very much aware that just about everything that I hold dear is from an era long gone- however it's far from dead, just as long as we keep it alive. To forget about it would be the only true way to bury these beautiful things. As long as people care about the past, the dead will always live!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Keeping the gigs coming...

Hello all! Since my last posting, I've had the phone ring for a couple of more gigs for the Singapore Slingers, my 18 piece 'fox-trot orchestra.' With the advent of 2010, we've got at least a gig a month, through April... not bad for an 18 piece group in this 'economic climate'- whatever that means.

I found myself on the orchestra's Myspace page, updating our upcoming shows, and anyone who has ever listed a show or two on Myspace knows that you run into your past shows as you enter in new ones. They don't disappear into the ether... rather, they hang around on your page, and in this case, they hang around to remind myself that yes indeed- I have gotten this group off the ground, a feat I'm just a little bit proud of.

The Singapore Slingers have been gigging since October of 2008, when we played for a silent film night at the old Texas Theater, but we have actually been plugging away since December 2007, when our first rehearsal was held. We took a stab at it, but decided to hold off until 2008, when we picked back up in April. The time between then and our October gig was spent gathering repertoire, going through flaky players, and finally settling on a rehearsal spot. While the work never ends, those beginning months were definitely the hardest.

I can recall a gig in the fall of 2007 when I was doing sideman duty. Before downbeat, and after all was setup, I found myself talking with one of the other musicians there about my goal of having this group- with complete instrumentation, resulting in not 5, not 8, not 11 player, but with the full compliment of 17 or 18, which by the way, is about how many players the average 'stock' arrangement called for at it's fullest. I was told point blank it couldn't be done. Undeterred, I continued my quest for a 'fox trot orchestra' (as opposed to a 'swing band'), slowly but surely rounding up players.

The first result was a small group, almost a salon orchestra, that took a few photos but never gigged. I kept the whole idea rolling until I had rounded up 16 musicians as crazy as myself. They came from pit orchestras I'd worked with, Craigslist ads, and recommendations from current musicians. When I was first gathering musicians, some asked if I was in search of musicians to play a one time gig- like a musical- but nay, I told them that I was after something that Dallas needed, and didn't have... a band to bring back the sounds of the 1920s and 30s- something to evoke an era long gone, but with music that deserves to be preserved.

Today, I'm proud to say the Singapore Slingers are working, keeping everything flying and having a darned good time! We've got 4 shows this year so far, including one this Sunday at the Unity Church on Greenville Ave. Feel free to check out our website and see where all we'll be. If anything, I've learned that as hackneyed as it sounds, you can make your dreams come true, and that your dreams are indeed worth fighting for, regardless of how much work it may take- things do get easier, and I can honestly say that's no line!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

17 Piece Pride and Joy

Greetings and salutations, all! Today on this particularly gray afternoon, I've decided to take a minute and discuss my orchestra, the elephantine Singapore Slingers. At 17 piece, we're not exactly a combo. Nay, the orchestra is comprised of violins, violas, cello, flute, clarinet, saxophones, trumpets, trombone, piano, bass, drums, and banjo. As you probably gather, the venues we play are limited to where we'll fit! The orchestra specializes in American popular song, from 1895-1935, all pre-swing dance music... waltzes, rhumbas, one-steps, two-steps, marches, and of course, those indelible fox trots, and plenty of them. Those of you that have kept up with us know that you can easily catch our updates on Facebook, and hear our tunes on Myspace, but I figure this blogging jazz is just one more way I can spread the good word. Our next 'really big shoe' (for all you kids, that's an Ed Sullivan reference!) will be at the Unity Church here in Dallas, on Greenville and McCommas- 3425 Greenville Ave. to be exact. We'll be there, all done up and ready to go- bringing you music from many, many, MANY years ago (we plan on doing a waltz from 1893). Don't miss this great opportunity to hear great music you just can't hear anywhere else. As a side note, I'm pleased to announce that the Advocate Magazine recently ran a story about my little band- please feel free to check it out online here... Hope to see you all at the show- tickets are available at the church or on their website. See you at the show!