Get our free newsletter
Gospel-jazz saxophonist Derrick “Tony” Lewis is playing his seductive instrument in service to the Lord. Blasphemy? Hardly.
In tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, Derrick “Tony” Lewis is going to give his standing-room-only crowd a taste of his very own gospel jazz. One weekday morning in February— Black History Month—he’s got 150 federal employees and field-tripping students packed into a bland, brightly lit, low-ceilinged room in the U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters for a two-hour remembrance of the aviation heroes. Off to the left of the podium, in a corner, Lewis, along with a keyboardist, two guitarists, a bongo player, and Maiesha Rashad—manager and lead singer for the go-go group Maiesha and the Hip Huggers—turn out a swank rendition of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 rhythm and blues hit “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and follow it with gospel staple “Going Up Yonder” as told by Rashad’s spicy alto. Draped in a silky black suit with gold buttons, Lewis closes his eyes as if in deliverance, grasps his sax to his chest, and works the keys as if each breath depends on it. Rashad sings:
If anybody asks you know where I’m going
Where I’m going soon
I’m going up yonder
I’m going up yonder
I’m going up yonder to be with my Lord
The folks gathered to honor the war veterans may or may not know that Lewis is mounting a minor insurgency with his music. He’s helping to consummate a symbiotic relationship between jazz and gospel called, simply, “gospel jazz,” a subgenre of evangelical music that has yet to fully penetrate the sanctuary of the black church. But, in the tradition of late-’90s gospel-jazz progenitor and saxophonist Kirk Whalum, Lewis is using his enlightened reeds to help change that.
Perhaps the instrument most similar to the human voice, the saxophone, with its slurs, wails, moans, and screeches, has historically been deemed unfit to serve the Most High. Outside of New Orleans and, perhaps, the Pentecostal church, the house of God hasn’t sanctified the sensuous instrument alongside the tiresome tones of the organ and the delightful piano; you won’t find too many saxophones in the Methodist, Catholic, or even Baptist churches today.
But as far as Lewis is concerned, it’s never too late to spread sax to the faithful. For almost seven years, in a well-equipped basement studio in a quaint single-family home in Mount Pleasant—the House of Jam II Studio—Lewis has been producing his own saxophone-driven gospel-jazz album. With his mom, Earleen Lewis Hughes, as his executive assistant, Lewis’ Uplifting Sax Productions recently released Never Let Me Down, his attempt to dispel the notion that the sax is too seductive to serve as a medium of praise.
On “Anointed Sax,” Lewis raps:
I thank the Lord for blessing me
And giving me the ability
To give you praise on my saxophone
And uplift the spirits through my songs
Cause the Bible says make a joyful noise
And give full praises to you, Lord
I know it for a fact
You anointed me on the sax
My devoutly religious grandmother, who lived in South Carolina, might roll over in her grave at the sound of contemporary gospel music. And in North Carolina, Lewis says, his saxophone accompaniment with one gospel group made a few churchgoers uneasy.
“It seemed that it was bit out of tradition,” he says. “Some people were skeptical.”
It will take some heavy persuasion to get most traditional congregations to open their doors and embrace gospel jazz. “I have seen God touch people through my horn who normally would not be caught dead (or alive) inside a church building,” wrote Whalum in the liner notes to The Gospel According to Jazz, his 1998 release. After five jazz records with Columbia Records in 15 years, Whalum said, “God has only recently opened the door for me to make a statement in [the gospel] world.”
Gospel’s nascent diversity has been most popularly advanced by Kirk Franklin’s platinum success in 1993 with Kirk Franklin and the Family. But when Franklin started rocking churches and radio stations with hiphop gospel, many staunch believers found his approach unsettling.
“A lot of people are uncomfortable with Kirk Franklin and his music, and some people think it has no place in the church, but they forget that the same reaction occurred with Edwin Hawkins’ ‘Oh Happy Day’ [now traditional]. Even the so-called Negro spirituals were not initially considered popular in the church,” says Dennis Wiley, an alto saxophonist and minister of Covenant Baptist Church in Southwest D.C. “Why should we deprive ourselves of anything that can be used to praise God, to glorify God? If it’s the saxophone, so be it. If it’s hiphop, so be it. But I’m not the norm. You would talk to some and they would say, ‘Oh no, I’ll never have a saxophone in my church.’” Wiley, a Harvard and Howard University graduate, introduced the saxophone in his own church services in the late ’80s.
“At one time, you couldn’t be innovative with gospel’s sacred texts,” Lewis recalls. “If you were innovative, they called it blues.” The blues sound—however integral it may have been to the development of gospel—was considered the devil’s music by most black churches for centuries; and its juke-joint- and bordello-derived cousin, jazz, has scarcely fared better among the faithful. “The saxophone has traditionally been associated with nightclubs and social settings which ‘good upstanding church members’ were not expected to frequent,” says Wiley.
Like Franklin’s hiphop gospel, gospel jazz further blurs the lines between the secular and spiritual—boundaries clearly delineated as African-Americans further assimilated into Western culture after slavery officially ended. “Black people haven’t always made that sharp division between the sacred and the secular,” says Wiley. “We picked this up from Western society, which perpetuates this kind of false dichotomy between good and evil, where black is bad and white is good, emotion is bad and the intellect is good. It encourages a separation between the spirit and the mind. Historically, we have been holistic in our celebrations and have not made that distinction, that what is sensual is bad.” If you follow Wiley’s line of reasoning, you’ll conclude that contemporary gospel hybrids mark an elliptical return to earlier trends in African thought.
Lewis, who grew up on Capitol Hill and then moved to Anacostia, was by no means a church boy. During his childhood days, going to church was little more than a chore. “Of course, you go to church, clap your hands. But to really get into the meaning of gospel music—I didn’t feel that until after college,” he says. “The only thing I could hear was jazz—”‘A’ Train,” “Killer Joe,” all that stuff. And of course, I knew all the Earth, Wind and Fire stuff.”
His dad, Robert Hughes, who himself played the sax, formed a District-based band called Bobby Sax and the Housekeepers, which became a purveyor of the Motown sound. “He was the killer in the ’70s,” says Lewis. “They were at one point the top group in this area.” His father toured with Gaye, the Floaters, and the Jackson 5.
Still, growing up with a sax man in the home didn’t necessarily give Lewis a head start on the competition. Daddy’s attempt to shelter his son from the drugs, heartbreak, and instability that shrouded jazz musicians during his era led him to foist kinder, gentler instruments—namely, the piano and flute—on his son. “From birth, I always wanted to play something,” Lewis says. “I wanted to play sax, but he wouldn’t let me.” The Dunbar High School alum didn’t start playing the sax until the ninth grade.
When he was in junior high school, Lewis longed to play with Philadelphia-based funk-jazz band Pieces of a Dream. The group seemed accessible: It was young, nearby, and hot as toast. And the 1982 release of “Mt. Airy Groove” drew Lewis like a magnet. But by the time he’d developed the chops and his childhood dream became a possibility, God had grabbed the reins.
It took one song, he says, to put him on the righteous path: “(No Matter How High I Get) I’ll Still Be Lookin’ Up to You,” a gospel hit first recorded by R&B artist Bobby Womack. “That [song] really changed my life and made me start thinking about gospel.”
Lewis completed St. Augustine College on a music scholarship, but, after graduation, he found that his technique was unrefined; his confidence waned. Some of his musically inclined peers were achieving success, but Lewis stood at a crossroads. “When I got out of college, I knew some of the big [saxophonists], and I said, ‘I’m not playing like this, and I won’t be able to play like this,’” he remembers. “I didn’t feel within my heart that I could be a good player. I took a little layoff, and then I just said, ‘Oh, I should just throw in the towel.’”
But rather than drown in doubt, he volunteered to work directly with artists at the National Park Service’s summer jazz events at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre. He was sort of the guy Friday of hospitality; whatever the musicians needed—directions around town or dressing-room comforts—he would provide, strategically positioning himself to sip from their cup of experience. After shows and very early during sound checks, as internationally renowned jazz artists lounged about, Lewis would ingratiate himself to them. “I’d bring my horn or whatever [and] put ’em to work. You know, help me out.”
Backstage in 1994, the late great saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. schooled Lewis in breathing techniques and ways to improve his sound. And Lewis’ chutzpah got him a chance to commune with smooth-jazz luminary Najee.
“I was pretty much telling [Najee] that I was going to pack it in,” says Lewis. After giving Lewis a never-give-up spiel, Najee offered support: “I said, ‘He’s not gonna call me or anything,’ and he followed through,” Lewis recalls. Without ever having heard him play, Lewis says, Najee wrote a recommendation letter to Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Conservatory for Lewis just on the merits of their backstage conversations. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry about anything.’ He would do what he had to do to make sure I continued,” says Lewis, who nonetheless decided to stay home and pursue his musical education at the University of the District of Columbia because Hopkins was too far to commute from his D.C. home. Still, Najee had made his mark. “I knew I had to follow through,” says Lewis.
Never Let Me Down finds Lewis safe and basking in the afterglow of his long labor. “I viewed [the album] as a rainbow,” he says.
In his boldest stroke against the gospel grain, the album has a Latin gospel-jazz cut—a product of an even rarer genre than Lewis’ usual format. This midtempo salsa track, “Dios Es Amor” (“God Is Love”), makes you want to shake your rump on the road to glory. And Lewis’ instrumental version of the “Lord’s Prayer,” though engaging enough, sounds a little more like an ode to a lost romance than a hymn of reverence. Its long, brooding, and quivering notes express an emotional depth untouched by the vocal version. If you happened to be flipping the radio dial, didn’t hear the title, and weren’t familiar with the traditional gospel version, it would be quite easy to miss its religious provenance.
Gospel jazz does fit squarely into the tradition of improvisation that defines jazz. But Lewis’ favorite tune on his CD is its most conventional gospel song, “Never Let Me Down.” Sung in a polished alto by local recording artist Julia Nixon, the title tune becomes the sort of slow-paced, earthy spiritual that a pastor emeritus could tap his foot to and enjoy as much as the members of the youth choir do. The album includes jazzy renditions of timeless traditional hymns like “Amazing Grace,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “Oh Happy Day.” Even on these typically voice-dominant tunes, Lewis’ instrumental spin encourages the listener to explore and reinterpret richer realms of experience locked within the hymns.
“It’s an unusual approach, and that in itself is going to aid him in being noticed and recognized,” says Nixon, who sings the lead on several of Lewis’ tracks. “He’s very clear on his motivation, and it’s purely for God.” CP