James Polk, Living Legend
One of the best things about working the AJW project is that it has given me the opportunity over the years to work with some tremendously talented people. And in the jazz world, one mark of great stature is not only an individual’s performing skill, but also how he or she supports their fellow musicians to bring out their best as well. When I think of people who can do that, James Polk is way at the top of the list. And he has been faithfully showing up for these school gigs for fifteen years now.
When you think about it, I’m really asking jazz musicians to do something that is quite out of the norm for them. I’m asking them to come in and set up in a school cafeteria or gymnasium and play a burning set of jazz with a 9:15 a.m. downbeat, for a roomful of children. Even if you haven’t been playing a late gig the night before, that’s a tall order for a jazzman. It’s not uncommon to see a few bleary eyes and hear rote playing from time to time. And more than once, I have had to pass on otherwise great players because they just can’t face that morning downbeat.
But not Polk. He’s so cheerful in the morning, he should be investigated. And that positive energy just elevates everything. He walks in early with a big smile, a hearty handshake, a hug for the ladies, and an ever-present cup of coffee. And then he proceeds to sit down at the keyboard and play jazz like he means it–and of course he does, every note.
The performance is just one of his many talents. Dr. Polk also shares a positive message with the kids that boils down to this: “Love yourself first, and then you can love everybody else.” He projects a positive self-image to kids who can really use that example. And along the way, he does a pretty mean Bill Cosby.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have James Polk both as a band-mate and as a friend. The man exemplifies the ‘jazz spirit’ and teaches by example every day. There are many great players who you would just as soon not spend time with once off the bandstand. Polk is not one of those people. And the stories! Having worked with many of the greats, including a ten-year stint arranging for Ray Charles, the man has stories you would not believe. But he keeps telling them anyway. I’m starting to think at least some of them must be true.
So here’s to you, James. Thank you for sharing your gifts with Austin’s children for fifteen years. And it ain’t over, so don’t retire the alarm clock just yet.