When Avery Sharpe, the standout standup jazz bassist, was a little boy growing up in the still segregated South, he’d often tag along with his mother, a gifted gospel pianist and devout member of the Church of God in Christ, when she played sacred music everywhere from emotionally powerful services in sanctified churches and tabernacles to fervent tent revival meetings.
“My mother, who turns 87 in August, is still performing today, accompanying choirs in churches where she’s played since she was 13 or 14 years old. That’s where my love for gospel comes from…from my family and from growing up in the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ,” Sharpe said by phone from his home in the Berkshires in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
A musically talented child, Sharpe grew up immersed in the sounds of his mother’s recordings of Mahalia Jackson, Shirley Caesar, the Rev. James Cleveland and a host of classic gospel quartets. So it’s little surprise that even with all his many accomplishments in modern jazz, including deep ties with such giants as McCoy Tyner, Archie Shepp and Art Blakey, he is still profoundly connected to those early precious gospel roots.
So much so, in fact, that the noted composer/bandleader/educator and indie record label owner, is presenting his soulful "Sharpe Meets Tharpe" homage to the gospel icon and tradition-shattering, chart-busting crossover artist and legendary singer/guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe on Saturday, August 8, at noon at the 20th annual Litchfield Jazz Festival on the Goshen Fairgrounds, Goshen, Connecticut.
Sharpe, who first introduced gospel music into the prestigious jazz festival’s fare in 2012 with his Sojourner Truth Project, is joined in his Tharpe tribute by the New England Gospel Choir, lead vocalist Angel Rose and the noted tenor saxophonist Charles Neville of Neville Brothers fame, along with other co-celebrants in his instrumental ensemble.
Besides praising the power and the glory of Tharpe’s inspiring gospel artistry, they’ll also rejoice in her once shocking, house-rocking guitar playing and soulful, secular blues and jazz-inspired singing that earned her the title of “Godmother of Rock and Roll.”
Tharpe’s mesmerizing music, whether on holy gospel songs like "Up Above My Head" or in pure proto-rockers like the slightly risque "I Want a Tall, Skinny Papa," inspired future rock and soul sultans like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and others moved by the spirit of her charismatic music. Even a secular swinger like Frank Sinatra dug the hip and, maybe even the heavenly side of the Divine Sister Rosetta Tharpe who, like Avery Sharpe, was born and raised in the loving arms of the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ.
Sister Tharpe’s earthy elixir of body and soul in the 1930s through the '40s and beyond was a precursor or forerunner of Ray Charles’ sensational, soulful blend of the sacred and the secular.
Sharpe, who was converted to jazz and the standup bass in his teens while an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, was very much a child of the Pentecostal church in the South before moving to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he did much of his growing up.
As the sixth of eight children in a tight, loving family, young Avery spent hours every day worshiping in his mother’s church, participating in youth Bible studies, ushering in the saints of the congregation (as the devout worshipers were respectfully called) and singing in the choir. Realizing that ushering and singing in the choir weren’t a particularly good fit for him, the already budding musician began devoting his church service participation to making instrumental music for the gospel choir, especially on electric bass.
First, though, came the accordion and his churchly renditions of hymns like "The Old Rugged Cross," performed around age eight, which was about the time he had begun taking piano lessons. A bit later, and somewhat more prophetically of things to come, he switched to playing electric bass at services.
Luckily for jazz, Sharpe also had strong pop music influences in his gospel-filled home, early inspirations eventually leading him down the secular or primrose path to playing electric bass in funk bands, in addition to fulfilling his musical obligations in his mother’s beloved church.
“My father, who was in the military, was not in my mother’s church,” Sharpe said, “and was, instead, into Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and also liked what my older brothers and sisters were listening to at the time, which was '60s R&B, and dug stuff like James Brown and Wilson Pickett, which my siblings brought into the house.”
While church-going people back then scorned secular music -- blues, R&B, jazz, rock, and pop -- as “the devil’s music,” Sharpe’s devout mother was nonetheless supportive of his wayward ways when, as a teenager, he began going out on gigs playing electric bass professionally with funk bands in smoke-filled, maybe even sin-filled clubs, viewed by many church saints as dens of iniquity.
“Maybe because she was a musician, my Mom was extremely open-minded and even used to drive me to clubs before I was 16 and began driving myself. She would never go inside. So when I finished the job, she’d pick me up unobtrusively at the backdoor and take me home. That was pretty avant-garde for someone back then who was a pillar of the church and well-known in the community of saints,” Sharpe said.
“She told me she trusted me,” he said, “and knew that I was there strictly for the music. I didn’t get into the drinking and the drug thing, although a lot of my friends did.”
Although Sharpe's mother would go see her son play in formal, quite proper concert settings, she never saw him perform in a club until 2000 when Sharpe appeared with McCoy Tyner at the prestigious Blues Alley in Washington, D.C.
“My mother, who was originally from Florida, had never in her whole life stepped foot into a club,” Sharpe recalls. “I had to explain to her, ‘Mom, Blues Alley is a jazz club, not like down South in Florida in juke joints where they have sawdust on the floor.’ Besides, I told her, ‘You’ve got to have some money to step up at this club. If I weren’t playing at Blues Alley, I couldn’t even afford to be there.’ My Mom said, ‘Well, son, if you say it’s cool, then it’s all right with me.’ ”
Born August 23, 1954, in Valdosta, Georgia, where his father was stationed in the military, Avery and his family moved about often as the father was reassigned.
“Basically, I was an Army brat. My father served in World War II and the Korean War. We moved from Valdosta when I was a few weeks old, went to Guam for a couple years, then to Savannah where I had most of my early experiences in the church,” Sharpe said.
“Savannah was segregated, so most of my friends were black. Later we moved to Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York, where it was racially mixed. But I had no white friends until I was 10 or 11 years old,” he says.
Sharpe’s father, who had a distinguished, medal-winning military career, retired in the mid-'60s while stationed at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts, only a short drive from Springfield. Sharpe’s mother, a much sought-after gospel piano player par excellence, once played at a revival in Springfield, Massachusetts, and evidently liked the city. So that’s where the family settled. Avery, who loved music and sports, went to Springfield public schools from elementary through high school.
At the urging of an older brother, he went on to UMass, scrapping his original plan to attend Springfield College, then hoping to become a gym teacher. Starting out as a physical education major at UMass, he quickly switched to economics (the theoretical aspect fascinated his analytical mind) with a minor in music performance.
UMass marked many dramatic changes in Sharpe’s life as he experienced a positive chain reaction of events leading to consecutive breakthrough jobs beginning with saxophone great Archie Shepp. That led, in turn, to work with Art Blakey, and later to an enormously productive, fulfilling 20-year alliance performing as the bassist with piano great McCoy Tyner.
When Sharpe arrived on the Amherst campus, UMass was thriving in what might well be called a Golden Age for jazz with giants like drummer Max Roach, saxophonist and social critic Archie Shepp, bassist Reggie Workman, trombonist Charles Greenlee and other music grandees striding across the campus when not teaching jazz to gifted students. At that time, the celebrated pianist Billy Taylor was working on his doctoral degree at UMass. And a famous comedian and big-time jazz booster named Bill Cosby was working on his advanced degrees, a celebrity who was much revered back then decades before the now infamous sex scandal erupted.
At UMass, Sharpe got hooked on acoustic bass, he recalls, when listening in his dorm to CTI label recordings, including those resonating with the big, resonant tones of double bass master Ron Carter. Inspired, Sharpe began studying with his first acoustic bass teacher, Reggie Workman, yet another double bass master.
Besides teaching feeling and technique, Workman imparted great wisdom and stoical advice that inspired his young, jazz-hungry student.
“I remember,” Sharpe says, “Reggie saying to me, ‘I don’t play electric bass. That’s your thing, your generation’s thing. But you play upright bass real well for somebody just starting out. You’re going to want to quit the upright because there’s going to be a lot of pain involved in mastering it. Don’t quit,’ he urged me,” Sharpe recalls of some of the best advice he ever got.
“I was walking around campus doggone near tears because of the blisters and bleeding from my fingers. I was thinking nobody is ever going to hire me to play this thing," he said. "Why do this anymore?”
But with Workman’s “Don’t quit” advice echoing in his head like a powerful two-word mantra, Sharpe stayed with it, bloodied, blistered fingers and all, eventually starting to get jobs calling for acoustic bass.
During this surging growth spurt and his magnificent obsession with mastering the double bass, yet another life-shaping event occurred one day when Sharpe and his then girlfriend, now wife, were sitting in his dorm room listening to the UMass FM radio station, WMUA, when John Coltrane’s revolutionary album, Ascension, came on the air like a message out of the blue. “I stopped what I was doing, turned up the radio and just sat there mesmerized."
“You know this was back in the day when people were doing a lot of drugs. I never did drugs. This was a drug free epiphany. This wasn’t merely like a religious experience. This was a religious experience. I went out later and bought all the Coltrane albums I could possibly get my hands on. My friends thought I had totally lost it," he said.
Then began the happy string of connections and fortuitous events that, even today, Sharpe is still astonished by.
First he signed on board for an international tour with jazz great Archie Shepp’s celebrated Atticus Blues Big Band, a cutting-edge musical ark of an ensemble laden with string players, singers and such all-star performers as the avant-garde alto saxophonist Marion Brown, who, like Shepp, had performed on Ascension; drummer Clifford Jarvis, trombonist Steve Turre and others. Blakey, the great drummer/bandleader with an eagle eye for talent, spotted Sharpe when he was working with Shepp, and later, when he needed a bassist, took him aboard his Jazz Messengers band.
Charles Greenlee, a close Shepp associate, later tipped off Tyner about Sharpe after bassist Charles Fambrough left the Tyner fold. Needing a replacement, Tyner connected with Sharpe by phone and set up an audition. After a seemingly problematic start, Sharpe nailed the tryout. Tyner brought him into the world of his super trio that also featured the great Louis Hayes on drums.
After his first gig with Tyner, Sharpe said the pianist told him: “ ‘I had a good feeling about you. I think we’ve been put together for a reason.’ And for me, then a 24- or 25-year-old kid, that just blew my mind,” Sharpe says, still savoring another one of those momentous turning-points in his career.
“McCoy is a good and reasonable cat,” he says looking back on the long professional relationship and friendship, “and that’s the reason we were together for 20 years. He’s a low-key kind of cat, but he can kick a whole lot of behind when he has to. For me, he was a great motivator. I learned so much from him watching how he dealt with things as a leader on the road, always on an even keel. And no matter what came up, McCoy always had a reasonable Plan B.”
Even aside from his superb sideman credentials with everybody from Dizzy Gillespie to Pat Metheny, Sharpe has enjoyed a rich, diversified career as an award-winning composer of both jazz and extended form compositions, including commissioned works; has led his own bands and recording sessions; and runs his own indie label, JKNM. His special projects like "Sharpe Meets Tharpe," are illuminating works that shine light on African American history, culture and historical figures.
For his seventh appearance at the festival, Sharpe’s instrumental ensemble for "Sharpe Meets Tharpe" features himself on bass, pianist Mike King, trumpeter Jeremy Turgeon, tenor and soprano saxophonist Charles Langford, trombonist Jim Messbauer, drummer Cory Cox and, as a special guest, the soulful saxophonist Charles Neville. Sharpe’s brother, Kevin Sharpe, directs the Tharpe project, which includes selections from the pioneering, crossover superstar’s mega hits, both gospel and secular, plus original tribute pieces composed by the bassist himself.
As it has done throughout its remarkable two-decade run -- remarkable both for its quality fare and its ability to survive the red in tooth and claw Darwinian struggle for survival in the jazz world jungle -- the festival once again serves diverse, top-shelf talent.
Among the luminaries, handpicked by the resourceful festival founder and CEO Vita Muir are the brilliant, irrepressible Israeli clarinetist/saxophonist Anat Cohen, the world’s wittiest drummer Matt Wilson, superhero guitarist and Miles Davis alum Mike Stern, the sensational trumpeter Sean Jones and the sizzling string theoretician Christian McBride leading his powerhouse trio, featuring the young, emerging piano phenom Christian Sands, who grew up in New Haven. Information: litchfieldjazzfest.com and (860) 361-6285.
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