Drumming with one stick

By Lawrence Cosentino

Jazz carries on at Creole without Robert Busby

In the middle of a scorching solo Sunday afternoon at Old Town’s Creole Gallery, drummer Randy Gelispie dropped a stick on the floor. He needed but a second to pick it up, but first he had to drive his current thought, in fragile mid-flight, safely home. For the next minute and a half, every mouth in the gallery but Gelispie’s fell open as one hand did the work of two.

Talk about a teaching moment.

Sunday afternoon’s passionate, generous jazz set by the MSU Professors of Jazz was all about carrying on with half a body, half a soul, half a set of hands, even half an audience.

The Professors of Jazz were at the Creole to take part in a tribute to Robert Busby, the Creole’s creator, Old Town’s most beloved figure and a devoted jazz lover, who was killed in February 2007.

Black curtains blocked the sunlight and sealed the gallery in queasy cross-currents of joy and gloom. Bassist Rodney Whitaker looked subdued, even somber.

“I’ve been here once since Robert died, but it’s still hard,” he said.

Last March, Whitaker returned to the Creole as part of a student concert, but this was the first time the Professors of Jazz, almost a house band in the Creole’s heyday, gathered as a group to play there since Busby’s death.

Whitaker could hardly have helped noticing the dismal turnout for Sunday’s tribute — half a house at best. The empty chairs spoke of Busby’s absence as well as anything else. The Creole was always full, wall to peeling wall, when Busby and his partner, Meegan Holland, booked and promoted the Professors.

But, like Gelispie working with one stick, the enthusiastic crowd doubled the noise and warmth to make up the difference.

“I walked right in and felt that vibe again,” ebullient saxman Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson said. “I was ready to play.”

Before the jazz, Mike Stratton, local jazz DJ and friend of Busby’s, recited a tribute poem he composed the day after Busby died. Clearly shaken, Stratton spoke as if talking to Busby directly about the love of art and music he shared with the city. Lansing poet Ruelaine Stokes read Mary Oliver’s “Snow Geese,” gently exhorting the audience to savor “what is lovely and will not last.” The poets were warmly received, but when local filmmaker Noah Blon showed clips from a forthcoming biographical film about Busby, the fuzzy images on the screen struck a nerve.

It was hard to watch Busby, so recently breathing and smiling in this space, fade into a tribute program and film project, however well meant or well done. Sunday’s tribute was part of a series of events documenting the history of Old Town, but the word “history” rang cruelly.

During a break in the music, Whitaker pointed to the doorway where Busby often stood, enjoying the music.

“He’s still there,” Whitaker said.

Whatever the metaphysics of Busby and his aura, the musicians left no doubt that jazz was still there.

Playing with an urgency and skill that sharply contrasted with their more relaxed dates, the Professors worked like mad to fill the raw wounds and gaping holes around them.

A new composition by Whitaker, “Robert’s Lament,” painted a sonic picture of Busby, washing contemplative chords on the shore of a slow, soulful groove.

Whitaker’s tribute tune was almost shockingly true to its subject, but then, jazz musicians are largely in the business of conjuring the departed. Pianist Rick Roe dug into layer upon layer of Thelonious Monk’s musical legacy, when the band launched into one of Monk’s thorniest tunes, “Evidence.” The rainbow harmonies of Miles Davis’ “Milestones” popped from the stage like a volley of short-lived bubbles.

In an unusual and moving highlight of the afternoon, a triptych of intimate, prolonged duets showcased the Professors at length, two by two. They dug so deeply into themselves and communed so closely that all the three duets drew standing ovations. First, Anderson and Roe floated through Monk’s enigmatic loop of love, “Ruby, My Dear.” Next, saxman Diego Rivera and Gelispie tore through “Straight, No Chaser” like a pounding twocylinder engine of divine design. Finally, Whitaker and the newest professor, trumpeter Etienne Charles, danced nimbly through a Miles Davis favorite, “Someday my Prince Will Come.”

Even though Sunday was his Creole debut, Charles seemed caught up in the Busby spirit. Toward the end of the duet with Whitaker, he held a sweet, caressing note on muted trumpet for so long it seemed to defy the line from “Snow Geese” about lovely things that don’t last.

Sesquicentennial Celebration of Old Town

Continues through Sunday, Sept. 27

Wednesday, Sept. 23 ‘Found in Translation: Poetry from Around the World’ With Ruelaine Stokes 7:30-9 p.m., Creole Gallery

Thursday, Sept. 24 Premiere of ‘Specters of Lansing,’ a documentary film by MSU faculty and students

Friday, Sept. 25-Saturday, Sept. 26 UAW Art and History Exhibit 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Studio 1210

Sept. 25 ‘Schooling: Tejano Style’ with Rene Meave of Los Bandits of
Michigan and Juve Aldaco of El Grupo Aldaco. Reception to follow.

8-11 p.m., Perspectives2

Saturday, Sept. 26 ‘Voices of Old Town: Variations on a History,’ a play by MSU faculty and students based on oral histories.

8 -10 p.m., Perspectives2

Sunday, Sept. 27 Architectural Tour 2-4 p.m., MessageMakers