Sharon Baptist Church boasts a congregation that harkens back to 1934, many years before the church finally found an expansive resting space in West Philadelphia. It's a very big church, but John’s family and friends needed a big one to say goodbye and to wish him well on his journey home.
John Blake Jr. was an accomplished musician who started early in his life loving sound, thanks to his mother, a pianist herself. But what he was most beloved for was his teaching and mentoring gifts. Many, many of the photos flashing rhythmically on both sides of the church stage showed John, not towering over students, but kneeling or sitting with his young charges, looking them directly in the eye, wanting to be on their level to communicate the beauty and soul-changing force that music could be for a young mind. There was even a photo of John embracing kid-icon Fred Rodgers from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood!
So, it was totally fitting that greeting the people streaming into the church was the Clef Club Youth String Ensemble directed by Lovett Hines. Cellos, violas, and violins, especially violins—the instrument John Blake Jr. championed in jazz every moment of his life. He was a master of music, so much so that jazz critic Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times in 1984 that, “Mr. Blake rides those vamps like a master. His tone shifts from a flutelike clarity to the guttiness of the blues violinist Stuff Smith. And where some jazz violin solos could easily be played as horn lines, Mr. Blake deploys violinistic slides, tremolos and doublestops not as special effects, but as flexible, vocalistic shadings... He also knows how to pace a long solo so that it builds to crest after crest, with an oratorical sense of timing.”
So, it was totally fitting that a dream band consisting of violinist Regina Carter, Luke Carlos O'Reilly, Gerald Veasley, Harry "Butch" Reed, and Doc Gibbs played the wistful, yet rhythmically contagious song “Paradise” from Grover Washington, Jr.'s 1979 album of the same name—a project and a band of which John was an integral part. Even Pastor Bishop Keith W. Reed Sr. couldn’t stop dancing and clapping, getting up from his place in the row of chairs populated by fellow pastors, formidable and solemn purveyors of sobriety until the music started. Later, violinist Diane Monroe would get the mourners going to joy on a duet with John’s sister, organist Vivian Carson, playing hymns that John used to love to improvise on, finishing off with everyone in the church belting out “How Great thou Art,” milking it for all its worth.
There were a handful of folks who were asked to speak at this celebration, but the one that stood out spoke to John’s mildness and goodness with seekers of musical knowledge and life. Bassist Gerald Veasley said, “John created a way of playing and a new language that made a mark on the jazz community... he had the heart and soul of a teacher.” Then Veasley went on to say what he had learned from being with John: “how to create space, how to lay down a groove, and how to handle people... John had the ability to distinguish between taking his art and music seriously and taking himself seriously.” John definitely did the former and never the latter.
John Blake Jr. is a very special part of jazz history in Philadelphia and beyond. He cared deeply about his fellow musicians and quietly helped them when they needed it (see attached photo of him playing for Monnette Sudler's benefit last spring). He gave of himself generously as he battled a particularly vicious disease for years before anyone knew he was so ill. Many people were surprised that he died. That was just his way. He didn’t broadcast his highs or his lows. In fact, John had agreed to play a Neighborhood Concert Series for Jazz Bridge in February 2015, something he had generously done twice before and for very little money for a musician of his stature. But instead, that performance will become a tribute to him by the musicians who have worked with him and some of his students—violinist Benjamin Sutin, Nathan Khamal, and a youth chorus under the direction of Suzzette Ortiz will play compositions written by John Blake Jr.
If you wish to help offset some of the medical expenses left from John’s long battle with cancer, you can make a tax deductible donation via Jazz Bridge to the John Blake Jr. Jazz Fiddler Fund and it will go directly to the family. Please make out checks to Jazz Bridge (with Jazz Fiddler in the memo line) and send to 3008 Limekiln Pike, Glenside, PA 19038 or donate by credit card online.
Suzanne Cloud is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Jazz Bridge Project, an organization that helps Philadelphia-area jazz and blues musicians in crisis.