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Jazz at Vespers: GEORGE LEWIS and his Ragtime Band

RLP-117 118 A
RLP-201R front.jpg
Jazz at Vespers: GEORGE LEWIS and his Ragtime Band
RLP-117 118 A.jpg
RLP-117 118 B.jpg

Avery “Kid” Howard (tp) Jim Robinson (tb) George Lewis (cl) Alton Purnell (p) Lawrence Marrero (bj) Alcide “Slow Drag” Pavageau (b) Joe Watkins (drs)

Recorded at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Oxford; February 21, 1954


1. Just a Little While to Stay Here (5:15)

2. Bye and Bye (7:12)

3. The Old Rugged Cross (4:59)

4. Sometimes My Burden Is Hard to Bear (2:19)


1. Down by the Riverside (5:01)

2. Just a Closer Walk with Thee (6:19)

3. Lord, You've Been Good to Me (3:37)

4. When the Saints Go Marching In (6:53)

   This album celebrates what is surely a unique vent in both jazz and church history. It was recorded during the regular Sunday evening vesper service at an Episcopal church in an Ohio college town, a service that was entirely turned over to a program of spirituals played by the foremost current New Orleans band.

This startling juxtaposition becomes somewhat easier to understand when it is noted that at the time the rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church of Oxford, Ohio, was The Reverend Alvin Kershaw, who has since become a noted jazz personality in his own right through his appearances as a contestant, with jazz as his chosen category, on television's "$64,000 Question" quiz show. The Reverend Mr. Kershaw has made it clear, on that show and also on a Sunday morning TV religious program, "Look Up and Live" (which has made frequent use of jazz groups, both traditional and modern), that he sees nothing surprising in the alignment of jazz with religion. "To worship properly," he has been quoted as saying, "we should offer God all of ourselves, out filings as well as out thoughts. Jazz, which appeals to our emotions, helps us to do this."

   Despite the standard emphasis in many quarters on the sinful nature of jazz, and the constant underlining of the historical circumstances by which a re-light district was the music's earliest home, there is nothing at all grotesque about a church service preformed by New Orleans musicians. For another of the facts to be found in any jazz history is that spirituals and gospel songs were among the source materials from which the earliest jazz was shaped, and there is no record of any complaints about the music played by Crescent City parade bands on their many marches to the cemetery in early-century funerals. Spirituals, played with jazz feeling but with a great deal of respect for their original content, have long been an important part of the repertoire of the Lewis group. And, as a Cincinnati newspaper noted in reporting the occasion recorded here, it was Mr. Kershaw's feeling that "jazz musicians playing spirituals which are an outgrowth of the suffering of their people have something of universal truth to pass along this more fortunate congregation."

   This jazz vesper service came about in rather accidental fashion, when the sudden cancellation of an engagement left the Lewis band in Ohio with some time to spare. Mr. Kershaw is a long-standing admirer of the music of George Lewis, and actually had brought the band into his church on one precious occasion, when they played a few spirituals as part of a Sunday morning service in 1953. This precedent, plus the fact that the congregation is largely made up of students and faculty of Miami University (a group of presumably more than average open-mindedness), made this unique booking perhaps less revolutionary than it might at first seem. Nevertheless, Mr. Kershaw's dramatic demonstration that there need be no barrier between "American folk music" and a house of worship stands as a positive action of no small importance.

   As might be assumed, the band's vesper performance is one that can be enjoyed with or without attention to its special circumstances. The musicians were not guilty of any noticeable 'adaptation' of the material to the surroundings: the selections (several of which had never previously been recorded by the group) have the same vigor they would have in a night club setting. Or, to put it the other way around: when these men use spirituals, which are regular part of their repertoire, on a secular date, they play them with no less taste and sincerity than they have on this LP...

   GEORGE LEWIS, who has become the best-known symbol of the staying power of traditional jazz, has carried his brand of New Orleans music from New York to California and just about every place in between. Lewis first attracted attention outside his home town as part of the band formed to support the comeback of the rediscovered Bunk Johnson, in the early 1940s. When Johnson made a triumphant New York debut in 1945, the band - excepting only his own trumpet spot and the drummer - was the same as the one heard here. For, after Bunk's death in 1949, Lewis kept the same nucleus together and gradually built such valuable ingredients as his own direct clarinet style, Jim Robinson's matchlessly deep trombone and Lawrence Marrero's ringing banjo into a unified and highly successful latter-day example of the great early-jazz tradition.

   Down by the Riverside, Just a Closer Walk with Thee, and When the Saints Go Marching In are previously unissued performances. The other five selections were originally available on 10-inch LP, on the Empirical label.

   Lewis can also be heard on two other 12-inch Riverside albums: on the first of these he leads groups of his own; on the second he is featured with Bunk’s band in three selections –

GEORGE LEWIS: New Orleans Jazz Band and Quartet (RLP12-207)

NEW ORLEANS LEGENDS: Kid Ory, Bunk Johnson, Kid Rena (RLP12-219)

   Other outstanding jazz in the traditional and Dixieland veins can be heard on such 12-inch Riverside LPs as –

JOE SULLIVAN: New Solos by an Old Master (RLP12-202)

RAGTIME: Tony Parenti’s Ragtime Band and Ragpickers Trio (RLP12-205)

DIXIELAND in HI-FI: Gene Mayl’s Dixieland Rhythm Kings (RLP12-210)

WILD BILL DAVISON: Sweet and Hot (RLP12-211)

RALPH SUTTON: piano in the classic jazz tradition; with George Wettling (RLP12-212)

San Francisco Style: LU WATTERS and BOB HELM; with Turk Murphy, Bob Scobey, Wally Rose, etc. (RLP12-213)

CONRAD JANIS: Dixieland Jam Session (RLP12-215)


New Orleans Contrasts: PAUL BARBARINE and SHARKEY BONANO (RLP12-217)

GIN BOTTLE JAZZ: Carl Halen’s Gin Bottle Seven (RLP12-231)

Of special interest to followers of traditional jazz is Riverside’s unique set –

HISTORYOF CLASSIC JAZZ (60 complete selections; five 12-inch LPs; in deluxe album package. All the great names of traditional jazz; plus 20,000-words essay by historian Charles Edward Smith.) (SDP-11)


A HIGH FIDELITY Recording (Audio Compensation: RIAA Curve).

Recorded by the Ohio Folklore Achieve; issued by arrangement with David Jones and Empirical Records.

Notes by Orrin Keepnews

Cover photograph: Paul Weller; design: Paul Bacon.


553 West 51st Street New York 19, N.Y.

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