In Music We Trust
Words by Sommer Brugal Photos by Eric Morales
From the now-closed El Leon and Longbranch Inn to staples like Sahara Lounge and Skylark Lounge, Oscar Ornelas’ effortless blend of blues and jazz pay homage to the beloved sounds of east Austin’s past.
Ornelas moved to Austin in 2014 with his saxophone and his truck. He landed gigs immediately and played every night his first weekend in town. He played with east side legends like Harold McMillan and Matthew Robinson. He says those experiences opened doors to opportunities not all newcomers were offered.
“I’m grateful for [east Austin’s] music scene,” said Ornelas. “The blues and jazz artists [on the east side] kind of embraced me.” Since his arrival, Ornelas has made a name for himself as an established east side musician. He plays at The Skylark Lounge multiple times a month.
“From the minute you say, there’s no good music in Austin. It means you’re not looking hard enough.”
With such vigor and passion, it’s no surprise Ornelas comes from a musical family. His mother played trumpet, and his stepfather was a musician in the church band. Though he began playing music at a young age, he fell in love with the blues at eighteen. Focusing on the piano and the saxophone, Ornelas says he’s “played the blues ever since.”
Inspired by Louis Armstrong and Louis Prima, Ornelas is currently working on writing new music; his style parallels the blues and jazz elements heard in New Orleans. While his previous arrangements focused on “finding a good beat,” he hopes to include more of a message in his lyrics this time around.
“[Making music] takes time to build,” Ornelas explained, “but one area I’d like to expand [on] is original compositions.”
An active volunteer at the Chalmers Court Boys & Girls Club of Austin, Ornelas says he sees firsthand how the city’s changing landscape is affecting Austin’s youth—and the music they’re creating. Despite this, Ornelas has no plans to leave anytime soon. Instead, he urges those around him to “cultivate the community, cultivate your surroundings, build your city.”
Holding steady to his love for old-school jazz and blues, Ornelas is hopeful for east Austin’s music scene. “There’s a lot of original music being made,” said Ornelas, “and there’s definitely room [for it all].”