Jazz was born in the United States; some would say that it’s dying here, too. At the very least, it’s becoming a shadow of its former self. By pairing jazz with gospel, saxophonist Todd Ledbetter, Harold Rayford and Vernard Johnson, among others, could be ushering in a jazz Renaissance.
“The origins of gospel jazz are as familiar as any other form of musical expression,” said Terrence Richburg, a gospel musician. “Just as the separate styles gospel and jazz were born out of the deep emotional experiences endured and overcome by our fore-parents and ancestors, gospel jazz has always been around—just not recognized as such.”
A married father of three, Ledbetter didn’t start out playing gospel jazz. From elementary school and on into college, he played jazz and other types of music. While attending the University of Pittsburgh, where he was the drum major of the marching band, Ledbetter had an epiphany and decided to pair his jazz background with his gospel roots.
“I just had this desire to bring the two musics together … at a time before gospel jazz was really even recognized, and I’ve been working on it ever since,” said Ledbetter in an interview from his home in Washington, D.C. “I’ve played a lot of other kinds of music. I’ve played straight-ahead jazz. I’ve played R&B, just a lot of different kinds of music. I really think it gives a rich texture to what I do, because all of those musical experiences have combined and come out in what I do now.”
Ledbetter, who has played alongside such jazz greats as Grover Washington Jr. and fellow Pittsburgher Stanley Turrentine, was introduced to the saxophone as a fourth grader at Thaddeus Stevens elementary school in Penn Hills. He and his classmates were told that they could choose two instruments to play. He chose the alto saxophone and the clarinet. After sampling each, the saxophone won out, and Ledbetter officially started playing saxophone in the school band in fifth grade. Soon after that, his father introduced him to jazz by taking Ledbetter to a jazz workshop hosted by the Homewood-Brushton branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. At 14, Ledbetter started playing the saxophone for his church.
In the early 1990s, he switched from playing the alto sax to the tenor, and then the soprano. Today, he plays soprano sax, having sold his beloved tenor at a time when money was scarce. He hopes to replace the one he sold and start playing tenor again in the near future. He prefers playing the tenor sax because he said, “it has such a range to it and is so expressive.”
Besides Washington and Turrentine, other saxophonists who have influenced Ledbetter are John Coltrane, Billy Harper and the aforementioned Johnson. As for non-jazz, non-saxophone-playing influences, singer Donny Hathaway heavily influences the way he “phrases and voices things on the saxophone,” he said.
Although his decision to play gospel jazz had nothing to do with increasing jazz’s reach, Ledbetter said that he did recognize that his particular type of music, which is all instrumental, could take him places that other forms of gospel music can’t. “While someone might never, ever listen to Kirk Franklin or Shirley Caesar or any of the traditional gospel artists, he might hear what I do, might like jazz and might connect with that. I believe the holy spirit of God resides in the music that I play.”
Ledbetter, who has been nominated for a Stellar award, released his debut CD “Meditations: Hymns in the Key of Jazz” in July 2007. After receiving feedback from friends and colleagues at the Independent Gospel Artists Alliance Conference, he re-did the packaging, re-mastered the audio and re-released the compilation of covered hymns and spirituals in November 2010. The title track is an original composition by Ledbetter. His second CD is scheduled for release in the fall of 2012 and features all original songs composed by Ledbetter and his producer. He promotes himself through not only his website (www.toddledbetter.com), but also his Twitter (@TLed) and Facebook (facebook.com/tledonsax) pages.
Jazz isn’t dead yet, and by bringing jazz to church, Ledbetter and other gospel jazz musicians can expose people of all ages and backgrounds to a style of music that is 100 percent American and 100 percent worth saving. If it fortifies their souls as well, so much the better.
Kirk Whalen and Ben Tankard are probably the most noted Gospel-Jazz performers, having opened the doors for others over the years.