Friday, May 18, 2012

Elephant Room


The Elephant Room is my bar. It’s on Congress Avenue about halfway between the Colorado River and the state capitol, downstairs, below street level, beneath what for the longest time was a Japanese restaurant—you go down this flight of stairs into what’s like a cellar or a cave. The Elephant Room is a jazz club, decent selection of alcohol, got its name because mammoth bones were found when they excavated the cellar. The Elephant isn't like a club in New Orleans or D.C., Philly or Chicago. It can't get rough, this is a more polite atmosphere. It can get kind of yuppie yeah but never chi chi.
My ideal of a real jazz club is the 1950s New York variety—there’s a couple sitting at one of the back tables, it’s dark back there, smoky, the music is smoky too, just a horn blowing somewhere in the distance. The couple is huddled together, been that way for a while and although nobody can see the dude’s hand is moving up the lady’s leg into restricted airspace. That’s not the Elephant Room. That’s not the kind of action you see there. If they’re huddled, talking low, it could be a prelude to a hook-up but they’re more likely discussing condo prices or new software or venture capitalor legislation to regulate the energy industry. What everybody likes about this town is what people like about the Elephant Room. Austin is a pretty self-absorbed city especially in about a five-mile radius of the capitol. You name it if it’s in town and man-made or mostly man-made and noteworthy, good or bad, it’s also somewhere in walking distance of my bar. The crowd at the Elephant is like that too, important, maybe self-important, big fish in a small pond, the cool and want-to-be-cool—some pretty high brows and techies, yeah, who need to chill after a long day riding the Silicon Prairie. They come to the Elephant Room to relax. Some come to play jazz. Others come and listen, like me.
There’s a semi-open mike most Mondays, music begins every night at nine-thirty except when there’s a band happy hour six to eight. Friday and Saturday there may be a cover, other nights no unless there’s an extraordinary act which means not often. The acoustics are only okay. That doesn't matter because the venue is too small to miss the music. The Elephant Room is cramped, candlelit and has a mediocre stage. Some nights musicians talk about their dialysis treatments between sets. Some nights the best song you’ll hear is “Girl from Ipanema” playing on speakers overhead while the band sets up, other nights the talk around you is about whether the time passed here would have been better spent at home watching the Big Game. In other words like any other bar.
With jazz, it doesn’t matter. The whole is much more than a sum of the parts. The setting can be better than the performance. There’s no pretense except maybe a little just because it’s so hard to play jazz without being pretentious. At the Elephant Roomfor the recordthe drugs have mostly been prescribed.
Never saw anybody big there, got to admit that, but in a way that’s what’s cool about the place. It’s small, only moderately pretentious, and nobody messes with you down in that cellar because everybody is so self-absorbed, so into their own thing, don’t you know?


My first crib in Austin was on the third floor of the Alamo Hotel between the not-yet existant Elephant Room and the original location of Whole Foods, before that funky little counter-culture grocery store became a nationwide symbol of conspicuous consumption.
The Alamo was a residence hotel full of pensioners and transient musicians and people who couldn’t put together first and last month’s rent for an apartment lease—people like me. Had a barbershop and restaurant on the first floor but you probably didn’t want to get your hair cut there and you definitely didn’t want to eat the food. Four-poster bed, half-bathroom, hot plate and windows that opened over Guadalupe Street, who could ask for anything more? For a year it was my home and still has a special place in my heart because my first drug addiction was born and nurtured at the Alamo Hotel, in a tiny little room on the third floor.
The Alamo’s most famous resident, living downstairs from me was Sam Houston Johnson, former President Johnson’s little brother. The younger Johnson was alleged to be involved in a wide variety of improprieties and not a favorite with the rest of the dead president’s family, hence his chosen location, the Alamo Hotel—a kind of exile, sure, but still on the ranch so to speak. 
             So he dies one day—Sam we’re talking about because the great Lyndon passed away like five years before my arrival in River City—and my first instinct was to rush down and check out Sam’s room and see if he left behind anything incriminating. But everything had already been cleaned out by the Secret Service or whoever takes care of those matters. The point is this town may be the “World Capital of Live Music,” or whatever, but it’s still a political town and at one time the Johnson family ruled as far as the eye can see. Then everything became Bushland—except in about a five-mile radius around the Elephant Room, or equivalently the state capitol, where a non-partisan black man like me can still walk the streets unmolested. Point isif you have your music—in my case jazz—and a bottle to go along with it, who’s in the Governor’s Mansion or who occupies the White House is a lesser consideration.
Cedar Door used to be my bar, that's the truth. My inner nature is to lie about anything trivial but not absolute important facts like where to go drinking. 
             The Cedar Door back then: no live music, just booze, up there on Guadalupe at 15th Street, it's a lobbyist’s office now—Texas Medical Association, asshole doctors associated, how times have changed. Like the Alamo Hotel, the Cedar Door just went away one day, packed up and left my end of downtown. Tried to visit the new location once but somehow it just isn’t the same. The old Cedar Door was a courthouse bar, back in the day, a lot of lawyers, reporters after deadline, reporters before deadline, people just out of jail, people on their way in—just wanted to get a little alcohol in their system before fingerprinting—the kind of place where the judge, prosecutor, defendant, his lawyer and probation officer could all get together before sentencing. It only stays in my memory because it was my first official bar, the first place you could look at me sitting at a table with my friends/coworkers and say, “He drinks here, he’s a regular.”
My next hangout was the Chili Parlor up on Lavaca at 15th basically across the street from the old Cedar Door. My friend Guillermo introduced me to the Chili Parlour and me and him used to drink there a couple of nights a week until marriage and fatherhood cut down on his time away from home after dark. Chili Parlour has or had a pretty decent kitchen, two-for-one burger night every week, what turned me off permanently was it kept “almost” going out of business. Let’s try this marketing model: you have a license to sell liquor five blocks west of a Level III trauma center, four blocks south of a university with 50,000 thirsty undergraduates, five blocks east of the county jail, and three blocks north of the Texas capitol where more alcohol flows even than red ink. And you can’t make money?
Anyway, since then, since my break with the Chili Parlour—as painful as it was—the last few years at least my heart has belonged to the Elephant Room. It’s kind of cool being in a cellar, walking down those stairs into a dark room, candles flickering, shadows on the walls. You never know what you’ll find.
There aren’t any cowboys either thank you very much and even the sophomores from the university turn around once they figure out where they are, this isn’t a place to get drunk and throw up on the bar and Boopsie can’t take off her blouse and just start dancing—although, it should be noted, Boopsie is welcome if she behaves. It’s jazz, which is international and is cool even when it’s not being played particularly well. Because, like, how many people in the world really are competent jazz musicians?
Even at the Elephant Room most of the players, some of them doing it professionally for years, are just fans.
Like me. 

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