Remembering Jodie Christian: Modest giant of Chicago jazz

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They don't make jazz pianists like Jodie Christian anymore.

The admired Chicago artist, who died last year at age 80, sounded like no one else in jazz, the ingenuity of his harmonies matched by the luster of his touch.

So when musicians from across the country convene on the South Side this weekend for a "Remembering Jodie Christian" concert, they'll be saluting a pianist whose gifts far exceeded his fame.

"People outside our scene didn't realize the kind of genius he was," says trumpeter Brad Goode, a former Chicagoan who's flying in from Boulder, where he's associate professor of jazz studies at the University of Colorado. "I learned most of what I know about how to play jazz from playing with Jodie. He was just a very, very incredible musician – a very underrated musician."

Anyone who heard Christian never forgot it. A striking presence at the keyboard, Christian produced a glistening, full-bodied sound, but with a pervasive lyricism at its core. At the same time, his fingers could fly at considerable velocity, as in his work with Ira Sullivana's Chicago Jazz Quintet on the "Bird Lives!" album of 1962.

That Christian collaborated with no less than Stan Getz, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Gene Ammons and other jazz legends tells you something about the esteem in which he was held by his peers. Jazz stars who came through Chicago wanted Christian's uncommonly empathetic, responsive playing behind them.

Christian came by his signature style through a circuitous route, starting with the inspiration of his parents' pianism. His mother played in church, his father in speakeasies, and young Jodie earned nickels dancing at taverns near Chicago's steel mills before he was old enough to go to school, he said.

Though he attended the Chicago School of Music and Crane Junior College (now Malcolm X College), he believed that his most valuable musical training came from less rarefied settings.

"Most of the things I learned were in the street, from other musicians, singers," Christian told the Tribune in 1992. He sang in choirs that performed "everything from light opera to blues. I sang all the parts sometimes, because I had a real high voice. A lot of times I wouldn't know a song, but I could anticipate what was coming next because I had experience doing that, singing parts."

That practical knowledge of how individual voices interweave informed Christian's pianism and distinguished him from peers. When Christian discovered jazz as a teenager in the late 1940s at the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago, he realized he'd found a musical language and a home for his art.

"I had never been to a place where they played this music live before," he told JazzTimes magazine in 2002. "Gene Ammons played, and the crowd loved it. Charlie Parker was a guest. He was sick when he came out the first time, and they booed him. He got himself together for the second set – I guess he got a fix. I'll never forget it. I used to love to dance, but that whole night I stood right next to the bandstand. That's what really indoctrinated me into jazz."

By the 1950s, Christian was recording with a Getz and Chet Baker, and in the '60s he toured with tenor saxophone masters Hawkins and Eddie Harris. Christian surely made a lasting contribution when, in 1965, he was a co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a group of Chicago musicians that was reinventing ways of creating jazz and disseminating it. Recordings with Harris, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon, James Moody, Sonny Stitt and others attested to the breadth of Christian's work.

But he never attained a visibility anything like that of the stars he accompanied.

"He preferred to be a sideman and an accompanist, rather than being a leader," says Goode. "He really liked to be in the piano chair behind horn players. … I think being a sideman prevented him from becoming a known artist."

Moreover, Christian was working in a town that piano virtuoso Oscar Peterson long ago dubbed "Piano City."

"Chicago has been a great town for piano players, and that's how Jodie got lost in the shuffle," says pianist Miguel de La Cerna, who's leading the Christian tribute with Goode.

"He didn't get his due (because) there are so many great ones" from Chicago, including Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis, John Young and Ahmad Jamal (whose national career was launched here).

Each of these artists deserved all the acclaim they received, but so did Christian, whose idiosyncratic way around the keyboard may have led some to underestimate him.

"People said that Jodie couldn't read (music) – that wasn't true," says de la Cerna, who was introduced to Christian's art by Goode in the 1980s. "He wasn't a great reader, but it didn't matter, because he created his own style that everyone could feel. They could feel his passion and know what he was talking about in his music."

"Today, you've got a lot of (music) schools and a lot of music is very codified," adds de la Cerna. Christian "was pretty much self-taught like everybody at that time," and put together ideas in unorthodox ways.

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