Austin is widely regarded as the “Live Music Capital” of Texas and it’s an appropriate title. If live music — either listening to it or playing it — is what you’re after, there are few better places for it in the state.
The downside of that, however, is that it may be very tempting for other towns in central Texas to think that since Austin is only a short drive away, it makes little sense to worry about their own music scenes.
But there is potential for vibrancy almost everywhere. Here in Waco, we don’t lack for musicians of all kinds. John Burton is a trumpet student at Baylor who moved to Waco a year and a half ago from Tennessee to pursue a degree in music performance.
Like many other students, he maintains an active professional schedule in addition to his numerous university musical commitments.
His first gig away from Baylor was playing with a jazz trio at an art show here in town.
“As long as you are working hard, opportunities will come your way,” he says.
Almost every Sunday morning Burton can also be found playing in the orchestra or the small combo at First Baptist Church of Waco.
“As a gigging musician,” he explains, “churches will be a place you will play very often.” Many of the musicians he knows have steady church gigs.
Even apart from that, he thinks the overall Waco music scene is slowly getting better. But while there are several places that offer live music, they’re still like pioneers out on the cultural frontier. It takes time for people to build up an appreciation of live music.
“It is easy to just want to put on a CD or a recording to play for an event, but having live music there is a much better experience,” he says.
Tristan Boyd, a graduate percussion student originally from Austin and now at Baylor, agrees.
“The Waco music scene is bigger than we might realize,” he says, “but still not terribly large. A huge improvement in the last year is that on a given Friday night, you can probably see some live music. In the past it was select evenings only.”
Boyd understands the larger connection between musicians and the local economy. “The most important element is a strong young professional presence. What music scenes need are young people with steady jobs who have time and disposable income,” he says. If Waco can continue to grow economically, “more graduates from Baylor will stick around and the downtown scene will grow even more.”
One admires his hopefulness. Better than anyone else, a working musician sees what it takes to make a music scene viable. “The larger necessity is a nightlife, and nightlife thrives on young people.”
There’s also not yet an area that has enough music venues within walking distance to be mutually supporting. No place in Waco is remotely like Sixth Street in Austin, the epicenter of that city’s live music scene. There will probably never be the numbers here to support an area that large, and that’s fine. But here, it’s still the case that when an arts venue closes it can take a long time before another one comes in to pick up the baton. It’s as though people see an arts venue shut down and are immediately convinced the arts have no future.
Our musicians say otherwise. Perhaps it’s technically true that there can be only one “Live Music Capital” of a state, but that should not discourage other cities, and the businesses in them, from making opportunities for musicians to work as numerous as possible.
David A. Smith, a Baylor University senior lecturer in history and Waco Symphony Association board member, can be reached at davidasmith.net.