POLK, DR. JAMES was born September 10, 1940 in Yoakum, Texas but spent his childhood in Corpus Christi. Although his family's gene pool virtually overflowed with piano players, including both parents, his sister and an aunt, James came to the piano relatively late in his youth. After being initiated into a life of music as an eight year old, violinist, James soon gladly changed to the saxophone, only to discover in middle school, his band director needed trombone players. So James switched his attention to mastering the trombone in high school and college. By the time he had finished undergraduate degree in 1963, James was already a professional musician. But he had had enough of the trombone and decided to marry his family heritage and his own musical talent to the piano. His decision not only kept alive his family's tradition, but gave birth to one of the finest blues and jazz keyboard artists to come out of the Texas music scene in the last half century.
James started playing blues at thirteen with a local band. But a great part of his education in music came in and after college by listening to and studying the composition and organization of blues and jazz greats recordings of that period.. Since live performances by James Brown, B.B. King and Ray Charles were unheard of in Austin, James had to be content with attending “jam sessions” with other young musicians in Dallas and Houston as an “internship”, perfecting his skills and developing his style.
Finally, in his last year at Huston-Tillotson University he organized the “James Polk and the Brothers” band. As he would throughout his career, James would transcribe sheet music for his band members so rehearsals were more productive, and performances well played.
The band was renown for spotlighting the its fine musicians, such as Martin Banks and W.C. Clark, as well as soulful singer, Angela Strehli. Being one of the first integrated bands in Austin, opened venues to the band that otherwise would have been closed. The
band toured Texas for over a decade in a school bus painted green and white that James renovated for overnight travel throughout Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. By the mid 1970's James had moved onto a new, more jazz oriented group called JAMAD.
In 1978 James got a phone call from “Brother Ray” offering him a job as piano player in the Ray Charles Orchestra. This was the beginning of a close personal and professional relationship lasting over the next ten years. James not only played piano in the orchestra but became the band's organist, a writer, an arranger, and musical director, working closely with the band's iconic leader. His work took James all over the world, and his arrangements and playing were featured in many live and televised performances. More notably he was featured with the Ray Charles Orchestra on recordings, such as “Brother Ray Is At It Again” (1980), “The Spirit of Christmas” (1985); and on the Grammy nominated “Ain't It So” (1979) and “Wish You Were Here Tonight” (1983).
Never entirely retiring from performing, James pursued a very active career teaching music, from being a high school band director, just out of college, to retirement as a college lecturer and director of jazz studies. After receiving his BA in music from Huston-Tillotson College (University) in 1962, he earned his MA from Texas State University, serving on the faculty as lecturer of music history and jazz studies from 1990 to1996. Huston-Tillotson University awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Music in 1995. After retiring from Texas State University, their School of Music bestowed on James the honor of Professor Emeritus of Jazz Studies in 2007.
Dr. Polk is currently associated with the Dr. James Polk Academy of Arts and Technology and the Austin Jazz Workshop. His most recently formed jazz ensemble, Centerpeace, which performs regularly in Austin is made up of young jazz musicians who see him as their leader, mentor and friend, from whom they can learn valuable lessons of music and life. He is also the organist for the very popular and award winning jazz blues ensemble, Church on Monday.
So, one can be sure that Dr. James Polk is still following the motto that he taught his students over the years: “Don't forsake the groove. You've always got to make the music groove. Make it groove and make somebody else feel good by listening to your music.
The way to do that, you play the music correct, put yourself into it, (and) make sure it's
All About Jazz.com /James Polk; James Polk, “Recipes from the Doctor” by Joseph Pedro, April 13, 2011.
“The Jazz Professor” by Jay Trachtenberg, Austin Chronicle.com/issues/vol14/issue 40/James Polk
Click below to view Dr. James Polk's YouTube performances: