John Harrison goes to Church – and it’s not even Sunday. On this occasion though he had good reason to celebrate, as the legendary Pee Wee Ellis, ably assisted by Lillian Boutte, stopped off at St Paul’s Church in Friesdorf on Thursday to deliver his Jazz message. Dear Lord, let us play!
It’s an enshrined truism that good old black American musicians worked in the fields on the plantations all week in the intense heat, absorbing all the field hollers and the work songs that came right out of west central Africa with them on the slave ships, then on Friday nights they went out and played the Blues, on Saturday nights they played Jazz, often for the white folks, and on Sundays they went to church and played and sang gospels. Eventually the better musicians were pulling down so much money playing that they didn‘t have to turn in for work any more on a Monday, and some even started forgetting to go to church on Sundays. So when Pee Wee Ellis came on stage and promised some Gospel and Jazz and Funk this evening, I wasn’t at all surprised that he could play different genres, one of which, the latter, he even played a leading part in actually creating. I was however, still pinching myself that this was happening in a church in west central Germany, a mere hop, skip and a jump away from where I happen to live.
Pee Wee had even been here before in 2010 and 2012 and I’d unfortunately missed him on both occasions. Apparently one day he had given the vicar, Siegfried Eckert, a CD of his and hand written inside it „I want to play in your church“, or perhaps he had just written „I want to pray in your church“?, which would have been a more normal request to a man of the cloth, but it doesn‘t really matter, because, they are both really one and the same thing. Thus, before crossing the threshold of the church this evening, I am handed, as are all the guests, a white marshmallow, almost life sized „church mouse“, by a smiling Reverend Eckert, he certainly knows what’s in store for us all and is „feeling good“ already.
So five guys come on stage and launch into an instrumental funk number, nobody sings, but each of them solos for between two to four minutes on their instrument of choice, with an ease and yet masterly passion, to an exceedingly full, predominantly German, „congregation“, and nobody yawns for a second. John Hurd, who as I listen here, is in the Harmonie, says that sometimes at concerts, you get your money’s worth in the first 10-20 minutes and the rest of the evening is „free“. Well the gauntlet was well and truly down here tonight. It’s the sort of number many groups are capable of playing and soloing, but normally prefer to do much later in the evening, when both the musicians and the audience are more warmed up and, simply more „in the mood“. To start with such a number is both a measure of the competence of the individual musicians and the stage that Pee Wee has reached in his life as a musician, as an arranger and as a band leader. He knows he can carry it, he doesn’t have to, it could even potentially go wrong in certain circumstances, but he knows that he and his colleagues can do it and can do it well. They do, and the rest of the evening is now plain sailing. In a way he’s perhaps doing what he couldn’t do so much when he was playing with James Brown, simply pleasing himself, and playing what he wants to play and when he wants to play, and with whom he wants to play.
James Brown played a large part in Pee Wee Ellis’s life, even though they were together for only a relatively short period of time, when Pee Wee took a few years out before returning to be the Jazzer he always was, and will be. So „“It’s Over Now“ or „Now It’s Over“ is, in a way, his own therapy for this. What better than a Herbie Hancock number to let the band find their true Jazz roots before the next stage of the evening.
Lillian Boutté is now with us, a „special spirit“, born in New Orleans, a beautiful, diminutive, creole lady and with more reverence to God, on the other side of the church facing the cross, rather than her audience, who only see her back at first, as she sings the Lord’s Prayer, A Cappalla, in a most beautiful haunting moving manner that is seldom heard anywhere, and certainly not often in these parts.
Up on the stage the band breaks into musical accompaniment for the Gospel number „“In The Upper Room“ with suddenly no less than five fine male back up harmony back up voices, from the very same five musicians who haven‘t yet sung a single note all evening.
Who are the „some“ that say Jazz musicians can’t sing?
Dear Lillian is visually challenged before the next number, as I imagine the original witnesses of the scene also were, for „Ezekiel Saw The Wheel Way Up In The Air“ encroaches firmly on Dr Who and Woody Guthrie territory, but luckily for Lillian a kindly member of the audience, in the very spirit of the evening, offers her a pair of reading glasses.
„That’s Heaven To Me „ featuring a vocal duet with Pee Wee, already firmly sums up the evening for me, as
Lilian leaves the stage and Pee Wee, having nothing to prove since the very first number, takes off his jacket to relax and enjoy the evening in his own sweet way. The band kick up a Calypso rhythm and Pee Wee starts a „call and response“ with the audience where he plays a melody on the sax and the audience have to sing it back to him. It is of course too difficult for most of the men, so he asks just the women to „la la la“ the melody back to him, with the men joining in just with the last four notes. This works admirably better. The number then metamorphoses into the north African rhythm of „Caravan“ before finally reverting back to the original Calypso, after which everyone has to remember the original Calypso melody and sing it back again.
Surprisingly it works!
There are five extremely talented musicians on the stage and Tony Remy on the guitar is certainly one of the best of them. He almost looks too large for his guitar, but if you close your eyes for a second, you realise that the guitar is physically large enough, and behind Pee Wee, he is now fulfilling his master’s old role and ensuring that the newer members of the band change key seamlessly, so that nobody else notices.
„Blue Bell Pepper“ finds Pee Wee trading licks with the mischevious new keyboard player, before Lillian returns on stage to sing a number which fellow New Orlean Danny Barker wrote , „Don’t You Feel My Leg“ which is a little bit risqué, but Danny wrote it for his wife Blue Lu Barker, to tease him with, so that’s OK. Lillian knew the words to this one of by heart, and had no need of the borrowed spectacles.
„This Is A Man’s World“ Lillian sings, with glasses on again, and this could have been a tribute to Pee Wee himself, indeed, if one looked around the song could better have been titled, This Is Pee Wee’s World“ such was the esteem in the crowd in which he was so rightly held. Lillian leaves the stage, and returns the spectacles to the generous lady in the front row of the audience who had so kindly proffered them to her.
„Chicken“, a song written by Pee Wee whilst he was serving time with James Brown in 1967, allowed for a wonderful keyboard solo and the whole band are now a very well gelled musical unit. Another instrumental followed, this time featuring bass and drum solo, and as a former bass player, just to listen to Patrick Scales play a bass solo would have made the evening worthwhile on its own. He has an amazing thumb slapping technique and he can probably peel potatoes with just the thumb of his right hand. My favourite bass player Ray Brown once joked, „ Why is it that where ever you go in Africa, at whatever time of day, you can hear drums playing?“ to which he replied to himself, „Because Africans are very clever and they know that when the drum solo’s finished, then comes the bass solo, and they don’t want to hear that!“ I very much enjoyed Patrick’s bass solo.
Then Lillian returns for a third and final time and the lady is „Not from Nawlins for nuthin‘ and grabs a white towel, there being no white handkerchief to hand, and the band leads her into „The Saints Go Marching In „ not in the funeral procession time but in a somewhat faster Bo Diddlyesque rhythm. Of course, we all had to get up and dance, there wasn’t really any question. Nothing was forced the whole evening , certainly not Jesus, but one sensed the presence of God at all times, even when Lillian taught us all how to „Shimmy“ a little to the Saints.
Poor Pee Wee had hardly had a break for the last two hours, he’d been on stage the whole time, and showing no signs of complaining. He was in his own element, and enjoying it. There was, however, no way this capacity crowd was going to let him go without hearing his song, the one that literally everybody knows, even if they don’t realise Pee Wee wrote it, that was such a well known hit for James Brown and which also summed up the warm feeling permeating through the whole audience this evening,
„I Feel Good“
We all felt it, we all knew it, and we all went happily home, with our souls strongly uplifted.
There’s probably a good reason that God gifted humanity with a potential and talent for music as a universal language. He probably had an inkling that Esperanto wouldn’t be as much of a success as so many people initially hoped.
Music still does the job, just fine.
– John Harrison
PS Please get your donations ready for Reverend Eckert, looks like he may be needing a bigger church some time soon.