Vernard Johnson Live
Vernard Johnson Live LP (Glori Records, 1978)
My introduction to live Black Gospel music was the result of a trip to Al Green's Full Gospel Tabernacle Church on Hale Road in Memphis, TN. A friend and I entered the church on a Sunday at 9 am and left at 1 pm. In that four hours, we experienced something unlike anything either one of us had seen or heard. We sang, we danced, we shook, we yelled, we saw women speak in tongues, we saw other women shake ecstatic and flop around on the floor, we saw Al Green jump on a table and stomp and dance and sing. For four hours, we experienced the full force of spiritual emotion.
Now, I won't say that I have never had felt moved by music. The big draw of punk rock for me and thousands of other 15 year-old outcasts was that the music "spoke" to me. Punk shows were a gathering of tribes, complete with ritualistic pogoing, slam dancing, and stage diving. As I got older, punk rock became routine. I looked at music through much more jaded eyes. Though I would get excited by music from time to time, I denied that music could "move" me. Then came the visit to Al Green's church.
The power of Black Gospel music did not lead me into a God trip or make me any more spiritual than I am today. It did, however, open my mind to a whole new (to me) genre of music. Yeah, yeah, like anyone who hordes records, I was always "into Gospel music," but into it meant, "Yeah, man, Gospel, cool. But only the Black stuff. The White stuff is for squares." Force me to name any one Gospel group of pioneer and I would have started and stopped at Aretha Franklin. So much for "into."
After experiencing the music live...no, make that, having lived through the music, I started to pick up the odd Black Gospel record whenever I went thrifting or combing through the local used record stores. The problem was (and still is) that Sacramento has a relatively small Black population. Currently, African-Americans make up about 15% of the people in the greater Sacramento area - perhaps 150,000 out of million people. A good portion of these folks are middle-class, state workers and have been assimilated into the population. As a result, despite having a noted Black Gospel scene, there are not many Black Gospel records floating around, at least not out in the open.
Fast forward to about ten years after my first encounter with the Reverend Green. The Sacramento area's once thriving used record community has dwindled to a pathetic few. The thrift stores are picked over. And cruising spring and summer yard sales becomes more and more futile. This disease is nationwide.
Almost parallel with the vinyl woe is the increased commercialization of music. No longer does a music's style eliminate it from exploitation. No matter how loud, how violent, how anti-social, there is now a place in a television commercial, movie soundtrack, or promotional video for any genre of music. And if a sound can't make a beer commercial, it can always be used as a professional wrestler's theme song.
The money that goes along with such commercialization is so big that even small time punk bands think that they might be able to make it big. And they are right. If they are willing to jump through the music industry's hoops and play the hype machine, they just might. Meanwhile, they can consider themselves as authentic as any other huckster.
And there lies the problem: While there has always been commercial music as well as music used in commercials, until recently there was at least a corner carved out for the "freaks." Blues, rockabilly, free jazz, psychedelia, freak rock, funk, prog, heavy metal, punk rock, outlaw country, post punk, hardcore, hip hop, death metal, techno... And in these corners lurked authenticity. The music might have been done for any number of reasons, but since there was scant commercial potential in any of these genres, the desire to create those musics had a lot to do with emotion and the need to create. When all music becomes a marketplace, it is much more difficult to find authenticity, to find music with a soul.
So confronted with an ever dwindling supply of good vinyl and an even more desolate soundscape, a man in search of something real carved into plastic (no need to comment on the irony) is forced to take desperate action. Okay, maybe not desperate action...but he is forced to remember musical experiences that moved him and get off his lazy ass and start looking for records in places where he normally wouldn't look: Black Gospel record stores.
And that is what he did and what he found was a whole bunch of Black Gospel records. Over a few weeks, the he who is really me so I'll cut the third person crap and start going one on one...over a few weeks, I brought home about 75 Gospel albums and slowly began sorting through them. The result was 25:75. For every good record, there were about 3 bad ones, and some of the good ones were only half good. Great ones? One out of twenty, maybe. One of those great ones being Vernard Johnson Live on Glori Records.
Vernard Johnson stands alone as the world's only Gospel saxophonists. Johnson interprets Gospel standards and writes new material with the sax taking the lead, instead of the vocals. While the sax sometimes sings the song's melody, like a Gospel singer, Johnson lets the music's spirit or just the Spirit carry him. Melody will fall to powerful wails. Much like a preacher repeating phrases, Johnson will blast out a series of notes, over and over, each repetition a little more intense, a bit more urgent, until the phrase bursts into a cascade of notes and high pitched moans.
On Live, Johnson takes Amazing Grace - one of Black American music's most memorable melody's (written by John Newton, an Englishman!) - and gets everything he can out of it. The melody is strained, rushed, drawn out, punched, and stretched until every possible emotion is wrung out of it. Andrea Crouch's Soon and Very Soon is pumped full of energy, Johnson tearing through it with King Curtis-style horn lines. Clara Ward's How I got Over is given similar treatment, though the band kicks the energy into funk, while Johnson skips over the melody and punctures phrases.
The two high points (throughout a consistent high) are If God is Dead and Vernard Moans. The ten minutes of If God is Dead starts with the band laying down a semi-soft backing, while Johnson tells the story of his conversion. Born in Kansas City, Johnson played in a few King Curtis type R&B bands. In the early Seventies, he moved to Ft. Worth, TX (Curtis's hometown, as well as Ornette Coleman's) and underwent a conversion to Christianity.
Born again, Johnson was thinking of giving up music as he didn't think his sax playing would go over well in the church, especially among the old folk. However, before he chucked the sax, he was told by God, "Don't, don't, don't stop blowing your horn; just sing a different song."
Johnson's life story gives way to his affirmation of the Lord and proclaiming that if God was dead, he'd fell like....and then the band kicks into the song If God was Dead. Through the front end of the song, Johnson plays a simple melody, mimicking the vocal line. As the song ages, the sax gets more expressive. The sweet tone falls to emotion and, as Johnson wails, so does the crowd. Instead of cheers, the audience shrieks orgasmic. Women's screams pierce through the horn and Johnson reacts with more ecstatic playing. The tail end of the song is pure spiritualized free jazz - a holy meeting of Albert Ayler's Truth is Marching In and John Coltrane's Living Space. For about four minutes the band swirls to Johnson's cries and then the track fades.
Vernard Moans is something all together different. The song starts with a "mellow" Gospel pumping, a sort of static surge that barely avoids bursting into pure sound. The song pulses more intense and Johnson breaks into sermon for a few minutes. Speaking words, his voice takes the phrasing of his sax. Speech winds and stops and stutters and starts up and without notice the band kicks into a funky, joyous burst of celebration. Johnson’s horn dances in and out of the party and the track fades.
Vernard Johnson is not a small time player in the world of the saxophone. He is often noted as an influence along with John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler. Like Coleman, Johnson comes from a R&B background. As with later Coltrane, Johnson's music is intensely spiritual. And much like Ayler, Johnson fills his sound with raw emotion. That Johnson took the path of Christianity is not to be discounted, however, it also doesn't mean he should be thought as only a Gospel musician. What Vernard Johnson is is an authentic voice, a piercing song of soul in a world prone to Mammon. He is an original in American music and he should be heard.