Lynn Darroch’s eloquent word portrait of Duke Ellington in Oregon captures some of of the bittersweet contradictions that inhabit this beautiful place. I’m looking forward to reading more of them in his upcoming book “Rhythm in the Rain – Jazz in the Pacific Northwest.”
Duke Elllington, who first played in Portland, Oregon, in 1933, soon after began renting private railcars for his band and baggage in order to be free from onerous lodging restrictions in a segregated America. According to Rex Stewart, he wrote the tune, “Warm Valley,” while traveling by train through the Willamette Valley. This is the story … recorded at InStepMusic by Jonathan Swanson, with Clay Giberson, piano, and John Nastos, alto sax.
As summer turns to fall, I am excited to begin a new season of exploration on The Territory project. This work has literally taken me to places I have never been, both musically and geographically. As I prepare for the release of the CD of the piece, and the collection of video interviews with artists talking about their connections between art and place, I’m digging deeper into our shared terrain. Like the land itself, exploration of this topic yields tantalizing glimpses of how our place became what it is. Stories bubble up from wells of human experience and feeling, both past and present. Not all of them are sweet. But the truths they reflect represent who we have been, sometimes who we are. I don’t know Jennifer Delanty, who wrote this article. But I appreciate her honesty and applaud her honesty in sharing her role in the shaping of the Territory.
How do you find a rhythm? How do you remember that life is, if not short, then finite. Reading about Greek & Roman civilization really helps. Came up with this poem today in response to the longer view that reading a book like “The Swerve” encourages…
Weatherford, Oklahoma stands on the western edge of what was Cheyenne and Arapahoe land. It is located in the Oklahoma county named after General George Custer for all the reasons you imagine.
William Weatherford was the first homesteader in the area. He got his quarter-section in the 3rd Oklahoma Land Run which took place in 1892.
Of these men, William J. Weatherford, claimed a quarter section of land that he first called Jordan Flats. In his group were his wife, four children, his widowed sister-in-law, her daughter, and two hired hands. This group first made a temporary dugout shelter then began digging a water well. -Legends of America
How much is a quarter-section? It’s 160 acres. Four times the 40 (minus the mule) granted to the freed slaves following the Civil War. A full section is 640 acres or 1 square mile. You need 36 sections to lay out a township. Here’s the skinny from Wikipedia.
The importance of “sections” was greatly enhanced by the passage of “An Ordinance for ascertaining the mode of disposing of lands in the Western Territory” of 1785 by the U.S. Congress (see Land Ordinance of 1785). This law provided that lands outside the then-existing states could not be sold, otherwise distributed, or opened for settlement prior to being surveyed. The standard way of doing this was to divide the land into sections. An area six sections by six sections would define a township. Within this area, one section was designated as school land. As the entire parcel would not be necessary for the school and its grounds, the balance of it was to be sold, with the monies to go into the construction and upkeep of the school.
So I’m dying to know, why did William Weatherford choose this particular location? Did he have prior knowledge? Insider information? Did he study the surveying maps? Was it closest to the starting line?
Oklahoma sits on top of 22 groundwater basins including the Ogalla Aquifer, with a water depth below the surface anywhere from 100-400 feet. According the 2013 report from “Oklahoma Water Resources Groundwater Level Monitoring Wells in Oklahoma,” the depth to water in Weatherford is 142 feet. Does this change much over time? I don’t know. Since 2000 it has only varied by 7 feet. So even if it was 120 feet in 1892, I imagine one’s resolve might be somewhat tested as he dug past 90, then 100 feet and still found nothing.
Maybe William Weatherford was less accustomed to instant gratification than I am. Maybe there is a degree of persistence coded into the DNA of the kind of man who brings his wife, his 4 children, his sister-in-law, her progeny and a couple hired hands to the edge of nothing to take a pell-mell dash at a new life. I don’t think they were expecting a cakewalk.
So, what was William Weatherford like? He was clearly a man of determination and organization. He got the well dug after all, and then built a five-room house with logs brought in on wagons. That must have taken a while.
Was he a man of foresight? Hard to say. But the Weatherford homestead wound up being the place that the freight wagons could stop for supplies on their trips to the county seat.
Was he a hospitable man? I don’t know. But his house did serve as the first post office, and school and church.
Or was he just lucky? Lucky that the Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf Railroad decided to build a terminus within a couple miles from his claim and not up in the city of Arapahoe, which was bigger and had every reason to believe they would land that public/private sinecure? Or was he shrewd enough to pay the railroad a bonus to build near his land?
Was it luck or foresight or good karma that brought Route 66 down Main Street in Weatherford in 1926, and continued the towns growth?
And are all those things part of the fabric of Weatherford all these years later? Do they help explain the welcoming committee I encountered at the Mark Restaurant in the Best Western Motel right there on Route 66 in Weatherford this morning?
I was sitting in the Mark Restaurant for the second morning in a row, girding myself for a breakfast not in keeping with my Northwest foodie sensibilities. The menu boasted no cage-free eggs, no real maple syrup, no multi-grain toast, no real butter. Instead their were packaged frozen hashbrowns, juice from concentrate and biscuits with gravy from a can.
The Mark Restaurant is like Route 66, a testament to an earlier time. A time before gastronomy was a cool lifestyle choice. Before we talked about our food as a movement or a culture. It was just food.
The Mark Restaurant is clean, but not fancy. The staff are likewise, although their aprons do bear the Mark Restaurant logo, perhaps as a nod to organizational unity. Some might say the Mark Restaurant is authentic. But it’s not the kind of authenticity that NPR listeners drive off the beaten path to experience. It is the authentic beaten path. The hard-working, Wal-mart shopping, bible-belt populated one that to my urban eye represents the harsh realities of small-town America, where being a food-service worker is neither temporary, nor a choice.
My waitresses were, however, remarkably personable. Not the homespun kind of personable, rather the kind that marks those skilled in the tone and lexicon of the hospitality industry. They seemed at ease with the “make the customer feel appreciated” language that draws tips out of big city diners like me. If I weren’t afraid of sounding even more presumptuous than I already do, I’d call it “class.” They had class. Maybe it was a Route 66 class. the kind I would have experienced on the other side of the “not for colored” signs that, yes, they did have in the mid-west on my 1960’s era cross-country road trips with my parents to see the relatives in Ohio.
I didn’t expect the class…
At a nearby table were a half-dozen older gentlemen (which to me at 51 means well into retirement age) having breakfast and conversation that I couldn’t help but overhear. They talked about church and tornadoes and small-town folk losing their lives and livelihoods. There clothes were not rural. There were no overalls or trucker hats. They were mostly bareheaded except for one surprisingly hip cap, and an impressive Russian Shapka. Some of the faces had the kind of weathered features I associate with rural life. But in others, I thought I saw immigrant traces, a distinguished pencil-mustache, a Germanic crinkle around the eyes. Of course, everybody’s ancestors in that room came from somewhere else…
But my thought was:”This is real Oklahoma. These are the old-timers.”
One man, somewhat younger than the rest, appeared from his remarks to be a minister, or at least to have studied for the ministry. He had the charisma of one accustomed to leadership. but also a warm face, the kind I associate with people who, despite their faith, understand that there aren’t any easy answers.
So as you can see, I’m thinking I have them pegged. This is a Friday morning Bible Study group. Or maybe the Gideons – the businessmen and pillar-of-their-community types who leave bibles in hotel rooms- like my Dad did.
I’m working through my “lesser of two evils” breakfast choices- scrambled eggs, apple juice, sausage patty, bagel with butter & honey (my clever dodge for the Smuckers jam). And feeling smugly satisfied both for my “savvy traveler” resourcefulness, and my astute observation of human character, when they rise to leave.
“The Minister” comes over to greet me. As I suspected, the leader of the group, fulfilling what I imagine is his faith-prescribed ambassadorial duty to “welcome the stranger in your midst.”
“Hi. What are you reading,” he asks.
I show him the cover of my “Oregon Humanities” Magazine, a particularly compelling issue about cities.
“Where are you from, ” he asks?
“Portland, Oregon.” I respond.
He smiles, nods.
“Welcome to Weatherford,” he says, and walks on.
Jazz is an art form connected with the African-American experience. Most people in the places I travel are aware of this. Ironically, Jazz music is also often presented for people who can afford to partake of “the arts.” Which means that in many places where I ply my trade, I am performing for people who don’t look like me. Jazz music has always opened up a place for me in any culture I have visited. Since I have very seldom in my adult life traveled as a private citizen, I’m almost always encountering new places and people as the invited artist/guest, under the auspices of Jazz.
So, even though I was the only black person in the Mark Restaurant in Weatherford, OK, I was not uncomfortable. Nor did I suppose that the folks in Weatherford were unfamiliar or negatively disposed towards people of color. It’s a town with a state University after all. I know they have a football and basketball team. So my presence would not be unique, which is what made me start to wonder why, exactly, this person had stopped to welcome me.
My waitress, who is several years younger than the others I’ve seen in the Mark during my stay, and whose brisk step, erect posture, and air of confidence speaks of someone who still has options in mind beyond the food service, also notices the greeting I receive.
“Your Friday morning regulars?” I ask her after they leave the restaurant.
“No,” she says. “They come here everyday.”
As I’m pondering that, a surprising thing happens. One by one the men come back into the restaurant, walk up to my table and introduce themselves. Gino, the man in the Russian Shapka, is the only one whose name I have the presence of mind to take note of, but others come too- the gentleman with the pencil mustache, his two weather-faced friends.
“Welcome to Weatherford.”
“You’re a musician?”
“You’re with the jazz.”
‘We’re coming to hear to you tonight.”
“You’re from Portland? I love Cannon Beach.”
“Welcome to Weatherford. Welcome to Weatherford.”
And I can’t help myself. I am touched by this chorus of greetings and handshakes. This is not what I expected. This is not Austria, or Turkey, where Jazz or black people are somehow exotic. Nor is it Kansas City or Chicago, birthplaces of the cultural art form, where the musical tradition and it’s practitioners are known and respected.
This is just me, a lone black stranger in a diner on Main Street in small town Oklahoma. So I can’t for the life of me figure out why these men, so different from me, would not have just kept walking. Perhaps with a nod of the head to be civil. That is what I would have expected…in Weatherford, Oklahoma.
Not this friendliness.
Not this hospitality.
Maybe this is what the six of them do. They come to the Mark Restaurant every day and look for travelers to greet. Just to let them know that Weatherford is that kind of place.
Maybe it’s all PR.
Maybe it is their Christian duty to find people like me, who are carrying around baggage from the 1960’s. People like me, sitting in the Mark Restaurant, toying with their food, stranded in the mid-west that was — and still might be some places–but is clearly not today in Weatherford, Oklahoma.
Or, could it be something else? Something that was planted here by William Weatherford back in 1892? Part of his grand plan. Maybe its the flowering of something he sowed into the soil along with his crops. Or something that was distributed along with the quarter-quarter sections bought by the early residents of the Weatherford Settlement.
As the group of them leave me to ponder these things, my waitress nods her head at them.
“Friendly,” she says.
I agree. I ask her how long she has been here.
“Just a year,” she says.
She goes to the college. I ask where she is from.
“Aurora, Colorado, “she says.
Which happens to be about 10 miles from where I grew up, in Lakewook Colorado.
I go back to my breakfast.
It’s a small world, really. Maybe I don’t need to carry all this baggage.
And then sh brings me some freshly sliced orange to finish off my breakfast.
What is this connection to place that I’m on the hunt for?
Is it possible to equate the way people live in a place with aspects of the land itself? How do you quantify that idea in a place where the landscape is buried under generations of human construction. Or in a place with no discernible geographic features-no river, no mountain, no ocean, no tall trees, no big rocks? Is the vibration of the land still there-underneath? Is it in the open sky, or the far-reaching horizon? Is that essence shaped by the first people to live on the land and then passed on in some fashion to every succeeding generation? If so, how? In the institutions? In the civic life?
Is it organizational?
Is it finding a way to thrive/survive in a place with a group? Is there some way we humans seek to organize that is organic and natural, that something inside us seeks to put in order? Is it some kind of equilibrium we are programmed to want.
Is it a morality?
Are we striving to live in balance with what a place has to offer, no matter what level of development we rise to? Is the essential nature of this force found in patterns of interaction-of engaging with each other? Is it an intrinsic balance with the surrounding ecosystems that each individual or community is compelled to achieve? Is it “living in sync” somehow?
And what does this vibration resonate with inside the individual? Is it common to all people, is it innate? Is it even real?
I flew into Weatherford, Oklahoma two days ago for a performance and clinic at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. That’s SWOSU for acronym fans. The forecast was for snow and frigid temperatures, and they did not lie. Yesterday morning’s windchill was minus 20, and this morning’s was only slightly higher.
Despite the temptation to hunker down in the hotel, it was more interesting to meet people and chase down these questions. After all, if I’m an artist who seeks to connect with whoever is in my audience, then every opportunity to travel is a chance to dig into history and place, to try and better understand this thing I’m trying to put my finger on.
So I’m curious.
Why Weatherford? How did this city come to be?
It is fun to speculate with no prior knowledge…
Was it a trading post? A geographical nexus- river bend, lake, watering hole. Was it a military encampment that became a fort? Were there mineral deposits?
The presence of a state University indicates a land grant from state government at some point. So why here? These decisions are usually hard-fought and speak to money, influence and power struggles on some level. Who were the wheeler dealers and the power brokers. Do their grandchildren and great-grandchildren carry on those legacies?
It’s Oklahoma, so that means ranching, and oil. Is there a Weatherford cattle baron? Is there a “Ewing Family” with old money in town? Will I get a sense of it from the names on the sides of the college buildings? Who was the arts patron? For that matter, who was the jazz patron? I mean this jazz festival has been going on for 41 years. Somebody started it and kept it alive. Who was THAT guy?
And how does all this shape what people want here, what kind of lives they live? What inspires them?
What is their connection to place. Does the music bear it out?
Those are questions I brought with me on the plane.