Mike Quinn describes himself as a natural-born proselytizer. He’s the kind of music fan who insists on sticking with vacuum-tube stereo components and vinyl LPs. Because “tubes sound better than transistors, and vinyl sounds better than CDs — they just do.” When my wife and I visited Austin to check out the annual Carnaval Brasileiro that he’s been organizing in that city for 29 years — and that’s coming to the Castle at Park Plaza this Saturday — he was visibly pained, offended even, that we hadn’t taken his recommendation for Austin barbecue but had given in to a just-as-insistent Austinite who held us a captive audience in her cab. “You’re going to listen to an anonymous cab driver rather than someone who’s lived in the city for 40 years?!” Quinn was crestfallen.
The barbecue slight was a recurring theme of our 24-hour visit to Texas, but it was, after all, a secondary one. The real story was how Quinn came to organize Carnaval Brasileiro, an Austin institution that now draws between 5000 and 6000 people every year. It wasn’t an obvious move for this white guy of “mongrel” (as he puts it) Northern European lineage with an intellectual bent. Up till the mid ’70s or so, the only music he listened to was avant-garde. If it wasn’t Ornette Coleman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse, or Charles Ives, he wasn’t interested — nothing that could be described as even vaguely “beautiful or melodic.” In 1974, he attended the centenary celebration for Ives in the composer’s home town of Danbury, Connecticut, an event that included a marathon performance of all 114 of the composer’s published songs — “about eight hours, with a break for lunch.”
When Quinn’s avant-gardist impulses broke down during a class on Brazilian music at the University of Texas, his conversion was immediate and total. He studied Portuguese and made the first of many trips to Brazil. In his job at the Austin Discount Records, he began proselytizing. If he saw a customer buying an LP by the then-popular Brazilian jazz-fusion vocalist Flora Purim, he’d guide him or her toward some of the “purer” Brazilian product — Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, Maria Bethânia, Martinho Da Vila. In one 18-month period, he sold 6000 records.
His friends are well aware of his single-mindedness. He’s made his living in a variety of capacities: graphic design; promotions director at Texas Monthly; a still-running audiophile column in Jazz Times. For years he did his own heavily Brazilian Latin radio show at the University of Texas station and ran the import label Ipanema Records. But unlike other concert promoters, he’s always had just one event, Carnaval Brasileiro. Long-time Austin journalist Michael Point, who works with Quinn on the event, told me, “The amount of concentration he has on this one event is abnormal, and it’s the kind of thing that only an obsessed individual can pull off.”