Still the Drummer

You say you had a hard life

well that’s a natural fact

things been taken from you

ain’t never get em back

I’m here to tell you

That kind of pain, ain’t no gain

Look out baby they’s comin back round

all over again

This time, Learn from the blues

This time, Don’t live it

This time don’t live the blues

This time just learn from the blues

I have realized that I would not have had such a stellar introduction to the blues if if hadn’t been for Christian, the keyboardist in Bethlehem Asylum. And as a result of his perspectives and teachings, the healing drumming therapies came about many years later.

In retrospect it seems like a forgone conclusion, even ordained, but while we go through our changes we seldom see the overall arch of the dramas in our lives. We may feel the intensities of the moment but it takes time for us to see our own ultimate intentions.

The fact was that he was born into the Brahmin caste in Jaipur, India, then moved to Harlem in New York City as a young boy in the midst of the greatest jazz music evolution that the world has ever known. He was saturated with all of the great jazz improvisers and musical theorists. While we lived and played in Coconut Grove, Christian talked about George Russell’s musical concepts that all the notes were available for improvising- not just the notes in the chords or the scale but the whole keyboard. There were no wrong notes.

“That wasn’t a wrong note. You just didn’t dig it.” Was his quip to quiet the young pups who thought they knew something about jazz. He could solo on trombone, his black wooden ebony flute, percussion and of course any keyboard. His attitude was a mixture of tough New York City street smarts, brilliant musician and composer but also the other side of his demeaner was the priest, the magic man. He was a jazz shaman. But that term did not exist back in nineteen seventy.

Whenever we opened for a major act, they would come over and meet Christian and learn musical ideas from him as he sat at his Wurlitzer electric piano during sound checks. He was always the center of awed interest, and he never abused the privilege. He was the calmest person in any crowd.

The seekers would spout quotes to him.

“You don’t know that for real. That’s something you read in a book.” was another way he put the pretensions of philosophers into perspective. He had reality written all over him. He was tall, even qaunt, thin, dark skinned, with thinning hair that he used black boot polish on to cover up the sparse parts of his sculpted head. He looked like Gandhi with his wire glasses, but with a taller, longer gait that had evolved over years in the big city. He owned the space he was taking up with solid sure conviction of who he was. His real angel side came out when the hippie kids would talk to him. He gave them insight in just a few words. Never one to elaborate. It was a zen koan left to the listener to ponder and decipher for years to come,

“Your soul is on fire.” He mumbled to me as we walked down the sidewalk at the University of Miami where we were to open for Miles Davis and his Bitch’s Brew band. He was right. My soul was burning white hot- as were many others at that time.

The philosophy of the band was historically based; Our Sisters of Bethlehem opened their convent to  the mentally ill back in the late seventeen hundreds in London. The insane lived there, also the political opponents of the crown, writers, philosophers, free thinkers, and the criminally mentally incompetent. The ruling class would sit in their observation booths high above the courtyard and be amused by the humanity wandering about, jabbering to themselves.

The lyrics to the ‘Bethlehem Asylum Theme song’:

“If you’re wondering where you are and from where you’ve come,

You’re in Bethlehem Asylum, Third one from the sun.”

Over the years, I have developed a way to use the drum in a therapeutic way. It is ancient and it is modern. But I often hear myself quoting Christian, or feeling him in my hands when I am playing the keyboards. I listen to the playback and have no idea how I could play that. His voicings are unique.

When I see myself performing a healing drumming meditation with someone or with a group, I remember his compassionate groove.

I seem to still be the drummer in Bethlehem Asylum.

Buddy Christian Miami69web

excerpt: “History of the Groove” Russell Buddy Helm ©2015 photo by Ron Sill

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