Thursday, July 7, 2016

George Lewis and His Ragtime Band * Jazz At Vespers * February 21, 1954

Just a Little While to Stay Here
Bye and Bye
The Old Rugged Cross
Sometimes My Burden is Hard to Bear
Down By the Riverside
Just a Closer Walk With Thee
Lord, You've Been Good to Me
When the Saints Go Marching In

George Lewis * clarinet
Avery "Kid" Howard * trumpet
Jim Robinson * trombone
Alton Purnell * piano
Lawrence Marrero * banjo
Alcide "Slow Drag" Pavageau * bass
Joe Watkins * drums

While DownBeat and Time magazines were wondering what happened to the jazz clarinet in the 1950s, George Lewis was flying under their defective and underdeveloped radars, touring the globe and inspiring generations of imitators in Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada, and even here in the US. The professional jazz press, located mostly in New York and traditionally loathe (even to this day) to look beyond the nightclubs and fashions of that largest of provincial minded cities, simply ignored a vital, and global, trad jazz movement largely spurred by Lewis.

Lewis's story is one of perseverance like few others. He was virtually unnoticed for the first several decades of his musical career, working most of his professional life before his mid-forties as a longshoreman unloading coffee bags in New Orleans. His biggest 'early' break came when he got the call to join Bunk Johnson in NYC in 1945, where he got some notice during one of those rare "revivals" when traditional polyphonic New Orleans style jazz gets noticed in the Big Apple. He was already 45 years old and had been playing professionally since he was a teenager. After Bunk's death in 1949, the band continued under the name of George Lewis and His Ragtime Band.

For a bandleader with as many obstacles to his career as George Lewis, it is remarkable how many landmark, important recordings he made. At a time when jazz was becoming increasingly associated with heroin, anger, and esoteric musical language on the one hand, or tepid commercial sheen on the other, Lewis continued to plow the rough, fertile ground of spirituals, marches, and polyphony developed in his native city. Among those important recordings Jazz At Vespers ranks high.

That the recording happened at all was largely thanks to the Reverend Alvin Kershaw, then rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Oxford, Ohio, whose passion for and dedication to jazz was extraordinary. Around the time of this recording, Rev. Kershaw had gained a bit of national celebrity from appearances on The $64,000 Question (jazz was his chosen category) and on a Sunday religious program, Look Up and Live, where, according to the original album liner notes, he said "To worship properly, we should offer God all of ourselves, our feelings as well as our thoughts. Jazz, which appeals to our emotions, helps us to do this."

The notes to the album go on to say that Kershaw had brought the band to Holy Trinity once before the recording as well, for a Sunday service in 1953. He made it clear to a Cincinnati newspaper at the time that "jazz musicians playing spirituals...are an outgrowth of the suffering of their people [and] have something of universal truth to pass along to his more fortunate congregation." On February 21, 1954, because of a cancellation the band received elsewhere, Kershaw suggested the Lewis band take over the music for Holy Trinity's regular Sunday Vespers service, and this recording was the result.

The recording captures Lewis's ensemble perhaps at zenith. This was the band that had such a powerful impact upon the English trad jazz scene (which in many ways remains more organized and vibrant than the trad jazz community in the US). Monty Sunshine, Acker Bilk, Terry Lightfoot, and countless others imitated and learned from George Lewis, branching out creatively into their own styles afterwards; a young Ringo Starr heard the band and was awed by Joe Watkins's drumming (and once you hear Watkins, you can hear how deeply it impacted the future Beatle). The root of all this music is the spiritual, and the specific depth of uniting human emotion to praise and lamentation, communally. There are few recordings as important as this in jazz history. It does not feature virtuoso playing; it is pure ensemble. It's also something every jazz musician should experience and study.

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