I first heard this guy back in the mid-1970s, after reading a review in the New York Times, by the late Robert Palmer, of his first album, The Gospel Saxophone of Vernard Johnson—and I’ve been listening to him ever since.
Live, Texas (Roanoke)
“What Is This?”
“I’ve Decided To Make Jesus My Choice” (The Gospel Saxophone of Vernard Johnson [Glori, 1974])
Like Rev. Utah Smith and many other gospel greats (Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Arizona Dranes, et al.), Vernard Johnson belongs to the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), a denomination that, as Robert Palmer put it, “has never believed in letting the devil have all the good tunes, or the good instruments.”
The saxophone is a resolutely secular icon in our culture, its gleaming curves and often voice-like sound firmly associated with both sultry, sophisticated jazz and bumptious rock-and-roll, with high-flying fancies and the red-dirt realities of the blues. But the saxophone has also been a vehicle of imagination and spirit. And although it isn’t widely known, the spirituality of storefront churches and ecstatic religion has shaped the work of some of American music’s most indelible saxophone stylists, including King Curtis, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler.
King Curtis, whose solos on 50’s hits like the Coasters’ ‘Charlie Brown’ and ‘Baby That Is Rock-and-Roll’ virtually defined rock-and-roll saxophone as a distinct idiom, grew up playing the saxophone in Texas churches. Ornette Coleman, who played rocking Southern rhythm-and-blues saxophone before he revolutionized jazz in the 60’s, considers playing in Deacon Frank Lastie’s ”spirit church” in New Orleans in the 1940’s a key experience in terms of his later evolution. There was a great deal of the black church in the burning, visionary saxophone stylings of 60’s iconoclasts such as Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders.—Robert Palmer, The New York Times (3/6/87)