One night in the summer before I left for college, some friends and I piled into a car outside a coffee house in Fort Worth’s museum district. I don’t remember how we ended up on the other side of downtown, in an east Fort Worth neighborhood that I had never seen before. Fort Worth was then (and still is) a city big enough to get lost in, but small enough that you don’t really worry when it happens. We made a few turns, looking for a familiar street, and then passed an empty, stately building of yellow brick: I.M. Terrell High School.
I didn’t say anything to my friends, but I knew what I was seeing. That building, in the 1940s, housed a miracle of musical community. Inside those walls an amazing group of teenaged musicians—a half-dozen of whom would go on to make big contributions to mid-century jazz—had congregated, joked around, shared thoughts, learned lessons and traded notes. King Curtis, John Carter, Prince Lasha, Dewey Redman, Charles Moffett. And, of course, Ornette Coleman.
To that point, I had been reluctant to think of Fort Worth as my hometown. My family moved there when I was twelve—to this city with its cowboy slogans (“Where the West Begins”) where, twice a day, tourists watched city volunteers in cowboy costumes drive longhorn cattle down Exchange Avenue. That didn’t appeal to me as a teenager. Not because I was immune to the lure of the cowboy—what kid is?—but because it all seemed so inauthentic. Somehow, a whole chaotic, violent history (Hell’s Half-Acre! Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!) had been turned into something civic, a selling point for the city. And though, as a middle-class white kid, I wasn’t exactly race-conscious, it was impossible not to notice the whiteness of the cowboy stories the city sold, and the way the city’s own mythology put it at odds with its diverse population.