Saturday, February 18, 2012

Jazz Soul, Church Roots, Raw Power

Like thousands - maybe millions - of people today, at 11 AM Eastern, I awakened and immediately turned on CNN to experience Whitney Houston's funeral, otherwise known as her "Homegoing", and I am so glad that I did. After enduring the unavoidable media scrutiny for a full week following her untimely and tragic death, including both her illustrious career and the recollection of her difficult and drug-addled life with Bobby Brown, and culminating in the next chapter -- the unfortunate events befalling her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, and Bobby's children (her stepchildren) -- it was an absolute honor that the Houston and Winans families allowed media coverage of the Homegoing at all.

As I watched the 5 hour coverage, I marveled at the respect that the mourners (including Bobby) afforded the fallen star. I reveled in the sheer humanity of Whitney's life -- her strong beliefs, friends that had gathered to say good bye, Kevin Costner's deep message, Stevie Wonder, the Winans Family, everything. And then I put my jazz historian's hat on and respected the service yet again as only a fellow musician could.

CNN Blogger Stephen Prothero later this evening ( ) wrote that Cissy Houston "brought the world to church today" and indeed she and her family did. Futhermore, Mr. Prothero took the sentiment a step further when he added that so much of music today swirls around the humble beginnings of the black church. He writes:

“There are more stars here than the Grammys,” said Houston’s music director, Rickey Minor, and the service did feature pop star Stevie Wonder and music mogul Clive Davis, among others. But so much of popular music started in the black church, and today the black church talked back.

Mr. Prothero hit the nail on the head; the black church not only talked back, but showed the world that everyone is always invited in, Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, whatever your persuasion. And in that invitation came a joyful combined choir, some of the biggest legends in American music history, laughter, tears, and worship. Positive messages on the nature of the soul. Homegoing, instead of mourning. Powerful.

Mr Prothero writes in his blog that he has often wanted to share this spirit with his white Christian children and has never done so; my advice to him -- do it. It's OK. It is a welcoming place and you must trust me on this, as I have experienced it myself, a fellow "white girl".

When I was 20 years old, I responded to an ad posted at my university's job center, searching for a skilled pianist to accompany a small but growing Christian "Free" congregation in downtown Warrensburg, Missouri, a few miles from where I lived and attended school. Being a somewhat poor college student, I leapt at the chance to make some money playing music, so I drove right down to the church that afternoon to speak to the pastor.

At the time, I had no idea what a "Free" church meant, and soon found out that this style of worship is a Christian movement: a mix of Baptist, Pentacostal, Lutheran, and probably 3 other ideaologies, but most of all, African-American! When I walked in the door, I met not only the pastor but about 2 or 3 deacons that presided that night as well.

My interview was short and I ended up getting the job due to the church's urgency for a pianist. I was led to a piano and asked if I knew any gospel or blues riffs (I did). I was asked if my ears were good (absolute pitch don't fail me now, yes) and I was asked if I was able to play for several hours on Thursday nights and all day Sunday (yes). My pay would be a meager $15 a set (and a set in that church could be 3-4 hours!), but I later realized that the life experience would more than pay for itself. We all shook hands and the pastor told me to come back later that night, because they were having a huge revival and would need me.

When I came back, the small storefront-based building was packed with people. Some of them turned around and stared curiously at the skinny, bespectacled, nerdy white girl who just walked in. I asked the pastor if there were any hymnals. He laughed heartily and said, oh no, we don't use anything like that. I asked how people knew what to sing. He answered that everyone in the church knew all the songs. I said, what if I don't know the songs? He said, I have faith in you, just listen and learn, we'll be right there with you. Gulp.

Revival time came a few minutes later with a guest female pastor from California who was more than on-fire for the Lord. I was out of my element but soon became very interested in what was going on. I remember clearly a catchphrase that night where she intoned, "Don't let the Devil ride, 'cause then he'll want to drive!!!", followed by a chorus of Uh huh, That's right, Praise Jesus!, Mercy!, PREACH! and every other positive affirmation known. Then, at the drop of a finger, someone would stand up, start singing a worship song in whatever key was in their head, and I had about 3 seconds to make something up behind him or her, as the congregation burst into loud, joyous, powerful song that everyone knew but me. The blues and gospel riffs became my saving grace and the level of worship blew me away. I worked for the little church for a few months throughout Spring 1993. I was the only "white" person in the room most nights, but it didn't matter, because the music spoke for me and helped to lift the spirits of those that believed. Music brought the races together in a deep and mutual respect. After a while, congregants called me "Sister Katy" as though I were one of their very own - I was honored.

What I saw at Whitney's Homegoing was remniscent of that experience. In the Black Baptist church, you are free, regardless of color, background, or experiences, and it makes sense that jazz, blues, and so much soul came from these roots. It makes sense that only in church could an African-American soul be set free long enough on Sundays to sing to his or her Creator and shrug off the yoke of slavery, oppression, establishmentarian second-ratedness, social belittlement, and all the other unfair and unjust noise that this people endured for so long. And even if one is not African-American, it is a vital lesson for all of us -- as human beings, it makes sense that we who wish for freedom from the trappings in our own lives relate so deeply to that longing. It is exactly what the world experienced on CNN today and why this Homegoing had us glued to the celebration. It is why we are still talking about it in blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and any other place that can hold this level of excitement. It is the ultimately the humble and inspiring teacher underneath every jazz great, R&B superstar, rock and roll fantasy, and blues beacon that we as musicians and audiophiles love.

I wish to thank Whitney's family for the televised invitation to such joy and have them all know that I am truly, deeply sorry for her untimely passing. But I also wish to thank them for leading, nurturing, and inspiring the golden talent in Whitney that we came to know later in her life, and have had the privilege of her music as a lasting legacy.

Yours in music,
Kathryn Ballard Shut /shoot/
TIMKAT Entertainment, Inc.
Saturday, February 18, 2012
Writing from Cleveland, OH

TIMKAT Entertainment, Inc.

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