Nat Dove’s Dreams Came True
Dawn Lee Wakefield
Texas A&M University Arts Examiner
On Friday night at the Palace Theatre in Downtown Bryan, Texas, Nat Dove’s dream to launch a blues festival in Bryan came true, and it only took 50 years to happen. The state of Texas is well known and beloved for the blues, but it’s been nearby neighboring Navasota, Texas, just 20 miles south of town, that’s had the lock on the blues. Until this weekend, that is.
Dove is an internationally acclaimed blues musician, a native of nearby Mumford, Texas. And, it was his dream over 50 years ago to bring the blues to Bryan. But things just kept delaying that dream. From California to New York City, Dove has been a professor of ethnomusicology at Cal State Bakersfield, and he’s lectured at New York University, at Tokyo’s Kunatachi Academy of Music, and in Paris at the American Cultural Center. Born in 1939, Dove says he first learned the history of the blues in Bryan.
With Dove’s inspiration, the Brazos Valley African American Heritage and Cultural Society formed to make the festival’s logistics possible. This committee includes: Bryan Councilmember Paul Madison, and civic leaders Irene Porter, James Hawkins, Sherran Johnson, Isaac Butler, Rev. Curtis Tennell, Harold Eaton, Helen Washington, Natalyn Johnson, Jacqueline Bailey, and Tiffany Thompson.
With host Nikki B from local radio station 101.9 (The Beat) acting as emcee, five nationally and internationally successful musicians took the stage, one by one, and brought the blues home to Bryan. Before the first downbeat, seating was already scarce in the Palace Theatre formal seating area, thanks to a hard-working committee and public excitement anticipating the “1st annual.”
By the end of Sunny Nash’s version of “Fever,” the standing room only in the back had all but evaporated. Nash has toured with Johnny Nash (a distant cousin), and worked with Marivn Gaye’s music partner, Odell Brown (see related story). Although she lives in California presently, she went to E.A. Kemp Jr./Sr. High School and graduated from Texas A&M in broadcast journalism in 1977.
The souvenir program booklet noted the accomplishments of each Bryan area native: “In 1977, Sunny graduated from Texas A&M University in broadcast journalism and became the first black Program Director in the area, creating a Blues-Jazz-Classical format at NPR affiliate, KAMU-FM.
As Nash took a break, patrons could see lawn chairs filled the sides of the theatre, inside the gates, outside the gates, and some wise patrons found the fire escape steps of the neighboring buildings on which to perch. The excellent backing band for the evening was local favorite Eugene Eugene and the Solid Foundation Band.
Eugene Smith is a regular crowd favorite on vocals and keys, with Ernest Gibbs on drums, James Gibbs on bass and guitar, and Delvin Twitty on saxophone, as well as Renn Carson, another local favorite veteran of many bands, on screaming guitar. RDM Audio had a full team in place working the sound at the Palace, as they’ve been doing for over 20 years at that same site, long before the theatre was restored.
Following Nash was Nat Dove, who’d have to be “carded” to prove he wasn’t a young whippersnapper as he went up and down the keyboards with vigor, genuine magic, and great joy. Dove said, “I wish to thank each of you for coming to join us this evening. It’s been a dream, 50 years in the making, and tonight it’s a reality.”
The brilliance of an electric bass was shared in fine form by musician William Walker, a graduate of local E.A. Kemp Jr./Sr. High School. Walker, a master of bass and guitar, as well as blues harmonica, has recorded with Big Joe Turner, Milt Jackson, Sarah Vaughan, and Roy Brown. He’s also opened for legendary B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland.
Next to take the stage was Damu Sudi Alii, today a resident of the San Francisco bay area, a music teacher whose career background has included social work. His dynamic career includes being a part of the Umoja Jazz Collective and leader of his own band, The First Edition Jazz Ensemble, and also performs with the Larry Douglas Alltet in California.
Then Grammy award winner, Donald Ray Johnson is a name you should know, but you still might not until someone reminds you that his group “A Taste of Honey” had the number one Billboard chart hit, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” in 1979. The native Bryan drummer brought a Grammy home, as well as to his colleagues, Janice Marie Johnson, Hazel Payton, and Perry Kibble. That’s right, that Donald Ray Johnson. He’s also shared the stage with Teddy Pendergrass, Philip Walker, Big Mama Thornton, Smokey Wilson and the Isley Brothers. And the audience was fortunate to have him come home and be part of the 1st annual Bryan Blues Festival. When Nat Dove calls, people come home.
What was also noticed and appreciated, particularly in the 90-degree heat (and the humidity), was the respect that each of the performers showed, for the music, for their journey, and for their opportunity to be a part of the inaugural Bryan Blues Festival. The male headliners were formally dressed in three-piece suits and ties and the female performers were in lovely attire and so was Eugene Smith, who brought his best to the evening as did his band.
The musicians’ attitudes are really all about respect for the blues, a throwback to a bygone day and time when musical talent was prized and respected. Today’s younger artists of all music genres would do well to learn from these professionals how to “bring it” to an audience.
Music was presented two consecutive evenings at the Palace Theatre, June 15 and 16, and each night appreciative crowds showed their satisfaction with applause, ovations, and no one really wanted to go home at the end of the evenings.
As for Nat Dove and his dreams, one is reminded of part of a poem by Langston Hughes:
“Hold fast to dreams
for if dreams die,
life is a broken-winged bird
that cannot fly”
Nat Dove’s dreams came true. And the 1st Annual Blues Festival is now proof of that fact. The Juneteenth weekend 2012 in Bryan, Texas, USA is now recorded as the 1st Annual Bryan Blues Festival. Next year’s committee begins planning... now.