Jazz, traditional, sweet & pure
Gospel lifted my spirits
But it was a history “lesson”
From rhythm, call & response
Coded message, flat notes
Griot was a singer
Mix secular and sacred
-Don Mathis, audience member and poet
Light plays a little lighter upon the stage, the spirits of the instruments smile to the blessed congregation, the seekers slowly settling at their cocktail tables, their seats in the mezzanine. The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation wine a sacrament for this evening as we sit down upon the church house steps, just waiting for the new autumnal wind to blow the good word to our eager ears.
The Empire Theatre tonight doubles as a heavenly kingdom as Ruth Naomi Floyd, who bleeds gospel music and declares her faith in subtle yet powerful tones, joins Doc Watkins and the South Texas Jazz Quartet for Gospel. So it is and so it will be, simply stated and exclaimed for all to hear…
Groove time is soul time it’s your time to feel fine. So I imagine the words that pour out of the chords as Doc Watkins and crew shine on in ebony furl and ivory whirl, lap of the bass, twinkle of the toes, off the floor and there he goes, trumpet man singing to the walls of Jericho and blowin’ em down, ain’t nothing not nobody standing up tonight, we all getting blow’d away by the gravity of the foundation of the music.
Doc steps out from behind his better half, and speaks as a sparkly eyed child would about a dream coming true. “I was so jealous of the pianoman who got to play with her, and now am so blessed to join her on the stage. She just flew out from Philly to be with us, was playing with Kenny Garret last night.”
Watkins is relishing in the manifestation of soul and beauty that has assumed her position upon the stage next to him. “This is basically the highlight of my career, so it’s all pretty much down hill from here,” decorating the stage with a humble tone, he laughs at himself. “Ladies and gentlemen, Ruth Naomi Floyd!”
She steps out in all black, singing “Cavalry” in all the tones of the earth and the metal of the grinding and the chain that was released. And you see the horses stompin’ along, the flares of her nostrils in defiance of the cold air coming through, the bite of the trumpet pierces, and the rider goes on. “Do you love my lord Jesus?”
The first layer of soil exposed, Ruth Naomi Floyd steadfastly yet softly speaks what she has just sung. “We started off with the root of most of American music, certainly African-American music, Cavalry, created by the slaves of America,” a solitude besetting the audience, each with their own distinctly powerful heartstring plucked at her voice, the desire to understand. “Out of the darkest parts of our history, comes this beauty in the midst of ugliness from ashes. We had to start with the roots,” and so simultaneously each one of us digs deep down to where it all began, where we all began.
From there we jump on that train, the “Train Underground,” a tune written by Floyd for the irrepressible Harriet Tubman, whose mettle was not to be challenged by any metal or any man.
“Now’s the time to get on board, the train’s about to go…escaping the life behind, the pain and despair…let us remember those who came before, they fought to be free…let us break the chains and loose the grips of all inhumanity…”
“Where??? Oh where, where can a soul sing its song? And people never do wrong? Oh Lord, tell me where…. only you can give the answer.” Her voice digs and digs through the red clay dirt through the core with her bareness, with vigor and robustness that comes from the diaphragm, if the diaphragm were made of warm summer winds that set just before the sun. So hauntingly full is her voice, the depths of her movement, you desire to follow it to the source and find from whence such a soul alights.
Still basking in the glory (glory, hallelujah) of this moment, Watkins adds his personal story to Ruth’s introduction of Monty Alexander’s tune, “Renewal.”
“We play this once or twice a week as a band, but never with vocals,” smiling all the while in her direction. “Ruth taught me this song – it has words, how lovely!”
Floyd smiles back and continues her deep introspection into the source of it all. “After that tune, we’ll be playing Duke Ellington’s ‘Come Sunday,’” and she closed her eyes with respect to the great bandleader, known by most for his swingin’ big band classics and not as often for his take on gospel. “Duke said that after this song he could finally come out and declare to the public what he had always said on his knees in his humble quarters.”
The growth of Ruth Naomi Floyd is magnanimous, yet supplicating. Somehow she manages to blossom forth in resilience as she bows in reverence, like an unassuming sunflower that just knows the sun is everywhere, for He is the Son and so all around her. I believe that god put the sun and the moon in the skies, I don’t mind the gray, cuz that’s just clouds passing by. God almighty, god of love, please look down and see your people through….” Cootie Williams takes on an ebullient mellow type for a ways, let’s Duke jump in place to the gravity of the tune, he doesn’t go far, just up and down exactly where he needs to be, you close our eyes and you feel the stride of Take the A Train, the confluence of Floyd’s tunes, takin’ the train home, and reaching high “he’s got so much love” and hittin’ bright chords that break through the clouds and then you can’t stop and you are free with open blissful arms awaiting “See San Antonio through”…and I’m at the pearly gates just begging to come back home.
As if the potency of her message hadn’t already been felt through multiple layers, Floyd pushed a little further, disrobing some of our guises and misconceived notions about the culture of African-Americans during slavery. “How did these enslaved Africans communicate, learning English under horrific circumstances?” pausing therein just long enough for the mind to visualize. “They were actually pro-literate speaking multiple languages. In their quest for freedom, they used their natural musical instincts to communicate.”
Perhaps the greatest of Floyd’s forte during her performance was the continuous ability to connect with what the audience already understood, and expound with profundity upon it. “One of the precious parts is the double coded messaging in slave songs. When they sang ‘Wade in the Water,’ slow it meant to wait for freedom to come, sing it fast you better get to the water fast, they’re coming for you.”
Speaking to the heart of hearts, Floyd’s message regarding “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” left a resounding tone with the following capturing of the human experience, and what we have to share for one another. “All of us have seen the troubles, we have had our own journey. This song sings that joy is attainable,” imaginings of shouts of affirmation echo along the church walls. “This is what we are sharing, this tension between joy and sorrow. It’s okay to be present to them both, because one day there will just be one.”
You follow the scent of the hound dogs on the trail of that runaway slave, and you feel the slave brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers in the field singing strong and loud and for all to hear and the groove they’re playin’ it with, you know somebody’s coming, but the groove is so hot you ain’t gonna touch whoever it is even if you do catch them
I want Jesus to walk with me…he talks a little walks a little with Doc, untouched by the world he flies off into the ethereal moment of life and gets up a little off his seat, spends more time flyin’ above then on the ground, a heavenly perspective indeed, He raises you up indeed. Now I understand what that means. You just get to see everything a little more clearly.
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After soaring ferociously towards the greater powers that be, Floyd took a deep breath and honored the boys behind her with a fine few words. “I told Brent and the other cats, ‘I don’t care what you say, you got a little black in ya, yes you do yes you do, and that’s a high compliment.”
Letting the night slowly begin to unwind, Floyd sinks down to the roots one more time, all the while bringing it back to today. “Where does gospel come from?” Floyd asked, and spoke of the Emancipation Proclamation. “It said they were free, but yet they were not seen as fully human, depression came on, and their quest became the burden of their newfound freedom.” While the story itself is rich and complex and Floyd would be happy to divulge it, she more aptly summed up what gospel means to her. “We take our beautiful culture that God has given us, and we bring ourselves, our souls, into it.”
*Featured/top image: Ruth Naomi Floyd performs with Doc Watkins and the South Texas Jazz Quartet at the Empire Theatre. Photo courtesy of Ruth Naomi Floyd.