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Jazz professor has fond memories of 'Brother Ray'


News 8 Austin (03/07/2005)
By Paul Brown

A professor at Texas State University-San Marcos understands Ray Charles' legacy, because he was a part of it.

James Polk said Charles didn't even need a piano to arrange songs for his 26-piece band.

"And you should have heard some of that stuff, man," Polk said. "It was incredible.."

Polk started playing piano for the legend of soul in 1978 after an old friend in the band suggested him to Charles' bandleader after an Austin performance. But there was no opening. Two weeks later, though, the band's piano player was fired and James Polk got a phone call from the man himself.

"'James Polk?' I said, 'ya.' And he said 'This is Brother Ray,' " Polk said.

He gave his notice to the local club where he was booked, and joined Charles and company two weeks later - and for the next 10 years.

Polk was raised in a musical family, but his love of music hit a high note in the 1950s while in high school in Corpus Christi. He'd usually walk to a burger joint during his lunch period. And he always passed the sounds of bebop coming from the porch of one particular house.

"Sometimes I wouldn't even get a hamburger. Sometimes I would just sit there and listen," Polk said with a smile.

Polk eventually made his way to Huston-Tillotson College. He said there were some great musicians in the music department and in Austin.
Now, this jazz great is the one doing the teaching after a distinguished career which has included two Grammy nominations and being named Jazz Pianist of the Year in Texas.

He loves passing on his love of jazz to his students.

"They say, 'Ding, I've got it. This is it,' you know," Polk said. "And that's a real good feeling, you know, when they do that."

The biggest satisfaction comes from the success of his students after graduation. Many of them have gone on to play for big names.

Yes, even for Ray Charles.