By Jamie Howison
A chilly Thursday night in January, and I find myself sitting in a fairly cramped meeting room at the 126th Street office of the Jazz Museum in Harlem. There are about sixty-five of us here, sitting on stacking chairs, sipping coffee from disposable cups and snacking on the veggies and cookies set out as the evening’s hospitality. Some are chatting, while others leaf through the complimentary copies of the various local jazz publications that have been set out for us. Although there are a few younger people here, most of us are on the other side of our 40th birthday, some by more than a decade or two. Well over half the group is African-American, and as the evening goes on it becomes clear that many have deep roots in – and deep affection for – this community of Harlem. Two rows in front of me sits a young bass player visiting from Finland, accompanied by his parents. Coming to New York appears to be something of a musical pilgrimage for this young man, to say nothing of his mother, who at a couple of points all but explodes in delight over the fact that her son is here in so storied a place as Harlem. To my left sits the veteran drummer Rudy Lawless, while on the other side of the room is the vocalist Melba Joyce, both of whom over the years have worked with an amazing array of jazz greats.
|"Whether a concert . . . or conversation . . . there was this sense of delight in all that these folks were doing."
All of us have made our way here to listen as the Jazz Museum’s Executive Director Loren Schoenberg interviews bassist and educator Reggie Workman in an installment of the ongoing series, “Harlem Speaks.” The interview will take some two and a half hours, with a bit of a break to change the tape in the video camera and to refill our coffee cups. This night Workman’s bass is nowhere in sight; it is his stories, insights and reflections that are centre stage. Much as I would have loved to have heard him play, his words do not disappoint.
Now, I’m a jazz fan, but I have only come to it in the last decade or so, and my knowledge isn’t yet of the kind that can recognize every name and every classic session from across the formative years of this music. Coming in to this evening’s session, I did not really know much about Workman at all, but I certainly recognized the names of the people he has played with: Art Blakey, Nina Simone, Sun Ra, Monk, Coltrane. The very mention of Coltrane caused a kind of spark to run through the audience. This guy – close to seventy years old, with a bearing at once gentle and dignified – had played bass on Ole Coltrane, Africa/Brass and on the great 1961 album Live at the Village Vanguard. We are into the stuff of legend here.
At that stage, Coltrane’s band included Eric Dolphy, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones; an ‘A’ list band if ever there was one. Workman recalled the music as being so powerful that when he was first with that band all he could do was rehearse, play, and collapse into an exhausted sleep. Fitting, I suppose, as that was all Coltrane did at this stage of his life. “He was like a monk,” Workman commented. Long after the last set had ended, Coltrane would be sitting with a book laid open on the bed in front of him, reading deeply while he practiced. And practiced. And practiced.
This was my third visit to Harlem for a Jazz Museum event in just over a week. In New York to spend a couple of weeks at General Theological Seminary on a study leave, I had come across an ad for a free concert at Nubian Heritage by the Patience Higgins Quartet, and decided that it was just right for the budget conscious jazz fan. I had already been to the Village Vanguard to see the Kenny Barron Trio, and had tickets to go back there once my wife had joined me for the last weekend of my time in the city, but the $30 and $40 cover charges at the big name rooms was soon going to push me beyond my means. While initially drawn by the prospect of free music, I was quickly hooked by the spirit of these events. Whether a concert – and the Higgins quartet was really very fine that night – or conversation – and alongside of the “Harlem Speaks” event, I attended a session of the “Jazz for Curious Listeners” series, in which Loren Schoenberg helped me to really hear the Bill Evans song “Blue in Green” from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue in a way I had never been able to hear it before – there was this sense of delight in all that these folks were doing.
I am a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada, and for most people when they hear the words “Anglican” and “music,” the associations are with pipe organs, choral music and hymnals. There have certainly been explorations of other music within this tradition, including forays in to the jazz vespers tradition pioneered in New York by St Peter’s Lutheran Church, and in fact my own church community offers a jazz mass every three or four months as an alternative to our already alternative approach to worship music. Often, though, people aren’t sure what to think of jazz in the church. Is it primarily a concert, punctuated by prayers and readings? A church service that includes some instrumental music? Even the worship leaders can seem a bit unclear about the project. Do we jazz up some hymns, or try to redefine as sacred a music that is otherwise generally thought to be secular? Too often the lack of real integration is self-evident, and while the people present may all agree that it was a nice change, do they get much of a sense that the music has carried our prayers, or that the prayer has swung with delight? In the attentive listening, has anyone heard the voice of the Spirit, “interceding for us in sighs to deep for words?” (Romans 8:26b)
A good friend of mine – and as it happens, a colleague in priestly ministry – once told me that he really quite dislikes jazz. He finds it individualistic and at least a little self-indulgent, marked by endless solos and an oftentimes competitive spirit amongst the musicians. He was actually sharing this opinion after having recently been at a church conference that had included a jazz vespers service, and it was pretty evident that to his mind jazz is a form of music least suited for corporate worship. The congregation is left with a role as the passive listeners, while the musicians are performers, specializing in soloing. How can this possibly draw the people of God together, in a shared offering of praise?
At the time I was aware that while I did not agree with his perspective (in part because our own community’s jazz liturgies have managed to move us pretty close to the kind of integration to which I refere above), I did not have the language to mount any kind of a coherent response. Reggie Workman has helped me to discover at least the beginnings of that language.
I’d be the last person to suggest that some jazz musicians aren’t self-indulgent, competitive, even arrogant in their approach, but maybe what those players most need is a little time with other, more seasoned musicians; players who have experienced the sort of real ensemble play that humbles by its power rather than exalts by its technical thrills.
Workman told a story of one such experience from his days with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Typical for Blakey, he had gathered a group of young and promising musicians in that incarnation of the Messengers, and was forming them – pushing and disciplining them, really – into a mature unit. The band was in California to play at a club there, and when they took the stage Blakey discovered that Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Eckstine were sitting at the front table. Blakey, who was normally the demanding, even dogmatic elder of his band, became like a boy in the presence of these two, who numbered amongst his own mentors and elders. Workman remembers the transformation take place, as Blakey pushed himself to play as never before, wanting so much to earn the respect of these men he himself so deeply respected. The young band took up the challenge, and as Workman tells it, the audience experienced something rare and precious. “We took the music so high…” he said, his voice trailing off to the point where he was rendered, quite literally, speechless. It was an astonishing thing to watch this veteran fall into such silence, head bowed and hand held to his teary eyes. He was at that moment anything but self-assured or arrogant; he was instead overwhelmed and humbled in the memory of having been a part of something that transcended prowess and technique. It is like the contemplative mystic, who spends a life-time cultivating a discipline of prayer, and then finds herself one day lifted – if only for a moment – into the very presence of the Holy. The experience is at once shattering and defining; a great and consoling in-filling, that leaves a longing both deep and strangely resolved. One comes away from such moments anything but arrogant.
What was clear in Workman’s story was that the audience – those who bore witness that night – was not incidental to the power of the music. Gillespie and Eckstine were, of course, front and centre, but they were not the only ones whose presence was part of the experience. In fact, Workman wanted us to realize that the audience is always an integral part of the creation of jazz, and that if there is any truth in the observation that jazz is currently going through a low ebb it is because there are not enough regular gigs for players and listeners alike. In those formative days from the ‘40s through the early ‘60s, there were live clubs on every corner, creating a potent milieu for the cultivation of this art form. Practice – important as it may be – is not the same as playing live. It lacks witnesses, whose responsive energy is part of what shapes and fuels the whole.
According to Branford Marsalis – who also spent formative time with the Jazz Messengers – Blakey was fond of telling audiences that “Jazz is the only music that comes directly from the Creator, through us, to you.” The church – a people gathered in a shared desire to offer praise to that Creator and to be collectively open to the movement of the Spirit in the world – does well to attend. And maybe not just in the context of something like jazz vespers. Maybe, just maybe, we first need to learn to discern the Spirit of God in the jazz club or in the sound of the street corner busker’s saxophone or on the recordings of the Coltranes and Blakeys and Workmans of this world; people whose love of sharing the music brought them close to gazing upon the very face of the Divine.