Remembering: Dr. James Polk 1940-2024

Austin’s piano professor passes away at 83

Dr. James Polk was born on Sept. 10, 1940, in the Southeast Texas town of Yoakum, but his family would later settle in Corpus Christi. He was born into a musically inclined household, his mom Mattie graduated with a degree in music from St. Philip’s College in San Antonio, and his father Maryland was a self-taught piano player. At the age of 8, Polk started playing instruments. He began taking formal violin lessons, then changed over to saxophone and once he discovered his middle school band director needed trombone players he switched his attention to mastering the trombone. Once he had his dad’s approval James started playing blues at thirteen with a local band.

In 1958, Polk moved to Austin where he attended the Historically Black College, Huston Tillotson University.  Polk was already a professional musician, by the time he graduated in 1962 with a degree in Music and Education. After graduation, he decided to take up the family tradition and play the piano. At this time, he also took up a career in teaching at all-black Washington High in Elgin, Texas to support his family while pursuing a master’s at Texas A&M University -Kingsville.

Polk continued to perform around East Austin and went on to form James Polk and the Brothers with trombonist Larry Collins. James would transcribe sheet music for his band members WC Clark, Angela Strehli, Martin Banks and Matthew Robinson. They were one of the first integrated bands in Austin and because of this, they were able to perform at venues that would have otherwise been closed to them. The band toured together for over a decade.

In 1978, Ray Charles called James and offered him a job as a piano player in the Ray Charles Orchestra. His role with the orchestra expanded over the next ten years that they worked together. Not only was James Polk the pianist but he became the orchestras organist, writer, arranger, and composer. He traveled all over the world with Ray and was featured on hits such as  Grammy-nominated “Some Enchanted Evening ” (1979) and “Born to Love Me” (1983).

After his success with Charles, he served as a lecturer of music history and jazz studies at Texas State University from 1990 – 1996. He earned an honorary doctorate from Huston-Tillotson in 1995 and was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame in 1999. He released two albums When the Evening Comes in 2001 and Go with the Flow in 2007, both were released from his record label Twink Records. After Dr. Polk retired from teaching in 2006 he received his status of Professor Emeritus of Jazz Studies from Texas State. He was inducted into the Austin Jazz Society Hall of fame in 2016.

Most recently, Dr. James Polk led, Centerpeace, when not playing the organ for the award-winning group, Church on Monday. Polk performed throughout the state of Texas and served as a mentor in his community through his involvement in the Austin Jazz Workshop and Dr. James Polk Academy of Arts and Technology.

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