Black folks been covering Beatles songs since about 2 minutes after the black music loving lads from Liverpool crossed the pond. But let me ask you this: how many jazz musicians you know swing Lennon/McCartney and the Stylistics in the same set? Thank you Ramsey Lewis. A few tunes after an exquisite rendering of "In My Life", Ramsey went "Betcha By Golly Wow" on us last Saturday night at The Cerritos Center for the Arts (I know, I know, it takes a few freeways to get there if you're a SouthWestSide LA woman like me...but don't sleep on this gorgeous venue...Sonny Rollins will be there April 5). The ladies room was filled with nostalgic chatter at intermission, "They just don't write songs like that anymore." Mr. Lewis, looking just as young and elegant as ever then came back and took us even further back with what he called his "Spiritual Medley". He gave us Amazing Grace, he gave us this blog's namesake, Duke's Come Sunday, and then somewhere in there he played a grief soaked "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child". What delighted me most was that he shot right out of that and went "In Crowd" on us. I kept thinking there was something holy, kinda Easter-ish about the shift from Motherless Child to "I'm in with the In Crowd"...definitely trouble to hallelujah. Again, thank you Mr. Lewis.
My jazz gratitude cup ranneth over last couple weeks, no question. A few days before Ramsey Lewis, I had such a meaningful meeting with Professor, Composer, (dear family friend) and Duke Ellington's favorite guitarist, Kenny Burrell. That it took me this long to get over and speak with Kenny-UCLA Director of Jazz Studies and Ellington aficionado about my idea for the Duke Ellington Center for the Study of Sacred Jazz makes no sense...but I got there at last and thank goodness.
First thing he wanted to do was direct me to his wall of quotes...his office door at UCLA is covered with his favorite Duke-isms, including the one he wants to make absolutely sure I know...
"Every man speaks to God in his own language and there is no language that God does not understand." Duke Ellington
He then scanned his bookshelf and loaned me a copy of the score/lyrics for all three Sacred Concerts. And then like he was my thesis advisor and I was arguing my dissertation on the center for the study of sacred jazz he took me to task on a couple items. First, he doesn't like the word "trouble" in my blog title (for why I'm sticking with it...see my inaugural post for this blog). "Are you saying 'hallelujah' to trouble?" And then he said, "And let me ask you this," long pause, "Aretha Franklin. Mahalia Jackson. Stevie Wonder. Bernice Reagon and Sweet Honey....you see I'm having trouble with the word 'jazz'." I know, I know, I know...and so did Duke who went from insisting he wrote Negro folk music to eventually claiming for his music the compliment most lauded on him: "Beyond Category."
What Kenny seemed to be pushing with me was...wasn't I talking about African American music with a spiritual focus? Yes...and...I still appreciate the word Jazz. I'm clearly not as hip as Kenny or Duke I guess. Ever heard the great Mingus story where he says to Duke, "Why don't you, me and Dizzy and Clark Terry and Thad Jones get together and make an avant garde record?" Duke comes back with "Let's not take music back that far, Mingus." !!!! Yes I'm talking about African American music and please know I'm lighting candles right now that Aretha, Stevie and Sweet Honey will perform at the center of sacred jazz...but I'm sticking to jazz right now because I still feel like it hasn't been loved enough...especially in this country.
While we're rapping, Maestro Gerald Wilson knocks on Kenny's door...okay...just so you know, I don't take all this lightly...I peep that I'm in the presence of royalty. Kenny so warmly introduces me and they check in about the tribute UCLA is giving Mr. Wilson the following week. So I don't go on for ever and ever in this post I now want to segue and just give more love to Maestro Wilson. Dr. Bobby Rodriguez put together one of the most thorough and touching presentations I've ever seen one musician honor another musician with. I was particularly touched when he mentioned how "courteous" Mr. Wilson is and always was from the first time they met over 30 years ago. Dr. Rodriguez put together a tremendous slide show and what I noticed was Gerald Wilson always had the most light in all the photos...he truly showered his fellow musicians, across 7 decades (yeah!) with light, love, listening. Then the nearly 90 year old Maestro took the stage to conduct the UCLA Jazz Orchestra...with more energy than any of the 20 year old college kids in the band. "Keep growing strong, keep growing strong...."
This work is just beginning for me...to stick with this blog, to discuss and gather the right elements to grow this center I'm envisioning...but you see how brilliantly illuminated the path already is with all this energy and light from the masters. Wow... well really a Ramsey Lewis tinged, "by golly wow!"