St. Bernard

ChiorOne finicky Gospel organist, D flat major, and some life lessons.

By Phillip Ratliff

The summer of 1999 was a fateful one. Seinfeld had just ended with a whimper, not the bang we all had been expecting. Next up would be the millennium, at least as popularly defined. As the world followed expectantly on Yahoo and bubble-shaped iMacs, the epoch’s close would also emit its own sort of whimper, rolling uneventfully into Y2K, before trudging on into the era of Arrested Development.

In those days I was living my own sort of expectant existence in Southside, in a hovel that had not boasted a right angle since the Jazz Age. A friend, Chris, owned the building, and he was restoring it one unit at a time. Old apartment buildings don’t so much cave as slowly crumble, like old wedding cake in a Dickens novel. The plaster in nearly every unit was holding on to the wall for dear life. Those chunks that had lost hope and thrown themselves to the floor lay in chalky repose and crunched underfoot.

To earn my keep, Chris had me slathering drywall joint compound over the dangling bits of plaster. “Daub it,” he’d say. “Smear it around.” Chris would grab a paint stirrer or rag, or just apply his fingers and swirl until it started to blend in the with remaining plaster. The effect was not half bad. After several weeks of daubing and smearing, I was given a new duty: painting the exterior trim of the second story windows. All this played out on a ladder, of course. After a few weeks imagining a fate not unlike that of the aforementioned exploded plaster, I was ready for a change.

That change came when a humanities professor at nearby Miles College called. She had seen my résumé and wanted me to join the Miles faculty. I should mention that I hold a doctorate in music, which is, for most the part, an utterly useless adornment that really works no better at simultaneously impressing and amusing people than a really dapper bow tie from Shaia’s. To the Miles humanities chair, however, it was a golden ticket. “We’re starting a music program,” she said, “and we need you and your doctorate in order to please our accreditors. Can you join us?” I called Chris on my first generation Nokia cell phone and informed him that I’d be handing in my brush.

My teaching load at Miles was a polymath’s dream: music history, a writing course, an interdisciplinary course called, triumphantly, “The Humanities.” To round out my hours—and my bona fides as a polymath—I was assigned to assist the gospel choir. “You can accompany on the piano and drill the singers on their parts,” the chair said. “But I’m a trombonist,” I protested. “You can talk about all that with Bernard. Make it work,” the humanities chair told me.

The Bernard in question was one Bernard Williams, a masterful gospel organist and pastor of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Pratt City. As a classical music buff and lapsed Catholic from Southside, I didn’t quite know what to make of Bernard, nor he of me. But I recognized his genius within my first week. Eager to get to know him, I invited him to have sushi with me at Sakura. “Brothers don’t eat sushi,” he said. “How about Indian at Taj?” “Pass.” “Beer?” Though Baptist, he accepted the offer. “I like pale ale,” he said.

My keyboard chops were never nonexistent—I could get through a Bach Prelude and know the topography for about every chord known to man—but I was far from the facile pianist that Bernard was. He could wail on the organ, with the sort of rich soulful incantations that accompany Pentecostal dancing (which Bernard, despite his bad feet, could also exercise with verve). The organ was Bernard’s voice, through which he could sing spirituals, gospel, even funk—the music of his heritage.

For reasons I can’t explain, Bernard, I quickly learned, adored the key of D flat major. That meant every note but C and F were flatted and that every black key was fair game. The home chord, D flat, had two black notes in it. The dominant chord also had two black notes in it. The ii7 chord used nothing but black keys. A variation on the dominant, an e flat minor seventh chord with an A flat in the bass, employed each and every one of the black keys. You could drink five pale ales, pass out on the black keys, and when you came to, rightfully brag that you nailed it.

A few weeks into my new job, I began to get the unmistakable sense that my fumbling style of playing frustrated Bernard. Why wouldn’t it? When I couldn’t keep up, he could be short with me, publicly so. His ill temper was killing my confidence. Bernard also could be volatile when he was ready to make music and others weren’t, a trait he exhibited mostly with others, but occasionally with me. If Bernard’s temperament working within my psyche was like a slow venomous drip, travel with the choir was a sort of antivenin. I adored this aspect of my job. I traveled with the Miles Gospel Choir to small Pentecostal churches in Ensley and West End, on to Mobile, to Talladega, and on the Miles choir’s tour of Freeport.

Yes, Freeport, on the Island of Grand Bahama. (Point of style: Unless you have been granted the charism of bilocation, you can never go to the Bahamas. You can go to a Bahama, and then on to another Bahama.) Bernard organized a one-day cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to the island. In return for the ticket and hotel room, our job was to perform a minimal number of evening concerts. This freed up our days to accomplish all manner of sport or mayhem. My days were wholly given over to riding around the slums of Freeport on a rented moped and eating conch sandwiches poolside.

Back in Fairfield, my teaching began to gain positive attention with students. I especially enjoyed the humanities and writing classes and was beginning to see them as the pathways for channeling my creative energy. The teacher I had become, in my mind, was a cross between every great lecturer I had had in college and Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. We took field trips to museums and concerts, then wrote reviews modeled on what I was reading in The New Yorker or The New York Times. My students seemed to enjoy the exercise in critical self-expression. It never occurred to me that there were much more fruitful literary yields to be harvested right there in Fairfield.

In contrast, my work with Bernard and the choir was becoming sheer chaos. Besides not feeling entirely confident that I knew what I was doing, I found myself grappling with the most onerous tasks: drilling notes Bernard didn’t want to drill or getting the choir warmed up and settled down for Bernard, who might stroll in an hour late. As rehearsal start times became increasingly meaningless, the sessions ballooned to two hours, three hours, into which we were cramming 30 minutes of actual work. It was becoming apparent to me: I had probably maxed out in my role as a makeshift gospel pianist, and that my escape route out of the dysfunction lay in the classroom. I went to the humanities chair and asked that I be released from my assignment. She agreed.

From then on, Bernard and I saw little of each other. Classroom teaching grew into the administrative position I had been hired for, developing the new major in music, and that grew into some authority over three classrooms. One of those I developed into a lab for fumbling pianists like myself, another into a computer music lab, and yet another into a rehearsal space. I wrote a grant and with the proceeds bought several pianos. My sloppy little corner of Miles was beginning to neaten up.

I say we saw little of each other. That’s not to say Bernard would not eventually make his presence known to me. His methods were more insinuating than confrontational: However meticulously neat I dressed the classrooms at the end of the teaching day, Bernard found a way to insert some of the old chaos. After a gospel choir performance, I’d find stacks of amps and music cases stashed haphazardly in my piano lab. Keyboards from the music lab would disappear, then reappear two days later, not on their stands but in a corner of the classroom. A sort of paranoia welled up in me. Why was he sending these messages? It never occurred to me to invoke Occam’s Razor and attribute the phenomenon to Bernard being a slob. I tried tact. I complained, with Bernard, then with whomever would listen. But Bernard was so highly regarded in the Miles community, recourse, I decided, would have to come through my own efforts. I took a new tack, dragging his crap into a hallway whenever it showed up.

My defiance unleashed a new sort of Bernard—Bernard the tattler. He was furious. He told my boss on me. He told my boss’s boss on me. He told the President on me.  Shortly thereafter, and for many reasons that had nothing to do with Bernard, I left Miles. “I’ll climb back up on the ladder if I damn well have to,” I told myself. And I damn well meant it. But I didn’t have to literally climb a ladder. As it turned out, an opportunity to skip several rungs on a metaphorical one presented itself. I took a job at a nonprofit and then another, eventually making three times the money I’d ever made at dear old Miles.

Last month, I was in Pell City, fueling up one of the accouterments of my new job, a character in at least two other of my fables, my Fiat 500. Next to me stood a man bedecked in purple, fueling up a massive SUV.  He looked over “What sort of mileage you get on that thing?” he asked. “I have no idea. Good? Good mileage?” I said.

“I ask because I had a Honda Civic in college and it got great mileage. Not like this thing.” He nodded at his SUV. His purple shirt and, admittedly, the fact that he was African-American, prompted me to ask: “That wouldn’t have been Miles would it?”

“No,” he said, “Talladega College. But I know lots of people at Miles.”

“I worked there years ago!” I said. I rattled off a few names, but my effort to carefully avoid one came to naught when he asked, “Did you know Bernard Williams?”

“I did,” I said. “He’s the best gospel organist I have ever heard.” He was, the man said.

I learned at that gas pump that Bernard had died seven months prior. “I wish I could have seen him,” I said. “I wish I could have gone to his funeral.” I drove off imagining the story of Bernard since I had seen him 10 years prior. Did his temperament mellow? Or did it metastasize? Did he grow wrinkled?

Much time has passed since I left Fairfield and Miles. Miles, by all reports, is flourishing. The city of Fairfield, by all reports, is not. What became of the gospel choir since losing its iconic director, I can’t say. I prefer to not know. My image of the choir will forever be shaped by my image of the irascible Bernard Williams, who, for all his irascibility, I would like to think is enjoying leading choirs in a timeless realm where late and early cease to be categories, where mislaid instrument cases are divested of the ill intent that earthly imaginations wish to ascribe, and where the perfections of the key of D flat are better understood. •


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