Music Venues of SXSW: Elephant Room

Written by Rory Burbeck | February 14, 2014
SXSW 2014 Music Venue: Elephant Room

Elephant Room photo by David Fox

The Elephant Room is the most recognizable jazz club in Austin, Texas. The room is open 365 days a year and plays host to some of the world's most beautifully complex music - from jazz-rock fusion to avant-garde to Dixieland. Those of you looking to discover the best jazz music on Earth, the Elephant Room is the spot during the SXSW Music Festival.

The man responsible for booking the Elephant Room, Michael Mordecai, was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview last week. We discussed his job of booking acts across the country, the Austin jazz fusion scene of the 1970s, and his love of softball.

RB: What do you do for the Elephant Room?

MM: What I do is I play trombone, I talk on the telephone, and I play softball on Tuesday.

I play with John Mills Times Ten. The band that I’ve played with, and John Mills also, since college is a band called Beto and the Fairlanes. And we’ve been together for 37 years.

In addition to playing in those bands, I’m also the contractor for Bass Concert Hall, the Moody, Backyard, Paramount, Long Center. Any Broadway show or any pit orchestra you’ve seen [in Austin]. I’ve had the good fortune to play with Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson. We did the opening off the Moody - 45-piece symphony orchestra for Willie Nelson.

And then the telephone talking stuff…We do more than $2 million in payments to musicians every year. I’ve had somebody booked every day of your life and beyond. I’ve had somebody booked somewhere, seven days a week since about 1980.

RB: In Austin the whole time?

MM: Well, from California to Florida. Definitely in Austin seven days a week [the whole time].

RB: How and why did you get started in music?

MM: I’ve found that music is more of a calling than a conscious career choice. When I was fifteen years old, I started playing with [the University of North Texas] lab band. I played with Bones Malone and Lou Marini and all those guys in the Blues Brothers movie. But I didn’t really understand what North Texas was - that it was like a powerhouse jazz program.

When I got to the University of Texas, I found that the jazz program was just starting. I had a lot of experience as a freshman coming in. I was playing with the UT Jazz Ensemble. And one day, a long-haired hippie came and said, “Do you wanna be in a rock ‘n’ roll band?” I looked at him and said, “It’s a trombone...”

And he turned me on to Chicago...and Blood, Sweat & Tears and I’m going, “Whoa, yeah. I wanna be in a rock ‘n’ roll band.”

So that’s we did with a band called Zilker Sunday, named after Zilker Park, and we’d play there every Sunday afternoon. Before ACL.

So that band lasted about three years, and we put a record out and we did some good. Then that band broke up and it split into two other bands named Starcrost and Forty Seven Times Its Own Weight.

I read a book by Clive Davis called Inside the Record Business, predicting that there would be a fusion of jazz and rock - which is what we were. So I hopped in my van with two of the guys that were in my band, we drove to California, I walked into Arista Records - which was Clive Davis’s record company - and I said, “I’m Mike Mordecai from Austin, Texas. Here’s my demo tape.”

And the secretary looked at me funny. She said, “Well, Mr. Davis’s office is in New York.”

RB: How long has the Elephant Room supported SXSW as an official venue?

MM: I believe - I don’t know for a fact - but I think by ‘93. The Elephant Room opened in ‘91, and I would say certainly by ‘93. I know that we’ve doin’ it for 20 years.

RB: Do you have any memorable stories from past SXSW Music Festivals?

MM: Well, I know that Joe Lovano played there. I know that Terence Blanchard played there. I know that we’ve heard some really great music, and we’ve heard some really crap. But, I think after a few years, we had better communication. And for the past several years, we have been delighted with the music. And the only thing the owner wants to maintain - you know, 365 days a year, we’re a jazz club - so, we don’t want people to come in and find something other than jazz. And, you know, jazz can go anywhere from Dixieland to avant-garde. So it’s a pretty wide slice.

When South By takes over it’s a little different because of the international flavor. One of our highlights is having Quincy Jones down there.

RB: What does it mean to you, the city of Austin, and live music in general to have SXSW here in town?

MM: Well, traffic and parking. From the local musician’s standpoint. Those are the negatives.

The positives for me are you know that the entire world is here. You know that the industry is in Austin, Texas.

But, for me, it’s the personal relationships. I play softball in the SXSW Softball Tournament [every year on Sunday]. And I look forward to seeing [friends]. I’ve made a lot of friends, even local friends.

I think the friendships that you make from people that are coming in to town. It’s a good time to see friends, mix, mingle, enjoy some of the music. I’m looking forward to seeing friends that we see every year.

RB: What’s your favorite show that you’ve ever seen at the Elephant Room?

MM: Discovering Kat Edmondson at the Monday Night Jazz Jam, watching her develop. Watching Ephraim Owens develop. Watching Elias Haslinger develop, primarily at the Monday Night Jazz Jam - which started in 1980.

I’ve sat next to Clint Eastwood at a Monday Night Jazz Jam, watching his son pop up and play bass - when Clint was here making a movie with Kevin Costner. Norah Jones, and of course Winton Marsalis every time he plays [in town]. He’s gonna come down here and do an after-hours jam.