Art, Worship and All That Jazz: Inspirations from a Jazz Legend

Cleve Eaton, Alabama Treasure and Count Basie's bassist

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.”

Elvis and Sam at Sun Studios

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.

The Great Count Basie

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.

Ah, the prerequisite "praise team." They seem to be enjoying themselves while we spectators watch.

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.

I Was Thinking Tonight About Elvis, Hank, and Gillian

I was reading about Hank Williams, went to hear Gillian Welch, and wound up thinking about Elvis Presley.  Just finished the late Paul Hemphill’s wonderful biography of Hank Williams, Sr.   This being “the Year of Alabama Music,” I have decided to do a study of some great Alabama musicians.  It’s a pretty great list.  Anyway, sometimes secular musicians, especially in folk, country and blues, are windows into what Stephen J. Nichols calls, “the gospel in a minor key”  I call it, “the rest of creation that never finds its way into church.”  We’re pretty long on the resurrection side of things, so that means we don’t often enough spend time down in the human soul and its perplexing alleyways.

Hank Williams knew all about those hard places of life.  Dead of damage by drugs and alcohol by the age of 29, Williams was the first and arguably greatest country music star ever.  A high school dropout from South Alabama who knew how to make people feel his pain and write about pain everyone feels.  After his death, Williams’ popularity and legend grew, but about the time of his untimely death, Elvis arrived on the scene.

Hemphill says Elvis was almost the end of country music.  Both he and Hank perfectly represented their ethos and time—Hank the rural and small town world that still lived inside most people raised in the Depression, and Elvis the bombastic musical fusion of the world that America in the 1950s began to aspire to be.  Both sons of the South, about to blow wide open by the searing Civil Rights movement, all of its contradictions laid out where the whole world could see us exposed.

Last Friday, Vickie and I went with our friends Gay and Dan to hear Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at Workplay Theater on the Soundstage.  If you don’t know her, you have probably heard her somewhere.  She writes and sings a plaintive, almost “old time” style.  Their concerts usuially only feature two guitars and an occasional frail or two on the banjo.  Spare, haunting, perfectionistic, well- crafted songs and harmonies.  Gillian and David joked a lot about how “down” their music is.

They write about hard times, pregnant teenagers and careless men, broken hearts and do it in a voice she described to NPR in an interview as a “stoic” voice.  Surely she and Rawlings are the only duo to emerge from the Berklee School of Music with a sound like they have.  They seem to have plopped down into the twenty-first century by mistake.  They should have been playing on porches in 1946.  Instead, they perform for middle class lawyers in jeans and t-shirts grooving on soul music of a world they barely remember.

That was August 12, a week ago as I write.  Then, four days later, came the day Elvis died.  Especially here in the South, August 12 is still considered tragic because the federal government didn’t declare it a national holiday.  I still remember where I was—working as a carpenter in Dunn, NC, framing a house for a rich lawyer out in the country.  We listened to radio all day, the only relief to the scortching Carolina summer.   But sometime in that day, the news came.  “Elvis Presley died this morning.”

I was nothing like Elvis, but he was one of us.  His music filled our cars on long trips, helped us date, and was the background music at Myrtle Beach.  The world never understood the part we all shared with him –a Southerner out in the wider world, never really at ease with it, overwhelmed by it, ashamed of ourselves in ways we could never explain, but still having something to say.  Not unlike Hank.

Maybe that’s what keeps killing people like them, I don’t know.  They carry something heavy about them, something they would sing about and live out, but never could quite exorcise it.  Restless, haunted by hounds of heaven and hell, searching, adored and showered with wealth but never able to carry it off.  And then they were gone.

So it was good, last week, before I even knew we were about to remember that it was August 16, 1977.  Elvis was dead, and I was in Dunn, NC, putting up rafters.  Thirty four years ago, the King was gone.  Hank abdicated his throne and Elvis took it but it took him, too.  What they lived, what they sang about, what finally killed them both, is too important for us to keep out of religion or life.  So I mourn these two poets, storytellers, prophets of the broken heart, laureates of human longing.  If you don’t realize that there is something spiritual about Hank’s “Cold, Cold Heart” and Elvis singing the old “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” the old Carter family tune that Elvis turns into a soul shiver, or the maudlin “Long Black Limosine:”    

Hank Williams' goes home

So Hank, Elvis, it’s been an oddly moving time to be with you both.  You are the troubadors of where we come from and where we tried to go.  We won’t forget you.   Let me end with the song Gillian and David sang from their Time the Revelator album, “Elvis Presley Blues”.  Rest in peace.

I was thinkin that night about Elvis,
Day that he died,
Day that he died.

I was thinkin that night about Elvis,
Day that he died,
Day that he died.

Just a country boy that combed his hair,
and put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air.
And he shook it like a chorus girl.
And he shook it like a harlan queen.
And he shook it like a midnight rambler, baby,
like you’d never seen, never seen.
like you’d never seen, never seen.

Listen to it here