The Story of Church on Monday: Inception

Let’s bow our heads, together, and groove!

I’ve imagined those words, more than once, emanating from an invisible pulpit on Monday nights at the Continental Gallery in Austin, Texas. What happens there every Monday between 8:30-10pm, and has for the last two years, would not meet any traditional definition of church. No one in attendance expects even a syllable of religious pontificating. There is, however, some mighty good preachin’ going on, if you use the definition “earnest advocation.” It flows forth from a soul-jazz quintet that has captured the hearts of both the band members and the faithful audience that gathers every week to experience the uplift of five veteran musicians giving themselves up to channel blues-based improvisation over a foundation of earthy soul-jazz grooves. This is not music to talk or text over, although a few will try. It is music to relax into and embrace as a magic carpet for the soul. It is, like all inspired music, something that can lift us up, that can heal us.

I’ve been playing music since I was six-years-old, starting on piano, moving to the trumpet, and eventually settling on the drumset. I started playing professionally at 17 and have had many memorable experiences in the almost four decades since. But this Monday night band, now in its third year of residency at Austin’s Continental Gallery, has captured something most often elusive. We all know from experience that putting together a band of deeply complimentary and compatible individuals, or for that matter, a similar grouping in any profession, is difficult. Keeping it together is even more difficult. When Elias Haslanger, an icon of jazz in Austin, Texas, sought to assemble the band that eventually became known as Church on Monday, he was reaching for a feeling he’d enjoyed before. As a rising young star in the late 1990s Austin music scene, Eli fronted an adventurous quartet, weekly for four years, at Austin’s Cedar Street Courtyard. The group included JJ Johnson, Edwin Livingston, and Fredrick Saunders, the three of whom went on the play with the likes of John Mayer, Natalie Cole, and The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra respectively. When the quartet dissolved, Eli moved to Manhattan and during his four years there spent time on the road with one of the last great big bands, fronted by trumpet legend Maynard Ferguson.

But his hometown of Austin, known for its cowboy/hippy, cross-culture/cross-genre atmosphere, beckoned Eli back. That was 2004. It’s harder to sense that eclectic vibe today, deeper into the ongoing local boom and unrelenting invasion that are transforming, and some feel, burying, Austin. But return he did, and continued to produce critically-acclaimed recordings as well as front variations of his quartet and quintet, while maintaining a status as a top-call sideman performing and recording with Alejandro Escovedo, Christopher Cross, Sheryl Crow and others.

Then came 2011.

I had been working off and on with Eli and a new rising star in Austin’s small but potent jazz scene, bassist Daniel Durham. We all knew Dr. James Polk (“JP”), a Texas music legend who at 73 still worked more nights each week than any of us, exhibiting all of the accumulated musical virtuosity one would expect from a man whose lengthy professional credits include Ray Charles (as Ray’s musical director for a decade), Lionel Hampton, and Lou Rawls. Then there was the final piece in the puzzle, Jake Langley. As the guitar voice in Joey Defrancesco’s organ trio for five years, Jake was perfect for completing Eli’s new band vision.

The 1960s recordings of the sax and organ pairing of Stanley Turrentine and Shirley Scott, as well as those by guitarist Grant Green, were commanding a lot of turntable time at the Haslanger house. The sound, occupying a place between hard-bop and blues, was dubbed soul jazz when it developed in the late 1950s. The release of The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco earmarks public awareness of soul jazz as a genre.

Eli, whose influences run the gamut between iconic jazz saxophonists (John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins) and blues guitar legends (Stevie Ray Vaughn, Albert Collins), was determined to offer Austin, and all who would listen, a new take on the soul jazz genre. So he called Daniel, JP, Jake, and me, and said “let’s make a record.” The five of us had never been in the same room together before meeting on a Sunday in late November, one day before a two-day recording session at Church House Studios. The Sunday run-through was routine — a mix of familiar jazz standards, a few obscure ones, and two originals by Eli. For me, there was already a hint of what might come of this (by Austin standards) dream band. I know Eli felt it. But years of getting prematurely excited about band potential, just to see it go unrealized for one reason or another, had left me devoid of expectation beyond the next booking.

The two days we spent at Church House Studios were inspiring. I bought a new drum kit just for the occasion, the first one I’d purchased since 1982. I had needed an impetus and here it was. After one day of recording, Eli and I weren’t happy with the cymbal sound I was getting so I borrowed some options from a colleague for day two. Most of what made the record came from that second day. JP schooled us, both with his Hammond organ work and the great stories he told about his travels during our breaks. We were all spread out in this old church that had been converted into a recording studio, masterfully run and engineered by owner David Boyle. Scattered around the room, 10-20 feet between each of us, baffles in between, it was not at all like the closet-sized space we all now cram into every Monday at the Gallery. The sound David captured was pristine and we wrapped day two, and the session, with a sense of accomplishment and expectation. Anyone who has been in the recording studio a handful of times will tell you that is not always the case.

Early mixes, however good, did not have the sound Eli was looking to produce. He knew it was there, in the tracks, and turned to our friend and local keyboardist/producer Eddie Hobizal for additional help. It’s a reminder to me that great art, great anything, is a collaboration. Not a single contribution is expendable in it’s achievement. If it is, the result is a different piece of work. It might still be just a good. It might be better. But it is not a better version of the same thing. It is something different, because each contribution is part of the DNA of a creation. David Boyle and Church House Studios, Eddie Hobizal, Eli and the band members, the people that made our instruments — all had an irreplaceable role in the genesis of Church on Monday.

churchonmondayWe left the recording session and were not together as a group again for ten months. Eli named the recording, and his original title track, Church on Monday, in honor of the studio and the Monday we began recording. At the end of the summer, I remember when he handed me that first LP with it’s classic Blue Note cover design. I knew I’d frame it, and put it up on a wall in my home. “I’ll need a second copy,” I said.

Appropriately, we all met on a Monday to perform two tunes from the album for a segment for Jay Trachtenberg’s Sunday Jazz show on KUT-FM. It felt a bit tentative after a ten-month break, but the dust was off by the end of the first tune.

We met again on Friday for the official album release party at Austin’s full-time jazz club, The Elephant Room. It was a great night. We loved being together again as a group and the audience was enthusiastic, one person in particular, even in his typically understated way. That person was Michael Point, longtime champion of Austin jazz talent and contributor to Downbeat Magazine, revered by most as the monthly “bible” of jazz, blues, and roots music. Michael had a look of contentment on his face. He was a confidant of Elias, of many of us in the Austin jazz scene. I’d known him since the early 1980s when he gave me my first mention in an Austin publication. He was the obvious choice to write the liner notes for the new album and captured the band beautifully.

Both the material, showcasing all shades of soul and multiple hues of blues, and the band’s approach to it, a relaxed but relentless attention to rhythm, result in a Haslanger album that this time is more Mr. T than Trane. This is not especially surprising since it was in fact an early effort, the 1964 classic “Hustlin’,” by soulful saxist Stanley “Mr. T.” Turrentine, joined by organist Shirley Scott and guitarist Kenny Burrell, that served as the creative catalyst for these sessions … The play is uniformly strong and sure but while it consistently maximizes the impact and intent of the music it never overpowers it, ultimately making for an enjoyable soul jazz worship service fitting and proper for any and every day of the week.

Photo courtesy David Barrow (davidbarrow.com)

Can I hear an “amen?” A little over two weeks later we began a weekly residency at The Continental Gallery, a small listening room in a former loft storage space above Austin’s legendary Continental Club. Owner Steve Wertheimer suggested a Monday time slot from 8:30-10. And so began the transformation of Church on Monday from an album name into a band. The crowd for our early Monday no-cover set grew swiftly. Many weeks find a line at the door, a diverse crowd digging on the sounds flowing down the stairwell while waiting for space to open up inside. There are regulars who have missed only a handful of performances in two years. They, the club staff, and everyone in attendance have become an essential part of our church-like experience. I say “church-like” because I have lost count of how many times I’ve heard people say, “Church on Monday starts the week off right for me. Sometimes I’m feeling off when I get there, but that 90 minutes really lifts me up.” Sounds like church to me.

Church on Monday and Ephraim Owens at the 2013 Austin Music Awards: (l-r) Ephraim Owens, Dr. James Polk, Jake Langley, Elias Haslanger, Daniel Durham, Me.
Church on Monday and Ephraim Owens at the 2013 Austin Music Awards: (l-r) Ephraim Owens, Dr. James Polk, Jake Langley, Elias Haslanger, Daniel Durham, Me.

In the two years since our first Monday at the Gallery, Church on Monday has won Best Jazz Band in the 2012 Austin Chronicle Music Poll, held a guest spot on Alejandro Escovedo’s United Sounds of Austin at ACL Live, and was a headliner at the 2013 Austin Music Awards show during SXSW.

In September of 2013 we recorded Live at the Gallery, which received a glowing 4.5 star review in Downbeat Magazine. Critic Michael Jackson wrote,

[LIVE at the Gallery] is one of the most enjoyable, raucously swinging, unpretentious yet adventurously soulful albums I’ve heard in a month of Sundays.

I love his review, both for the joy of his description and for expanding our branding to a second day of the week. In his liner notes for Live at the Gallery, journalist and Monday night regular, Brad Buchholz, captured it a different way.

I attend regularly, religiously — not merely because I want to be there but because I need to be there. Church on Monday, you see, is all about love … and community … and sharing. Church on Monday makes our hearts soar. Church on Monday sends us into the night with a spirit of affirmation.

Our friend and guide, Michael Point, who regularly made the three-plus hour drive from Houston, and back, on Mondays, was there for two consecutive nights of recording Live at the Gallery. Three weeks later, he passed due to liver cancer diagnosed around the time of the recording. It was sudden and heartbreaking, and extra poignant knowing how much Mondays had come to mean to him in his last months with us.

That brings me to why I wanted to write about Church on Monday — because there is no guarantee it will last another day. We all know that is true about everything in life, and I realize I don’t want to miss the opportunity to tell this story while it is still unfolding, to share it with others who haven’t it experienced yet, and to capture my own and the band members thoughts about what makes Mondays at the Gallery so very special. In coming posts I’ll share conversations with my bandmates, and admirers of the band, as we explore the magical things that happen when an improvisational group, and its “congregation,” stay together as long as this one has. You’ll learn something more about all of us and the individual roads that brought us together. And we’ll talk about a looming question.

As I said in the beginning, putting a band like Church on Monday together is difficult. Keeping it together is even more so, and the collapse of recorded music sales along with an earbud culture that is increasingly oblivious to the unique experience of live music, has brought Church on Monday, and all musicians, to a crossroads. How do we continue to grow, how do we continue at all, when the profession becomes inviable? After all of the positive reception I described above, after two critically-acclaimed recordings, we still play for tips every Monday night. Don’t get me wrong, we love our Mondays. We are moved by the generosity and spirit of the audience which shows up rain or shine. And we often come close with Monday tips to equaling what we make playing other gigs with other bands. But when it’s all said and done, we play each Monday because we love each other, the music, and the audience; because Church on Monday reminds us of why we became musicians.

Whether that is enough of a windbreak against the broader elements, enough to keep the band together, is yet to be seen.

3 Comments

Leave a Comment

  1. Well said Scotty! It’s unusual to find a circumstance that culminates in music making that is on the one hand soulful and also, enduring. If a musician is fortunate enough to find this type of venue, he works to nurture it, because it is meaningful to him AND his listeners. Good live music is its own tonic and those who appreciate this wonderful experience will come! Musicians and listeners! Keep it up!

Leave a Reply