When I first moved to Dallas, over thirty years ago, I lived with some friends in Kessler Park, in Oak Cliff for a while until I saved enough money to get an apartment. I was working downtown and rode the bus to work. Living in the city was a big deal for me and I remember the quiet excitement of the bus ride to work. It came across the Commerce Street Viaduct into the canyons of skyscrapers after passing through the triple underpass and Dealy Plaza. To get to Commerce, the bus would drive up Sylvan Avenue.
In 1981 this was a very distressed area. That was a real shame because this part of “The Cliff” has a lot going for it. It’s close to downtown and is really the only part of the city with any kind of hills at all. It’s an old, beautiful part of the city. But thirty years ago, looking out that bus window, it was obvious that a long walk on those sidewalks might very well be fatal.
At Sylvan and Fort Worth Avenue there was a hotel called the Belmont. It was barely visible from the street because it sat up on top of a steep little rocky hill. It had a cool-looking retro deco office and a string of bungalows snaking across the crest of the hill. I never drove up there, but it was obvious that the place would have the best view of downtown in the city. It was run down and I wasn’t sure if it was even open. At any rate, it would not be a place anyone would want to stop – the neighborhood was frightening.
I remember thinking that it was a shame that little hotel was wasting away in such a state. I would fantasize about how smart and hip a property it could be with a little updating and a strong and visible security force. I was always thinking and talking about trashed out places that I thought should be fixed up. People used to make fun of me when I would talk about stuff like that. Nobody understood the potential I saw in those run down places. I felt like an idiot.
Now as I tumble into oldfartdom I realize I was right all along (the realization comes too late to do any good, of course). Oak Cliff is now the hot place to be in Dallas, and with the impending opening of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge that Renaissance/development/gentrification is only going to gain speed.
At the forefront of this change is that little hotel I used to stare at out of the bus windows. The Belmont has been rebuilt into a cute little boutique hotel and everybody who is anybody stays there. An upscale bar-b-que joint that specializes in local foods, called Smoke, is attached to the hotel and has become one of the most buzzworthy eateries in the city.
I really wanted to see this place.
On Sunday, Candy and I ate lunch in the Bishop Arts District and then driving back we planned on stopping at the Belmont and checking out the Bar Belmont and its view of downtown. The Belmont did not disappoint. They have done a fantastic job of updating the property while maintaining the the Art Deco retro-cool feel about the place.
The bar has a great patio. Part of it is covered and part is outside. It would be a fantastic place to hang out on one of the three or four days of good weather that Dallas gets every year. Today it was too cold, so we went into the comfy indoor part of the bar.
There was a knot of folks in the lower part of the bar unpacking guitars and arranging chairs and benches. While we sat up by the bar the crowd slowly began to grow with more and more musicians showing up and setting up. There were a half-dozen guitars, a few dobros, a banjo, a standup bass, a couple drummers, and a fiddle player. They started playing and singing.
It was fantastic. These people were very, very good. It was the best time – there were maybe ten musicians and about six of us listening. A free concert in an intimate setting with more performers than fans.
During a break, we found out what was going on. This was the Sunday Afternoon Charli’s Jam. Charli Alexander had founded this acoustic jam about thirty years ago. It has moved around from location to location and has now settled into the Bar at the Belmont. It is very well known and people have traveled from all over the world to play with these folks. There is a core of folks but Charli said it really varies from week to week, with different instruments, players, and styles of music. Today it was mostly traditional Texas honkey-tonk, with some folk and pop-folk thrown in (I’d love to hear some blues).
I loved listening to the jam. The core was arranged in a rough square and they would move around the square with each musician in turn choosing what they wanted to perform with the others filling in. During a part of each song they would take turns playing solos, with the original performer calling out the solo players in turn. They were very good, surprisingly tight. It was obvious that most of them were very used to each other and were able to anticipate what was coming next.
The room was filled with portraits of musicians, with David Bowie holding court over the mantle. Willie Nelson was on the opposite wall, a rough, glaring, black and white portrait. Everybody teased one singer (with an amazing bass voice) after he sang “Crazy” – telling him that it took some courage to sing that song with Willie looking on. “He’s happy as long as he gets his royalties,” was the answer.
They talked about a particularly difficult chord on the dobro. “That’s hard on the guitar, but even tougher on this,” the dobro player said. “At least Nancy doesn’t have to deal with that,” he said, referring to the fiddle player. “Yeah, but she has to worry about her own problems, like no frets,” someone else pointed out.
Candy and I had such a good time, we sat there and listened for three hours. Charli said they liked having people come out to listen, “It makes us play a lot better.” She said they are there every Sunday at three o’clock. I guarantee we will be going back.
I think we were the only fans to stay for the whole time. A few people came and went – some friends of the musicians. A few guests came to the Belmont desk to check out and stayed for a drink and a few songs. One scraggly looking guy stood by the desk for a couple of minutes. He looked familiar, but I didn’t pay much attention. When the song ended, he was gone, but the guitar player said, “Hey, that was Kinky Friedman standing there.”
So I think of that run-down old fashioned string of shabby bungalows up on that hill thirty years ago and what it has become today. I think of a young kid excited about riding a bus through a bad neighborhood in a big city. Now, it’s changed, but it’s still the same. Everybody had such a good time – the musicians in the jam, the hotel guests, even the folks working at the hotel. Sometimes it can come back.
The great Dallas bluesman, Mick Tinsley, playing his killer version of a Mark Curry number – “Raining All Over Me”. Recorded at Charli’s Sunday Jam at the Belmont Hotel in Dallas, Texas June 2010
A Girl Walks Into a Bar: Bar Belmont