Jazz is thought of as a secular music, yet at its best the church echoes through it. The give-and-take of jazz is said to have its origins in the improvisational call-and-response of African-American worship, the rich harmonies and spontaneous melody-making, too.
Many of the great jazz musicians were products of a religious upbringing that provided them their musical foundation. The great West Coast pianist Hampton Hawes recounted how his mother, pianist at Westminster Presbyterian in Los Angeles where his father was minister, told him one day during his teenage years that he would have to follow his musical path either in the church or in jazz. Hawes chose the latter and went on to make music not in sanctuaries but in clubs and, less frequently in concert calls. He did so with a vengeance, his playing almost evangelical in its fervor and bite, though he could be lyrical and forgiving. His repertoire was drawn from the American popular song book and the blues, but what he played was not merely inflected by the sacred but undergirded by it. What is clear on listening to Hawes is that he believed in what he played. He had left the church—and by the age of twenty was addicted to heroin—but the music of god stayed with him, in him.
The same is true of countless others, but especially jazz singers. Almost all of them gained not just their earliest musical experiences but their formative training in the church choir, and soon after that at the organ or piano. Like Hawes, they were often the children of preachers and/or music directors. The progression of performers from the secular to the sacred space has a long history outside of jazz, too, of course: opera stars their art first by hymning the Lord for many years before going on to sing on stage about love, revenge, murder, and mayhem.
Aside from developing the musical ear and voice and the feel for contributing their own talent to the larger benefit of an ensemble, the most important lesson learned in church was making yourself understood—getting your message across. This applies to instrumentalists (think of Horace Silver’s “The Preacher”), but especially to vocalists: communicate with real rhetorical vitality across the spectrum of human emotion and experience. Console, convince, inspire.
On hearing the young and unfailingly persuasive singer Jazzmeia Horn perform, it seems immediately clear that she got her start in the church. Indeed, she was “kind of forced,” as she puts it, to join the choir at Golden Chain Missionary Baptist Church in her native Dallas, where her grandfather is still pastor. Her grandmother named her. Later she discovered her namesake music through her chief musical models, Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter, who, not coincidentally, also began singing in the sacred service.
Nurtured musically by church and family, Horn’s subsequent ascent in jazz was fast and assured—just like her singing. She won the 2013 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition at the age of twenty-two, and two years later was award the still more prestigious laurels at the contest hosted by the Thelonious Monk Institute. That honor brought with it a recording contract yielding last year’s debut album, A Social Call. The record was universally acclaimed as a triumph, one that lavishly paid off its debt to the past with its extrovert originality and undeniable authenticity of voice and character.
This week Horn brought a thrilling trio, younger it seemed than even her youthful self, with her for four shows over two evenings at SFJazz. This vital institution opened in January of 2013 in a sleek modernist building of steel and glass that announces its cultural ambitions without boasting too much about them. The place retains something of the feel of a club so as to shed the pretentiousness adhering to the temples of high culture—symphony and opera—whose backs are turned to the venue just down busy Franklin Street in San Francisco.
You enter SFJAzz directly off the sidewalk: there are no grand steps up, no set-back with fountain, statues, and plantings. This is a building that embraces the urban. The smaller of its two performance spaces is named after Bay Area jazz luminary Joe Henderson and can accommodate an audience of up to 100. This so-called lab space is set directly on the corner of Fell and Franklin; pedestrians and traffic outside provide the backdrop for the musicians on the black bandstand rising just two feet above the hall’s wooden floorboards. From the sidewalk the performers inside can be seen but not heard, so effective is the sound barrier. The result is street music without the roar of engines and the complaint of sirens.
I arrived on the corner well in advance of the second of Horn’s two Thursday shows and gazed in at the musicians going full tilt: Horn in a colorful African dress and turban, throwing her head back in delight; the besuited drummer with French cuffs framing supple hands busy with black brushes; the bassist’s large hoop earrings swaying and bobbing as she pulled and stopped the strings of the instrument that seemed so much an extension of her; and the pianist sporting suspenders and tie and sitting angled at a brilliantly polished Yamaha grand piano (decal on the side) while looking almost defiantly out at the enraptured audience. Not the faintest intimation of music penetrated the glass. The soundless spectacle alone was riveting.
Once inside the building, I queued up for the second show and as the audience filtered out from the first viewed by me from the sidewalk, their freely offered words of rapture confirmed what their radiant faces already announced: an enthralling hour-long set was in store.
It began with an homage to Betty Carter, the famed singer’s original “Tight”—a stop-time tour-de-force that brings into glittering relief the precision of the band along with the virtuosic agility and dynamism of Horn’s singing. The song’s story cannot be told without making each word heard even at a high speed. The delivery of text is the essential task of the singer, one rarely accomplished in full. The message, not of unwavering faith in god but suspicious love of a man, was delivered by Horn with conviction and verve, pianist Julius Rodriguez racing through his first up-tempo workout of the set, nonchalantly just behind the beat. This clever and careening song made for a jaw-dropping demonstration of the laser accuracy of Horn’s voice across the curlicues and cutbacks of the melody. Her fleet scat improvisations were buoyed by lessons learned not just from her singing predecessors but from the bop instrumental masters. These lines gave onto stratospheric vocal effects stamped with her own exuberant style.
In “September in the Rain,” the first of the evening’s tributes to Sarah Vaughan, Rodriguez showed his more ardent, devotional side: he too is a sometime church musician and you can hear it. Rodriguez is a student at Julliard, where bassist Endea Owens recently received her Master’s degree, and she also showed a church-like sincerity in her big-heart, big-sound solo. Her playing is bluesy, but also nimble, the clarity of her lines attaining a melodic intricacy and logic worthy of Paul Chambers. As for Horn, she sings with little, often no vibrato and that purity worked in devastating counterpoint to this song shot throw with regret. She often expands the palette with tricks of the voice that hover between sigh and scream; these effects create distance—even ironic distance—from the sincerity projected by her unfettered singing voice. The array of timbres and moods is extraordinary—always delightful and often moving.
Horn exploited this contrast between apparent guilelessness and artifice nowhere more adroitly than in “Night and Day” done to a sultry Latin beat with a swinging bridge. After the sensual succession of solos, the return to the tune inaugurated a long, inexorable build-up like the magma of desire bubbling to the surface then calming and cooling again. Natty drummer Henry Conerway III is an attentive and inventive accompanist, and he and Horn engaged in a long dialogue in which he mimicked her moans and whispers, slides and silences with uncanny, analogic accuracy: wetted finger caressed a melodic gasp from floor-tom, sticks clicked the rims and stands like tongue against teeth. In a long coda Horn set about gently sermonizing through call-and-response exchanges with the audience. Hers was a Christian message beyond the confines of Christianity (“I love myself” — “I love my skin” — “I love the skin I’m in”) and one that the composer Cole Porter might have benefitted from, even if Horn’s reading took his song in a very different ethical direction than one he would have imagined or even condoned. Whether it be a tune or the history of its interpretation by jazz greats, Horn is not a slave to the past.
Another Sarah Vaughan signature number, one the great singer rode to the top of the pop charts soon after World War II, “Tenderly” followed, hovering blissfully somewhere above the performance space, maybe even the city itself. Horn’s version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” then occasioned more moral urgings that culminated in an even longer and more inexorable crescendo than that heard in “Night and Day.” Horn expounded on Gaye’s anti-war message with her own gloss bemoaning mass-incarceration and other crimes of the powerful against the oppressed. This ensemble crescendo began to threaten anger—not one of the main emotional weapons in Horn’s peace-loving arsenal.
Low sonorous chords from the Yahama then introduced the final tune, but after a just few seconds of Rodriguez’s searchings, Horn called out “I changed my mind!” and pulled the gleeful descending line of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” from the heavens. Conerway and Owens found her (the latter in the same key!) without the slightest hitch, and Rodriguez joined in a second later. The pianist’s solo was his finest of the night, starting sparse and laconic then building in speed and volume to a second chorus that doubled up on an already brisk tempo. He raced across the song’s thirty-two bars without even a phrase-ending rest or cadential pause, then concluded his last tour of the tune with rollicking block chords and a bluesy benediction. Owens’ mini-oration burst with energy and invention. Horn saved her best for the last of an already long night, traversing her range with winning ebullience, accuracy, and ideas. For his solo, the ever-subtle Conerway was at his biggest and brashest. All piled back on for the reprise—and the key change—and there was even time for one last prayer-meeting back-and-forth between the songful preacher and her devout congregation.
Even if her music can sear and even scald, it’s not fire-and-brimstone stuff: Jazzmeia’s message is one of pure joy.