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Meet the Slezak jazz clan, a father-and-son duo with a backbeat in their blood
By Marc Lee

There’s a long line of jazz musicians whose creative genes flow through their family trees: Duke Ellington and his son, Mercer; John Coltrane and his son, Ravi; Ornette Coleman and his kid Denardo. All form the basis for a kind of a jazz genome project. And while they probably wouldn’t be comfortable submitting a DNA sample, we can dig into the evolution of Houston’s own high-profile jazz family, saxophonist Larry Slezak and his drummer son Joseph.

The two will play together at Trinity Episcopal Church’s free jazz mass at the church’s sixth annual jazz fest Jan. 28. (See Calendar: Top Ten for fest details.) Their appearance will cap off three days of sessions from the likes of Texas tenors Marchel Ivery and Shelley Carrol, Houston’s vocalist extraordinaire Horace Grigsby with the Bob Henschen Quartet, and world-renowned drummer Ed Shaughnessy with the Dennis Dotson Quartet.

As a New York City kid in the 1950s with a passion for music, Larry learned his horn the old-fashioned way, trying to measure up against established musicians. New York City’s tough scene, with its cutting contests, impatient bandleaders and critical audiences, didn’t let a young sax player just slide by. “It’s a music that demands an identity,” Larry says. “If you can’t measure up, you’re going to find out pretty fast.” He learned the craft, played the gigs and made the recordings (you can hear one of his recent efforts on Bob Dorough’s new Houston Branch album).

Larry and his family moved in ’73 to Houston, where Larry now teaches jazz at Rice University and San Jacinto College—and plays bread-and-butter gigs like his recent job in the pit at Hobby Center’s Elvis musical, All Shook Up.

Joseph found a different path to music, gravitating toward rock. But Larry knew early on where Joseph would end up. “I asked him why he didn’t like jazz and he said, ‘It’s too hard.’ That’s pretty smart for a little kid. Apparently he realized there was more to jazz than just a backbeat.”

“I was a drummer from the beginning,” Joseph recalls. “I remember banging on pots and pans and driving my mother crazy.” He soon discovered that, like his father, he wanted more from his gift. He turned toward the avant garde and straight-ahead jazz, finding he had something in common with drummers who use rock rhythms, such as Jack DeJohnette and Jon Christensen. But he found himself playing with the person he has the most in common with. The Larry Slezak Hammond Organ Band brings together father and son to play the music they both love.

Joseph definitely carved out his own identity, but he’s learned a lot from his dad’s experience, too. “The one thing he always brings up is the idea that this is your craft,” he says. “You have to treat the music like it means something. Why would you ask a fan to respect what you do if you don’t?”

The lessons flow up the family tree, as well. Larry recently changed his approach to the saxophone, which is no small thing when you consider his hard-won rep. “The longer you’ve had the horn in your mouth, or the sticks in your hand, the tendency is to regard what you have is the best,” he says. “Joe has taught me to realize that more is possible.

“Guys are always telling me how fortunate I am to play with my son. And I am. It’s remarkable to be on the same stand with my kid. And though I’ve played for 50 years and he’s played for about 15, I think of him as a peer. He’s an equal. And I think that’s some very powerful stuff.”