I’ve met two people in the past ten years who made me believe the bass was the most wonderful instrument in the world. Got to know Dave Pomeroy when he played here a several years back with the put together acoustic jazz group with Rob Ickes (of Blue Highway) on dobro and Andy Leftwich, fiddle and mandolin player from Kentucky Thunder (Ricky Skaggs).
The other man is a legend I met a few months ago when a member took us to a little jazz dinner theater here. A group was playing called the Sonny Harris Trio—drums, piano and bass. The pianist was terrific, a young man from Cuba named Pedro Mayor, and the bass player was Cleveland Eaton. Cleve is one of Alabama’s treasures—in the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, gigs with Ramsey Lewis Trio, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Ike Cole, and more people than can be remembered in the legends of jazz. But mostly he was renowned as Count Basie’s bass player, “The Count’s Bassist.” Here’s a clip from 25 or so years ago. at Carnegie Hall with Basie playing “Booty’s Blues.”
We had them come and play for a lunch at the church this week, and Mr. Eaton spoke to my class. I’ve been teaching a bible study called, “The Year of Alabama Music,” an observance going on this year honoring musical greats of Alabama (Louvin Brothers, Vern Gosdin, Sam Phillips, Hank Williams, Emmy Lou Harris, W. C. Handy, and on and on) I’ve been talking about music found in scripture, about spiritual and theological issues that arise out of the stories in
both scripture and these artists’ lives, and so on. It’s been pretty interesting—how many artists in the blues, country, bluegrass, rock and jazz got their start in the church.
It’s also interesting how many of them harbored and pursued spiritual longings in their music—Hank Williams’ maudlin talking songs under the penname “Luke the Drifter,” Sam Phillips seeing his calling as a spiritual one, to bring the soulful music of African-Americans to white America, and the oddity that he recorded and released “That’s Alright, Mama” the same year of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Era began in earnest. It’s astounding how much the Bible has to say about secular art and how many spiritual pursuits dwell at the center of supposedly secular art.
In Jazz, of course, we have a totally different creature altogether. Perhaps the most truly American and original art form of all—pure innovation, in which artistic creations might be recorded and played again and again, but never performed live the same way ever. Cleve told me this week that Basie once hit an incredible riff on the piano and a guy said, “Hey, man, play that again, what you just did.” Basie said, “Aw, man, that’s gone and it ain’t never coming back.”
Makes you think that there is something deeply spiritual, letting our music be creature, born, living and full of delight, and then dying to rise again some other way, some other time. Cleave said he practices all day every day. That’s why he’s never nervous. A lot to teach us, I think. Watching he and Basie in this clip I thought, “That’s holier than many a song with Jesus words in it—you can feel the Creator smiling.”
Frankly, for a long time, much contemporary Christian music left me hollow not because it was rock and roll or “indie” or whatever, but because it was musically second-rate, lyrically hollow and generally uninteresting. It was too much like the old Billy Graham movies churches would turn out to support as the supposed answer to Hollywood. Movies like The Restless Ones may have been productive evangelism, but they were, truthfully, awful movies. You could see the ending coming a mile away, and it all got tied up too neatly at the end. It failed to be true to life, to Creation, to story.
Great art IS spiritual. Our efforts (mostly among evangelicals, who often have an advertiser’s lack of confidence in their “product” to appeal on its own) undermine the creative process. Artists, write great songs. They WILL speak. Superficial, artistically inferior music is nearly always the result of subordinating excellence to some other motive, even if it is a good one.