Words from the road: sabbatical update #3

A note from Jamie Howison: This is the third in a series of weekly updates regarding my unfolding sabbatical study leave. For a bit of background as to the shape of my work during these two months, you can go to a piece I posted on this site in mid-December.


nother very fine week of music, books, conversation, and exploration. Since my last update I passed a milestone birthday and turned 50… and as I’d planned I spent that evening at the Village Vanguard listening to music by Joe Lovano’s “Us Five.” Lovano is one of the scene’s premiere sax players, and his band includes the stellar young bass player, Esperanza Spalding. They are currently promoting a new album of music made famous by Charlie Parker, so the set was all drawn from that disc. Very fine… and if you want to hear a set very similar to what I heard you can get a free stream of one of the January 12 sets on the NPR music site.

This may have been my best week in terms of live music (though we’ll just have to wait and see what the next 12 days hold!), as I also saw the brilliant Tomasz Stanko Quartet at the Jazz Standard on Friday, The Jean Michel Pilc Trio at Small’s on Saturday, and Keith Jarrett at Carnegie Hall on Sunday.

I’d really, really been anticipating Keith Jarrett, but I’m afraid the concert was a bit coloured by his famously grumpy attitude. This was one of his solo piano concerts, which he offers without any sound amplification—not a problem in Carnegie Hall, which has astonishing acoustics—and creates on the spot as improvisational explorations. It was astonishing to bear witness to the creation of beautiful and challenging music by a musician of such caliber, yet the fact that he not only stopped in the middle of a piece to scold people for coughing but also gave us a couple of little lectures on the subject kind of compromised the “flow” of the whole evening. It turns out that the reviewer for the New York Times is pretty much on my side on this one, though I have to admit that when in his fourth (yes, fourth…) encore Jarrett offered a stunning version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” it was hard not to forgive him at least some of his grumpiness.

My great musical discovery so far has to be the Jean-Michel Pilc trio, featuring the legendary drummer Billy Hart. For this one I was sitting in the front row of the very cozy confines of “Small’s”, a wee little basement room in Greenwich Village that holds all of probably sixty people. Pilc is a self-taught pianist, and in this particular trio he has drawn together both a great journeyman drummer and a really wonderful bass player to create a truly exciting sound. The energy in that little room was so high, it’s a wonder it all didn’t come crashing down around us. There’s a good video sample on Pilc’s site, though it doesn’t come close to what is experienced live.

On Sunday I decided I wanted to see what the Anglicans are up to in Harlem, and as I passed this rambling old Anglican Church I noticed that they were going to mark Martin Luther King Day on Sunday the 16th. That seemed promising, and so I decided that would be my destination for the morning. There were about 80 people there, most over 60, and virtually all African-American. The reception on my arrival was very warm, yet as I settled into my pew I felt a little anxious when I saw that the organist was a late middle-aged white man. When the procession came in from the back of the church—a choir of eight, four young servers, and the priest—I have to admit my heart sunk to see that the priest was also a late middle aged white guy. Not only did the place not swing at all; they really didn’t even sing out. Oh well, probably not a bad thing to have shared in the eucharist with them (and nice to have that kind of familiarity in the midst of all of these adventures), and to see what is (or is not) happening amongst the Anglicans in Harlem.

I’d seen a notice saying that the Kelly Temple Church of God in Christ (where I’d worshipped the previous Sunday) was having a service on Martin Luther King Day (Monday the 17th), and I decided I’d join them for that. Let me tell you, if the Anglicans didn’t swing the folks at Kelly Temple more than made up for it. The congregation had already had a community breakfast and a guest speaker that morning, so I assumed that the noon service might be an hour and a half. Wrong. It was fully three hours of singing, preaching, and testifying, and aside from a tribute in which Dr King’s famous “I have a dream” speech was read aloud (beautifully, and to a thunderous reception), it was really just a rocking church service. Though I suppose I might mention the scripture-testimonial delivered by twin twelve year old boys, that just about took the roof off the place?

And yes, I’m spending hours and hours in the library and at the little table in my apartment working away on the book research. I really am… The photograph on the right is taken in the stacks of the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, one of the two largest theological libraries on the continent. There are five levels of endless books lining narrow aisles, all built of steel with glass floors to let at least some light through. Being that January is not part of the regular teaching month but is rather reserved for intersession courses, short-term classes and seminars, there have been many times when I’m the only person winding my way through this steel and glass maze!

In fact, as soon as I post this I’m off to catch a bus to Rutgers University in New Jersey, where I’ll spend the day in the library of their Institute of Jazz Studies before having dinner with Lewis Porter (musician, jazz scholar, and John Coltrane’s premiere biographer) and attending an evening seminar to which he has invited me.

I could get very accustomed to this!


2 Responses to Words from the road: sabbatical update #3

  1. rudy says:

    very happy birthday to you, jamie. sounds like it was a very memorable one.

  2. Murray Krushel says:

    First things first, a very Happy Birthday to you!

    You must be in Jazz heaven for sure. Glad you’re having such a great time, it all sounds amazing, thank you for the updates.


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