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The story of The Sermon, a 1958 recording by African-American jazz pianist Hampton Hawes, tells a story not just of musical alchemy and the seamless blending of the musical histories of both gospel and jazz, but also of racial inequality, the individual casualties of the US "War-on-Drugs" and of the triumph of the human creative spirit.
In 1958 pianist Hampon Hawes, having grown up in a musical environment with a church pianist mother and a preacher father, had become a young lion on the LA jazz scene, and was leading a rising career at the top of the jazz field, interrupted by a stint serving in the US army and then, the focus of an FBI sting into illegal drug use. Hawes, what might be called a "recreational drug-user" today, and in the jazz milieu of the day, heroin use was common, almost universal at the time and a scourge of many great musicians, and, a part of the larger socio-economic and race-related picture of daily life for African-Amercian musicians.
In Hampton's own words from his Rise Up Off Me autobiography, “Everybody I knew, except Wardell [Gray], was using heroin at that time. Some were turned on by Bird – – not by him directly, but reasoning that if they went out and got [high] like him they might get closer to the source of his fire. Some learned, and others never did, that junk has no more to do with playing good than the make of your [car] or the shade of your skin…[But] it was the times and the environment that strung most of us out. You’re on your way to the gig, you see some cats tying up, you think, all right, let me try some of that; like a kid riding his first bicycle, drinking his first Cherry pop. You try it, it feels good, and there you go. And the casualty list in the 50’s – – dead, wounded, and mentally deranged – – started to look like the Korean War was being fought at the corner of Central and 45th.”
Hawes was targeted because law enforcement believed he would "roll-over" on his suppliers and other users because the cost of incarceration would be so damaging to his career. Hawes however, did not, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison - twice the recommended maximum sentence. Mere days before his sentence was to begin, Hawes chose to go into the recording studio and record, for the first time in his career, Spirituals. Not just a few, but an entire album of Spirituals. Gospel music. Simple in its structure, profound in its simplicity and powerful in its message. Hawes was incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Worth, Texas, the pianist’s second term at the minimum security prison-hospital. *(source 1.1)
In the larger world, John F. Kennedy had been elected President in 1961 and after 2 years in prison, Hawes felt he may have a powerful ally in his corner, an ally who spoke of justice, racial equality and one who sought to serve the people rather than the power. As it happened, Hawes was able to garner support for his cause and, in one of his final executive actions as President, Kennedy gave a Presidential Pardon to Hampton Hawes thereby effectively cutting his time served in half from 10 years to 5. Hawes was released, Kennedy was assassinated a short 3 months later.
Hawes career took a different direction after his release - one of numerous artists who have "before and after" components to their creative identities. Though he would pen a number of compositions with spiritual reference in the titles and seemingly, brought a greater sense of spiritual intensity and intention to his work, he would never return to Gospel music as the source material for a concert or album.
The Sermon, recorded in 1958 was not released until 1987, 10 years after his death. The album, recorded with two of his long-time L.A. musical collaborators - bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Stan Levey, stands as a totally unique and exquisite master-piece of jazz.
Please join us for a very special concert featuring the music of The Sermon played by pianist Dr. Tony Genge, bassist Scott White and drummer Kelby MacNayr with interludes or Sermonettes in the tradition of this music - by our very own Revered Karen Dickey.
Citations and Further interest, listening and reading:
Tuesday Night Jazz at the Church is an Arts Ministry of James Bay United Church
in partnership with the Victoria Jazz Community
James Bay United Church and the Victoria Jazz Community continue to be partnered together during the COVID-19 closures to bring entertaining educational content for you to listen to at any time.