Arts / Galleries

Houston’s Jazz Church Searches for a Home

Is the City’s Hidden Music Legacy in Danger of Being Lost?

BY // 02.21.17
photography Jenny Antill Clifton

It’s a dark and cold evening, but a group of true believers has gathered for a higher purpose. A diverse crowd of 20 clusters in a simple shotgun home with a tiny footprint, listening to a compelling voice that addresses the intimate throng from a pulpit. The speaker closes his eyes as he talks, channeling a message as if from above; his words ring with truth and conviction.

The surrounding neighborhood is a mixture of the modest, the proud, and the functional — a street tucked into the heart of the Third Ward, Houston, Texas. No, this is not an evening church service, but a convergence with the force of a gospel meeting, especially when its cultural preacher, artist Tierney Malone, relays his message.

“You can’t talk about American jazz without speaking of Houston, Texas” — so Malone introduces the evening’ performers, poets Henk Rossouw and Kool B, brought here in collaboration with the august literary nonprofit Inprint. Inprint director Rich Levy sits on the second row, along with acolytes of the written word.

The crowd is rapt, listening to the poets: the accomplished South African-born Rossouw, a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston, and Kool B, the hometown voice of the streets, a star dub (performance) poet and Rebel Radio host.

Afterwards, black and white mingle in an informal dialogue. In the diverse audience, there’s a mid-career conceptual artist, a current Core Program writer-in-residence, a Houston Symphony educator/musician, and the founder of a nonprofit to activate youth through break dance. After clinking beers and examining the museum Malone has crafted within this space — an organic collection of album covers and photos to honor the jazz heroes of his adopted city — the listeners disperse out into the street.

The Jazz Church of Houston at Project Row Houses

The entire night feels as uplifting as a Sunday service. We have just had an encounter at The Jazz Church of Houston, a temporary museum and performance venue Malone has carved out on his own dime as part of the latest round of art installations, “Local Impact,” at Project Row Houses. The evening, billed as “Jazz and the Word,” is edged with a touch of community and a sense of the sacred.

Malone is a respected mid-career Houston painter known for his nuanced text works, which bear fragments of words that allude to album covers or the remembered refrains of a jazz song. The visual talent also spins vinyl as a DJ with his own radio show, Mondays (9 am to noon) on the Pacifica station KPFT, 90.1 FM. But it’s with this creation for Row Houses that Malone has reached the next level — and his truest calling, bringing seekers to the altar of jazz — through performers, poets, and prized ephemera preserved from the past.

In keeping with this ambitious mission, Malone has tapped an impressive lineup of musical masters, many with Grammy cred and local ties. Most notably, pianist Jason Moran (MacArthur Fellow and grad of Houston’s HSPVA) appeared in collaboration with the Mitchell Center in late January.

During Super Bowl LI, The Jazz Church of Houston was manned by Malone February 1 through 12. The week leading up to the big game, Jazz Church hosted trombonist Andre Hayward, a veteran of the Duke Ellington orchestra, joined by his quartet.

What’s next for the man whose patron saint is late Texas tenor sax legend Arnett Cobb?

Until he finds a permanent home for The Jazz Church of Houston, Malone plans more temporary venues around town to tell the story of Houston’s place in America’s jazz lexicon.

When others see a home,
We see a Work of Art
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