Saxophonist John Doheny was born in Seattle Washington in 1953 but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, primarily in Vancouver and Toronto. After early experiences accompanying strippers in bars and cabarets he became a professional R&B sideman in the late 1970s, touring and recording with artists both prominent and obscure. In 1991 he returned to Vancouver and began a program of intense musical study, both in academe (Vancouver Community College, the University of British Columbia) and in the more informal area of performance. He asserts that "all human intercourse is either an opportunity to learn or to teach. Everything that I know about jazz performance (to the extent that I know anything at all) I owe to those players, teachers and students who have suffered to share the bandstand and the teaching studio with me." Since 2003, Mr. Doheny has been a permanent resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, but makes every effort to spend summers in Canada because "it's too damn hot down here then."

Monday, December 24, 2007

The People Keep A'Comin, And The Train Done Gone.

I've been spending a lot of time in church the last week or so.
I'm not a particularly religious person, apart from a rather moony obsession with Catholic martyrdom broght on by reading Joan of Arc at age 11. In my twenties I went through some periods of hard core athiesm (easy to do when you're young and are convinced you're not going to die) and some extremely dark solipsism towards the end of my drinking and drugging career in my late thirties. Sobriety brings most people to an appreciation of a greater spiritual connection (the 'higher power' of 'God as we understand him' of Alcoholics Anonymous and other related 12 step programs) and I'm no exception. I'm also a lot more comfortable with "I don't know" as an answer to life's great questions, like "what happens when we die"? (I don't know. But I rest easy in the knowlege that I will find out, and probably sooner than I might like).
I'm not comfortable with church-based dogma, or with the neo-con crowd of pinch-faced, 'socially conservative' jesus jumpers. But I think it's important to make distinctions in this area, and not buy into the current 'family values' trope, the one that says God is a Republican. I'm old enough to remember when certain churches (most prominently the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) were incubators for civil rights protest, the anti-war movement, and miriad forms of civil disobedience in the service of liberal social agendas.
Of course, with some exceptions, these were African American churches. Ebenezer Baptist, African Methodist Episcopalian, and all the small, storefront outfits, short on money but long on names (the Two-Seeds-In-The-Spirit-Holy-Ghost-Bring-It-Round-Congregationalists etc.), that still, in many New Orleans neighborhoods (alond with Social and Pleasure Clubs), perform the kinds of community-unifying, socially-nurturing, care-for-the-sick-and-bury-the-dead-mind-the-kids-while-mom-works-the-graveyard-shift-at-the-parkinglot functions that George W. Bush style 'compassionate conservatism' does not.
I feel at home in most black churches. Because I have such a deep love for gospel music, I've spent a lot of time in them, going back to the mid seventies, and in all that time I can honestly say that not once has anyone, ever, attempted the kind of glazed-eyed, Moonie-style conversion job that various honky-church minions will try to lay on you for just walking through an airport. At Abbysinian Baptist in Harlem in the late 70s (before it became so infested with tourists that people had to be requested to not just rudely stomp out of the church right after the choir finished (but before the sermon) as if it were an ABBA concert) the most people ever said to me was to warmly thank me for attending, even though in those days I was likely to be poisonously hung-over on a Sunday morning, and thus in obvious need of spiritual enlightenment. But no one ever pushed the party line on me and in retrospect I can't help but think that my being allowed an unfettered, unmolested appreciation of the powerful message of hope and light in that music lead me, at least partially, to the great gift of sobriety I now live my life within. Even at the real serious stomp-and-shout-and speak-in-tongues storefront spiritual churches, no one ever pushed me to participate. The line I heard over and over was "everyone comes in their own way." And while it's true that some of the larger, mainstream black churches are socially conservative in their stands on things like gay marriage, the attitude on the street and in the 'hood is much more likely to be live and let live. People who've been at the business end of serious discrimination are much less likely to be interested in dishing it out themselves.
I'm lucky I'm married to someone who digs this stuff as much as I do, and thus has no objection to schlepping around town from one questionable neighborhood to another to sit on hard pews through long sermons, and to stomp and clap with the congregations. We never miss Rev. Louise Dejean (pictured above) and this year caught her with the Mahalia Jackson Choir, which is composed of students from various highschools throughout the city, including some familiar faces from right here in our neighborhood. I have a student who plays in the worship band at a Central City church. And this year we finally made the trek over to the North Shore to catch my good friend and colleague, pianist (and organist) Fredrick Sanders leading a worship band heavily stacked with 'A' list jazz players, including ex Betty Carter drummer Troy Davis and bassist Roland Guerin.
Nothing beats a little 'churching up' around this time of year, especially if one is lucky enough to live, as we do, in the midst of a rich, vernacular American culture like this one. I'll leave you with this quote from jJames Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time," which says it all better that I ever could:

"THERE is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord. I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing the church, as Leadbelly and so many others have testified, to "rock." Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when . . . the church and I were one. Their pain and their joy were mine, and mine were theirs . . . and their cries of "Amen!" and "Hallelujah!" and "Yes, Lord!," "Praise His name!," "Preach it, brother!" sustained and whipped on my solos until we all became equal, wringing wet singing and dancing, in anguish and rejoicing, at the foot of the altar.
There was a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster that are very moving and very rare. Perhaps we were, all of us—pimps, whores, racketeers, church members, and children—bound together by the nature of our oppression. If so, within these limits we sometimes achieved with each other a freedom that was close to love. I remember, anyway, church suppers and outings, and, later, after I left the church, rent and waistline parties where rage and sorrow sat in the darkness and did not stir, and we ate and drank and talked and laughed and danced and forgot all about "the man."
This is the freedom that one hears in some gospel songs, for example, and in jazz. In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double edged. White Americans do not understand the depths out of which such an ironic tenacity comes but they suspect that the force is sensual. To be sensual, I think; is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of living to the breaking of bread."

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