Sitting in the studio, James King and I were relaxing and chatting. James has been a friend ever since he played on some of the very earliest Mapleshade sessions. Hes one of the best bass players around hereand a sweet-tempered, modest, utterly dedicated jazz musician. A man of few words, he was telling me about his early days in music. Already committed to jazz, James entered Hampton to major in music. Less than inspired by his courses, he was thinking of quitting before the end of his first year. Wandering into a piano practice room one day, he heard a woman playing jazz. He was mesmerized. The music she was playing changed his life. The woman was Consuela Lee. She was on the faculty, teaching music theory and jazz. James stayed in school to take every course of hers he could.
In a couple of succinct phrases, he let me know that Consuela was one of the greatest, most original jazz pianists hed ever heard. Then he casually mentioned that hed just driven to Alabama to play for her fund-raiser; it was for a school project there that meant a lot to her.
As I was to find out, Consuela has students all over the globe that feel like
James. There isnt anything they wouldnt do for her: no task is too onerous, no journey too long.
James finished by saying, "You
know, Pierre, Consuelas gonna be coming through here on
her way to New York soon. I think you ought to meet her. You might
want to do something together.
Without having heard her music, I was already pretty well convinced of that. James faith in her spoke for itself.
Hearing is Believing
A month or so later, James was on the phone, Consuelas here. You gonna be around?
Within half an hour he walked in accompanying a small, slender, high cheekboned woman with piercing eyes. Small as she was, her inner energy and dignity made her an immediate presence. We talked a while, then she eagerly got up to check out our 1911 Steinway. She ran through a bit of Ellington, then a couple of her own compositions. On the spot, I fell in love with her playingjust like James had in that practice room at Hampton.
I was mesmerized by the contrasts that were all wrapped up in her music. Right away, I heard that gorgeous, classically disciplined touch of hers, a touch that made the piano sing. At the same time, she had an utterly natural swing that made you move. And she wove together all those wellsprings of jazz I treasure: stride, swing, Strayhorn, bebop. But I didnt hear the slightest touch of retro archness: you could feel that she had lived all those musics.
To me, most fascinating of all was how subtly she blurred the line between composing and improvising. Her harmonies, her voicings were so original, yet so perfectly crafted, I just knew they had to be composed. A minute later, shed prove me wrong, having just reworked the same passage in a completely fresh way.
As I was to find out in the course of our sessions, even great musicians often couldnt tell when she was improvising or playing something composed.
Inheriting the Flame
Having satisfied her curiosity about the piano, Consuela returned to our conversation. I made it clear I was down to record whatever kind of project she wanted to do. She explained that she wanted to record her music to raise money for her school at Snow Hill. Id just heard James mention the school, so she started to fill me in.
It all started with a visit to her family home in Alabama that inspired her to carry on the work of her grandfather, William James Edwards. A top student at Tuskegee in the early 1890s, hed been one of the foremost disciples of Booker T. Washington. Taking to heart Dr. Washingtons crusade to bring education to the most impoverished and isolated black communities of the post-slavery South, in 1893 Edwards graduated and immediately founded the nations first boarding school for black children. He chose Snow Hill, the tiny rural community between Selma and Montgomery where hed been born. By sweat, struggle and persuasive oratory, he raised the funds to build his Snow Hill School from a one-room shack into a beautiful 2000-acre campus with an outstanding liberal arts curriculum.
Consuela was born and raised at Snow Hill. William J. Edwards was succeeded by Ligon Wilson in 1930; the school continued to flourish until Wilsons death in 1948. After Wilson, there was no one with the burning zeal and brilliance to sustain Edwards work. The school declined for 15 years, then closed.
In 1979, Consuela decided to leave academia; more than anything, she wanted to revive her grandfathers historic school. She told me of her unrelenting, grinding struggles with the uncooperative private and public boards controlling the school property. Despite that, she managed to build her dream: a Snow Hill Institute teaching music, theater and dance to the still-impoverished, still-isolated children of rural Alabama.
With the burning zeal she inherited from her grandfather, she scraped up just enough donations of instruments, volunteer labor and funds to start running her school, renovating one classroom at a time on the old Snow Hill campus. Under her inspiring tutelage, her students (ranging from 6 to 15) formed xylophone jazz groups, dance troupes and theater companies.
The kids have even performed a folk opera composed by Consuela. She had the admirable courage to base her opera on the wonderfully African-rooted, but now unfashionable, Uncle Remus stories. Her childrens groups are so gifted that, almost every year, she takes them on fundraising concert tours up the East Coast.
It took Consuela a while to mull over the form of her project. When she finally called me, though, she was as decisive as a four-star general.
Pierre, I want to record as a duo with a drummer. Id like to use Sangoma; Ive played with him a lot. Hes flying in from France. Here are his dates.
Sangoma Everett is a fine expatriate American jazz drummer, one of the network of endlessly loyal students of Consuelas. (When he arrived, he told me, almost echoing James words, Id go anywhere for Consuela.)
The couple of days they stayed here for their session flew by. Larry Willis, our music director and a great pianist in his own right, was on hand as producer. It was fascinating for us to witness Consuela at work: consummate craftsmanship coupled with incredibly demanding self-criticism. And, as the session progressed, the threads of her music and the threads of her life began to come together for me.
I didnt realize it at first, but the music she was laying down was a tour of her idols, her passions, her life. She opened the session with Jefferson Street Joe (track 1), a bluesy groove that shows off her strong left hand (and why she doesnt need a bass player). The tunes her tribute to Joe Gilliam, the great Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback of the early seventies. Joe was from Nashville and well-known on Jefferson Street, the hub of black Nashvilles night life. Consuelas a committed football and basketball fan.
A tune or two later, she pulled out a composers tour de force, Three for Arnold Tone (tracks 7,8,9), a suite written for her two year old nephew. She wrote it while staying in New York with Arnolds father, the brother she admires so much, composer and bass-player Bill Lee. She was in New York to help make the soundtrack for School Daze, working for her other nephew, Bill Lees son Spike.
Her next tune after the suite was a brilliantly pianistic ballad, Prince of Piano (track 12), her tribute to her first piano idol. A sophomore in music at Fisk, she walked into a practice room and heard an unforgettable pianist who sounded like Nat King Cole and Art Tatum all rolled into one. Like James King walking into her practice room, walking in on Alphonso Saville changed her musical life forever. By the time she left Fisk, her campus nickname was Queen Cole.
Laying down Aint Misbehavin (track 13) was sheer fun. The tune took her back to her childhood and the windup Victrola that was her window on the musical world beyond Snow Hill. By age 8 she was already a budding classical pianist, under the tutelage of her conservatory-trained mother, the pianist who inspired her to make the piano sing. That year her jazz-loving father brought home a Louis Armstrong record and put it on the Victrola. Right then and there she made her decision for jazz. That same Victrola played lots of Art Tatum and early Nat King Cole and, of course, the irresistibly effervescent Thomas Fats Waller, whose scores were some of the first jazz music little Consuela memorized at Snow Hill.
If Aint Misbehavin was a frolic, laying down Consuelas medley on In A Sentimental Mood/Sophisticated Lady was a day on the rock piledue to the relentlessly high standards she set for herself. If ever there was a pianist qualified to do fresh new arrangements of Ellington, it was Consuela. And, in fact, from her very first take, Larry Willis and I were both knocked out by her wonderful reharmonizations of the familiar old tunes. But Consuela wasnt satisfied at allEllington meant too much to her. After the third great-sounding take that Consuela rejected, Larry suggested quitting and revisiting the medley later. Not Consuela. Under that delicate, small-boned exterior lay pure iron. She went on for several more takes, neither losing heart nor energyan amazing feat. She did one last soaring take with a completely new solo improv (track 4); grudgingly, she admitted it was usable.
She called a break, Larry walked into the studio, sat down by the piano and quietly said, Consuela, Id really like to take some lessons with you. I was floored; Ive never seen Larry do that with any other pianist.
For more info on Consuela Lee
Check out this recent article on Consuela and Snow Hill from the New York Press.
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