July 2012

There was an odd piece of furniture in my childhood home. Well, it wasn’t really furniture, but it was a substantial slab of wood (to a 6 year-old) and hammered onto that wood was a hard rubber pad, about 1/4 of an inch thick. The wood measured maybe 6″ square, and a couple of inches high. It made its way through various rooms of the house where I grew up: on the kitchen table, the living room floor, or a dining room chair — wherever Dad left it after practicing. Here’s a hint: drumsticks were never far from the object. Dad called it a drum pad.

And he could drum! Mom and Dad both played in their high school marching band, Mom with her saxophone, Dad with snare drums. I never saw or heard Mom play, and never heard what might have become of her sax. But I remember Dad’s drum exercises! He didn’t have an actual drum, but that pad was a fixture in the house for many years. Besides the high school band, Dad had also played in “The Union-Endicott Colonial Fife and Drum Corps,” a group that became almost legendary in our hometown. [It continues to this day, some 70 years later, now using the name “The Continental Ancient Fife and Drum Corps.”] As a young father now, Dad drummed the corps’ rhythms, sticks on rubber, at lightning speed, holding on to his youth even as his own kids grew toward the age for music lessons.

It was inevitable that I would adopt the drum as my first attempt at “playing an instrument,” in second grade. After all these years, the memories of those days are few, but imaginary snapshots remain. I recall my lessons taught on the stage of the school auditorium. I stood at the drum and practiced the most elementary of rhythms: the drum roll. I can hear the teacher’s hint at how the roll was to work: “Mama/Daddy, Mama/Daddy, Mama/Daddy…” And I translated that into a very slow tap-tap with the right hand, tap-tap with the left. It didn’t sound at all to me like Dad’s pad.

Another snapshot: carrying a full-sized snare drum home, strapped to a second-grader’s body, drum bouncing against me with every step, and words of warning to any classmate who had the idea that it would be fun to slam a hand or stone on the drum head as I walked the four blocks home. No mere pad for me! I got to borrow a real drum for my practice sessions, a few minutes each day (supposedly), relegated to the cellar of the house where the noise of Mama/Daddy, Mama/Daddy wouldn’t drive the rest of the family crazy.

Last snapshot from the album: I was in the basement with the drum when the music teacher called my Mom. He was surrendering. I remember her telling me after their brief conversation (was she standing at the top of the cellar stairs?) that my teacher had said, rather bluntly, that I had no sense of rhythm, and that perhaps in a few years, I might develop one. In the meantime, I should take the drum back to school, and think about another instrument.

This probably came as no shock to Dad. He had tried to mentor me through flams and para-diddles and flam-para-diddles. But it was hopeless. (I learned later that perhaps the drum roll might have moved beyond Mama/Daddy if I had let the stick hit on Ma and bounce on -ma, hit on Dad and bounce on -dy, and stopped trying to play like a mechanical monkey. Too late.]

Dad’s sense of rhythm skipped one generation (me), and my own kids never considered taking up the sticks/pad thing. Later in life, my wife Joan and I saw a drum for sale at Colonial Williamsburg, and we thought it would be a great present for my Dad; probably the first “real” drum in his possession since high school. I suspect it turned out to be not quite as real as we thought. He never owned up to this, not wanting to hurt our feelings, but I’ll bet he tried playing it, and punctured the drum head (since the thing was more decorative than “real,”). When we last saw the drum many years back, it was upside down, decorating the front hallway of their home.

All this comes back to me now that my 12 year-old grandson is taking drum lessons, and has played in his middle school band. Apparently he does have a sense of rhythm, does practice, and has some of my Dad’s musical genes. I told Ryan that I wish my Dad were around to see this happen. He’d beam at the thought of a great-grandson doing the flam-para-diddle thing. A new generation.

This essay has taken so long to write that while I typed, it occurred to me that my grandson’s drumming comes from another source, much closer gene-wise. My son-in-law was a drummer! That explains a lot. Genes from both sides of the family.

All that’s left now is practice, practice, practice. Mama/Daddy, Mama/Daddy. Etc. Etc. Etc.


A shameless plug follows…with an invitation to join the “jazz goes to church” movement.

Bil Carter is the multi-talented pastor/jazz pianist who leads the Presbybop Jazz Quartet. He was raised in a Presbyterian church, developed his interest in jazz there, and answered the call to ministry at about the same time. I can only imagine the conflict in his heart: play jazz for a living. or proclaim the gospel as a pastor. Jazz studies or seminary? Well, sometimes creative folk know how to multitask.

Bill became a pastor, and tells his story on the DVD titled “Jazz Belongs in Church.” One day, when his church’s musician was away, Bill took over the piano in the service and “jazzed up the hymns.” The rest is, you know, his story. And it swings.

A parallel story took place a few years before Bill’s (since I am several years older). I was called to the ministry too, but loved the idea of being on the radio. Not exactly a deejay or news guy, but something to do with the medium that was called “your constant companion,” back in the days when radio was the media medium that was portable enough to go anywhere you went. When I went looking for a seminary that would have me, I found one with an FM radio station that had a commercial frequency. And the rest is, you know, my story. And it rocks.

So one day, in Washington, D.C. for a conference for preachers, Bill and I met for the first time, had lunch, and merged our stories…he the jazz musician, and I, the jazz deejay. Eventually, I would review Bill’s first CD in our denominational magazine, and Bill would host a “Jazz in the Church” conference at the Presbyterians’ Stony Point Center, outside of New York City. And Dave Brubeck came. Bill had had a couple of lessons from him, and invited him to the conference to receive an award for the jazz legend’s sacred works. I obviously had played Brubeck’s work on radio, including some of those sacred pieces, so I sat in awe as Carter and Brubeck spoke and played. (There is a “cameo” of that Brubeck appearance in the DVD called “Jazz Belongs in Church.” See? Shameless!)

When I moved a bit closer geographically to Bill’s church, and my wife became the church musician where Bill had grown up, we found it easy to collaborate. Bill turned out CDs, and I played them at home. (See, we’re not exactly equal partners in all this.)

A couple of years ago, I followed Bill and his Presbybop musicians to a recording studio (one well-known to NYC and Pocono, Pa. area musicians) and I took along a video camera to shoot a modest DVD of the “making of the album” called “Interior Window.” I edited the thing at home, with Bill’s co-direction. Presbybop had a few DVDs made and we began plotting to do a larger scale “film” that would promote the whole vision of jazz in church, that is, in liturgy, in concert, in community, anywhere the spirit of jazz would flow freely.

Bill invited me on his quartet’s fall tour, moving from Pennsylvania into Northern Virginia and then North Carolina. As I may have mentioned elsewhere, it was a kick for me to answer the query (put to me as I entered several churches), “May I help you?” with something I’d always wanted to say: “I’m with the band.” 

After the tour, Bill worked diligently at an outline for our production. We had video of a whole Sunday service at his church last fall, a service where all the music was Presbybop Jazz…the prelude, hymns, liturgical responses, offertory, and postlude. When we added it all up, we had over two hours of material we wanted to include. The proverbial cutting room floor is littered with decent video and even better jazz, but we got the whole production to fit onto one DVD. We call it (all together now) “Jazz Belongs in Church.”

When it was clear that my home computer couldn’t handle the high definition video files, and my frustration level finally eclipsed Bill’s, Bill turned to friends at a public television station near Scranton, and they assigned a talented young editor to digitally “splice” all the pieces together. Among the pieces, a nifty animation of the “Jazz Belongs in Church” logo, rendered by my friend Dave Gau in Richmond.

Then, Bill enlisted two talented church educators to write a hefty, but helpful, study guide. It’s not in print, but the pdf can be found (for free for now) at the Presbybop website. When the first disks arrived at about the same time the Presbyterians’ General Assembly was meeting in Pittsburgh, some happy providence found the Presbybop Quartet playing for the festive opening worship service, the educators and me in Pittsburgh at the same time, and the Presbyterian Book Store offering space for a book signing. Except, we had no book. However, with Sharpies in hand, we signed DVDs, and the project was officially launched.

By now, you are eager for more information. So, go to www.presbybop.com and look for the Bill Carter – Jeff Kellam DVD called, in unison (but with syncopation), “Jazz Belongs in Church.”