November 2002

Jodie Christian: Perfect Accompaniment

Jodie Christian’s scrapbook photos in the CD booklet for Reminiscing (Delmark, 2001) show a handsome young man: here, with a smile amid a group of Chicago musicians; there, proud, elegant and earnest with his bride on their wedding day. Today, the tall, big-boned, 70-year-old pianist with large eyes has graying hair. Christian is a friendly, calm, soft-speaking individual whose sense of humor is gentle, not mocking, and tinged with a kind of amused wonder at the human comedy. And he’s just as sensitive to the sorrow of the human tragedy.

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Jodie Christian
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Jodie Christian
By Melvin Williams

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While Reminiscing is Christian’s sixth album as the sole leader, it’s been as a first-call sideman that he’s made his living in Chicago. Among Christian’s 60-plus recordings as accompanist are dates with Eddie Harris, Ira Sullivan, Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Yusef Lateef, James Moody and Sonny Stitt; among the many other notables he’s played with in club, concert and festival dates are Don Byas, Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, Dewey Redman and Sonny Rollins. He’s also worked with almost every worthwhile Chicago hometown soloist of the bop era.

“I’ve always liked the supporting role, rather than out front. It’s where I do my best,” Christian says on a recent hot Chicago afternoon as he sits in front of a fan. “I like to feel I’m supporting in the rhythm section. Quite a few trios that I hear on records are nothing more than rhythm sections anyway. Ahmad Jamal really has a trio with a sound. I consider Oscar Peterson and George Shearing trios. Other pianists, even good pianists like Bud Powell, when they take their solos, they still sound as if they were playing with five or six pieces.”

Christian adapts readily to fiery tenorists like Moody and Gordon, just as he adapts readily to singers, cool stylists, free jazz, swing, trad jazz and blues players. “As a rhythm player, you’re always trying to complement that frontman and you have to understand what he’s doing,” Christian says. “If he’s a fluent player, I lay down chords, pushing him. But if he plays in spurts, like Lee Konitz, space is important, too. Sometimes you might have to breathe with him, so it’s a conversation. Sometimes when you’re playing, everything is exciting, everything is moving and all you have to do is just create. Other times it’s like pulling teeth. At a certain point your subconscious takes over in your playing. Especially if you’re playing uptempo, your hands take over. It’s when you play a ballad that you have time to think—then you can really create something.”

With each band he plays in, Christian’s straightahead, melodic solo style is distinctive even while he sounds exactly right for the multifarious gigs he plays on—his is a bright, generous, straightforward, responsive musical personality. Listen to the many discs where he’s accompanying the complex tenor saxophonists Von Freeman and Lin Halliday, as his bright chords sing out, guiding the soloists and inspiring their melodic twists and turns. More than supporting a soloist, his comping often provides form and orchestral color; as a critic noted, his harmonies have Thelonious Monk-like acuteness. It’s for all these reasons that he’s been in such high demand, though he says with a self-deprecating smile, “I don’t remember a demand for me to do anything. For some reason, I just seemed to be there whenever they needed me.”

Jodie Christian made money at a very young age by dancing at taverns near the steel mills on Fridays—paydays. But already in childhood, Christian says, “I always knew I wanted to play piano. My sister used to pump a player piano while I tried to follow the notes.” His parents were his first teachers: his mother played piano and directed a church choir, and his father played piano in speakeasies.

Christian first heard big swing bands in concert in his youth, and later, an alto sax-playing uncle introduced him to Charlie Parker’s music. But it wasn’t until one evening, in the late 1940s, when the underage Christian slipped into Chicago’s Savoy Ballroom that bebop grabbed him by the throat. “I had never been to a place where they played this music live before. Gene Ammons played and the crowd loved it. Charlie Parker was a guest. He was sick when he came out the first time, and they booed him. He got himself together for the second set—I guess he got a fix. I’ll never forget it. I used to love to dance, but that whole night I stood right next to the bandstand. That’s what really indoctrinated me into jazz.”

In those days Christian was already an experienced singer in several choirs. Some of those choirs sang in churches and others sang secular music; one traveled as far as New York and another appeared on radio and TV. “My life was always full of good things—there was always a choir, from grade school to the Sharps and Flats”—an adult choir he joined when he was just 12—“to the high school a cappella choir. We took the choir and continued to go after we graduated. It was innovative at that time—we sang everything from blues to light opera duets and trios. It was the highlight of my youth. We went everywhere together—picnics, dances, the beach—and we always wound up singing. When I went to Japan, they went down to the railroad station and sang ‘I’ll Be Seeing You.’” In fact, Christian, who directed the choir, married the choir’s president, now Juanita Christian.

All these experiences contributed to Christian’s improvising mastery. “Most of the things I learned were in the street, from other musicians and from singers. My mother had shown me a long time ago how easy it was to transpose.” He credits his early singing for his quick ear. “I sang all the parts sometimes, because I had a real high voice. A lot of times I wouldn’t know a song, but I could anticipate what was coming next because I had experience singing parts. Many of the songs I know, I learned from singing them in choirs.”

He made his professional piano debut in 1948—at age 16. He began playing jazz, at first with saxophonist Ron Hall—their initial job was in a tavern on 39th St.—and he made friends with the great bassist Wilbur Ware who, after an evening of performing, would come to Christian’s home and play duets with the pianist into the wee hours of the morning. Membership in a U.S. Air Force band in Japan in 1954 provided more opportunities for Christian to refine his piano skills. “I had a chance to actually play with a lot of good musicians there. There was a Charlie Parker there, a Stan Getz, a Lee Konitz—everyone you heard here, there was a duplicate in Japan. We went places that were off limits to the servicemen, and they had all the latest records in the coffee shops on the Ginza. Toshiko [Akiyoshi] got me good jobs in Tokyo and Yokohama.”

Christian returned to a very lively Chicago scene, even if few jazz musicians there grew rich or famous. He made his first records in 1958, with a Stan Getz-Chet Baker group and with an Ira Sullivan-Griffin quintet. Like the other jazz professionals of the time, he played in the joints as well as the jazz clubs. Accompanying strippers in a burlesque saloon was especially demanding. “Eight hours of continuous music and I never took an intermission, not even to go to the bathroom. When it was over, I couldn't get up.” On the other hand, he loved the interactions of playing in jazz groups. “When Wilbur Ware and Wilbur Campbell and I worked with Johnny Griffin and Ira, the rhythm section was really pushing them. They were the kind of players who liked that—we all liked the feeling that everybody’s in sync.”

In the early 1960s he had two especially important associations: a tour with Coleman Hawkins’ quartet and membership in Sullivan’s volcanic Chicago Jazz Quintet, a band that scorched the landscape with its hard bop and was so far-seeking that it played Ornette Coleman songs and used “When Will the Blues Leave?” for its theme. “I think the highlight of the Ira Sullivan band was the night of that live Bird Lives! recording at the Birdhouse,” Christian says. Listen to him play “Shaw Nuff” with the Sullivan quintet on Bird Lives! (Vee-Jay/Koch, 1962)—it’s a stunning solo in which his phrases fly by at an incredibly fast tempo and with a Bud Powell-like intensity; his technique is brilliant and his invention fertile.

Christian’s two-month tour with Hawkins led to Milwaukee, where, he says, “There was hardly anybody in the club all week. They must have been gangsters, because they weren’t upset that nobody was there.” At week’s end the owner, a jukebox distributor, paid the rhythm section in change. “We had to sit there for hours and count that money—it took as long as the gig. When we came back to the hotel, we asked the desk clerk, ‘Would you like some change?’ ‘Oh, yes, I would like some change.’ Can you imagine three people paying their hotel bill for the week in change?”

In 1965 Christian was one of the handful of farsighted founders of the free-jazz cooperative Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), although, he says, “I like to think of myself as a bebop player. I have an open mind to other kinds of music, too—they’re important to the times we’re living in.”

In the 1970s Christian began teaching piano at the Lyon & Healy music store’s school. He went on to give jazz programs in Chicago’s public schools, sometimes with versatile vocalist Rita Warford, other times with the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s Jazz Express series—a valuable service, since many Chicago schools remain music-deprived following the school board’s budget-slashing orgies.

It was during the 1970s and ’80s that Christian was especially busy as the pianist of choice for stars who played the top clubs like Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase and Rick’s Café Americaine. His success was no small feat, for plenty of other fine pianists were active in town. “Chicago piano players are original, more than in any other city,” Christian says. “Other cities pattern themselves after whoever is the main guy. You can only hear one John Young and one Willie Pickens. There’s only one Earma Thompson. Dorothy Donegan was one of a kind.” Christian also expresses special fondness for expatriate Chicago pianists such as Ahmad Jamal and Herbie Hancock. Again and again he also performed with long-time Chicago partners like Von Freeman and vibraphonist Emmanuel Cranshaw. Despite his important role at the start of the AACM, Christian seldom worked with Chicago’s free-jazz explorers until he and fellow AACM founder Roscoe Mitchell began collaborating in the ’80s.

Christian’s CDs with Mitchell, like the pianist’s Soul Fountain (Delmark, 1998) and especially the saxman’s Hey Donald (Delmark, 1994), draw from his great range of resources: modal songs; chord-change-based pieces in which Christian’s commentary during spaces in Mitchell’s solos is almost musical conversation; and tunes that have the pianist’s busy chord clusters behind furiously intense and fast sax blowing. “Playing in concerts with him was strenuous,” Christian says of Mitchell. “Intensity was high from note one—if you’re not physically able, you flop. Sometimes I was awfully tired, but it was good for me. With Roscoe it was always about trying to create something.”

At last, in 1991 and ’92, Christian made his first recording sessions as leader, which were released as Experience (Delmark), a mostly solo-piano program augmented with trio tracks. Christian went on to record the trio date Blues Holiday (Steeplechase, 1994), and he co-led The Very Thought of You (Steeplechase, 1995) with trumpeter Louis Smith. He also cut the quintet date Rain or Shine (Delmark, 1994) and the sextet session Front Line (Delmark, 1996) before his latest CD, Reminiscing.

Most of Reminiscing is trio music, and it also has his singularly beautiful solo interpretation of “My Man’s Gone Now,” with a crystal touch, moving harmonies, and no ornamentation to distract from the subtle, perfectly defined mood.

Finally, the truth is out: Jodie Christian is Chicago’s most valuable piano accompanist, soloist and leader.

Listening Pleasures

“Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of female players on a variety of instruments, which is kind of new on the scene, because most of the good female players have been pianists—Melba Liston and Vi Redd were the only others for a long time. Today I heard a baritone player and a violin player—it’s great, because they give a different perspective.”

Gearbox

“I like to play an old Steinway. Or a Mason & Hamlin—years ago it seemed the keys were a little wider and it had a good sound. I like to play at least a 7-foot grand.”

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