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Houston’s Jazz Envoys Describe

Kendrick Scott Oracle, is stocked with serious talent, each musician a distinguished leader in his own right. Among them is guitarist Mike Moreno who, like Scott, originally hails from Houston, and has been keeping an anxious watch on the events of the past week.

The catastrophic wake of Hurricane Harvey has stretched across East Texas and into Louisiana, taking lives and uprooting tens of thousands of others, while causing billions of dollars in damage and disruption. But the flooding in Houston has been a specific worry for that city’s jazz diaspora, which includes some of the most important artists of the present era.

Those musicians all have families back home, and in the days since Harvey made landfall last week, a lot of energy has been devoted to checking up on them, and on each other. Glasper’s father, who lives in Beaumont, lost a friend to floodwaters there. But Glasper, like the half-dozen other musicians I spoke with, considers his family fortunate. “We’ve been on a thread of text messages making sure everybody is cool,” he said, “me and Jamire Williams, Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Kendrick, Jason Moran.”

Brenda Harland, the mother of Eric Harland, took this photo from her porch in the Pleasantville neighborhood of Houston.

Brenda Harlan

Notwithstanding Moran, another pianist, every name Glasper lists is an esteemed drummer-bandleader who has helped evolve the pulse of the music. Harland, the big brother of the bunch, was alarmed to see pictures taken by his mother on Saturday, as water was rising around his childhood home.

“There was a moment when I realized I couldn’t get back there,” he said on Wednesday night, after his efforts to travel to Houston from New York were forestalled. (He made it as far as Dallas-Fort Worth.) “You just want to cry, but you can’t. I’m not the one going through it; if anybody should be crying, it’s them.”

Harland’s mother was evacuated by FEMA before the flooding worsened, and she’ll be assessing the damage in the coming days. She resides in the Pleasantville neighborhood of northeast Houston, which is also where Moran’s grandfather lives. (He made it out safely too.)

“I have maybe hundreds of family members in Houston,” said Moran, who among other things is the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center. “Nearly all of them are, miraculously, OK. But I have so much concern about how the city rebuilds after this. And it’s not only physically, but psychologically — the trauma of having all this water inundate a livelihood. Kind of like what we saw happen with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. These are bastions of southern creativity that could, all of a sudden, be washed away.”

That fretful focus on the near-future is a prevailing theme now. “What concerns me is the aftermath,” said pianist Helen Sung. She grew up in southwest Houston, which saw considerable flooding from Brays Bayou. (Her parents, first-generation immigrants, are safe.)

Kendrick Scott was raised partly in Meyerland, another area that experienced devastating flooding. (He said his father, in Missouri City, had been shut in by water but was well-provisioned.) Scott has a unique perspective on the cultural implications of the storm, as a longtime associate of New Orleans-born trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard.

On the 2007 Blue Note album A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina), Scott helped Blanchard create a poignant reflection on the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. And before his set at the Jazz Standard, 12 years to the day after the breach of levees in New Orleans, Scott voiced wariness about any comparison between that moment and this one.

“I’m actually searching my feelings to see how I feel,” he said. “I need more information. It’s been so dark that I’ve just been talking to my family, instead of looking at the news.”

Houston’s jazz infrastructure is a curious thing, at once diffuse and deeply entrenched. There are a handful of clubs that feature jazz, with a focus on local talent. Cezanne, on the second floor of a building in the Montrose neighborhood, plans to reopen this Friday with the Bruce Saunders Quartet. Also back in business are Café 4212 and Phil & Derek’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar. But assessing the recovery of the scene isn’t as simple as ticking off a list of venues.

“Jazz musicians in the city play everywhere,” said Moran. “They play at the restaurant, they play at the church, they play at the bar. Or the theaters downtown, like the Wortham. And people live all over the city.