Jazz was born in the United States. It appears to be dying here as well, or becoming a shadow of its former self. But saxophonist Todd Ledbetter and others of his ilk, such as Harold Rayford and Vernard Johnson among others, have given jazz a not so new partner that could revive it.
According to Terrence Richburg, “The origins of gospel jazz are as familiar as any other form of musical expression. 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 felt inspired 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. The students were told that they could choose two instruments to play. Ledbetter chose the saxophone and the clarinet. In the end, the saxophone won out, and he officially started playing in fifth grade. His introduction to jazz came when his father took him to a jazz workshop hosted by the Homewood-Brushton branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. A regular church goer, he started playing saxophone for his church at fourteen.
In the early ’90s, he switched from playing the alto sax to first the tenor, and then explored the soprano sax. Today, he plays soprano, having sold his beloved tenor at a time when money was scarce. The tenor is his favorite because “it has such a range to it and is so expressive.” He hopes to replace the one he sold and start playing tenor again in the near future.
Besides Washington and Turrentine, other saxophonists who have influenced Ledbetter’s music are John Coltrane, Billy Harper and the aforementioned Johnson. As for non-jazz, non-saxophonist influences, he credits Donny Hathaway with having a heavy influence on the way he “phrases and voices things on the saxophone.”
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.”
Stellar Award nominee Ledbetter released his debut CD “Meditations: Hymns in the Key of Jazz” in July 2007. After getting feedback from friends and colleagues at the Independent Gospel Artists Alliance Conference, he re-did the packaging, remastered the audio and released the compilation of one original song of his own plus a collection of covered hymns and spirituals in November 2010. His second CD, which is scheduled for release in the fall of 2012, will comprise all original songs composed by Ledbetter and his producer. He promotes himself through not only his website, but also his Twitter (@TLed) and Facebook (facebook.com/tledonsax) pages.
Jazz isn’t dead yet, and by bringing jazz to church, Ledbetter, Rayford, Johnson and others can expose people of all ages and backgrounds to a style of music that is 100 per cent American and 100 per cent worth saving. If it fortifies their souls in the process, even better.