Photo | David R. Black / Facebook | Leonard Houston
He first appeared sometime after social distancing restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic set in, and soon became a frequent presence at the foot of the Fairhope pier. Leonard Houston even performed an open-air concert there shortly after Hurricane Sally, when the city was still picking up debris around him.
His style of looping rhythms through a keyboard, while accompanying himself on soprano and alto saxophones, sent soft jazz and adult contemporary melodies drifting in the bay breeze. But then, according to Fairhope City Councilman Corey Martin, as often happens, someone complained.
Allegedly, because Houston accepted tips, his performance would require a franchise agreement with the city. At the City Council meeting Sept. 13, Martin called Houston a “blessing to many at a time when we really needed him,” and urged the city to come up with a solution.
“It was a time when COVID had hit bad, and he decided to go down there in his own regard and helped people down at the bluff,” Martin said.
This week, when the council agreed to approve an “engagement for artistic services” with Houston, Martin again assured the city appreciated Houston’s service, particularly “at a time when people really need to hear music and he decided to share his gifts at no charge.”
The contract will pay Houston $200 each for up to 16 performances at the Fairhope pier, with “concert times to be coordinated between the parties based on weather and potential conflicting events.”
As Council President Jack Burrell explained Monday, it’s an arrangement similar to subsidies the city provides other arts agencies annually.
“Performance on public property is not allowed without a franchise agreement,” he said. “We have to treat everybody fairly and a lot of people try to set up down by the pier and we simply don’t allow it. So in keeping with the law, we went one step further and said not only are we going to allow him to play, we’re going to pay him to play. There’s no franchise agreement needed and he’ll be perfectly legal.”
Burrell called the total $3,200 contract a “small expense.” The agreement does not appear to prevent Houston from also accepting tips. Houston did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in a recent Facebook message, indicated he was hopeful an agreement was in the works, and looked forward to returning to the pier soon.
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