I’m gospel jazz saxophonist Eldon “T” Jones from Portland, OR. When I was growing up, my uncles Mark and Ray Tellis played saxophone in church and inspired me to take up the instrument. Ray was playing as a teenager and had such a powerful anointing! I would see people touched, crying, sometimes laid out on the floor, just rejoicing in the Lord. Me being a little boy watching that, I thought, “I want the power of God in my life and want to play saxophone just like that!” Now I’ve been playing saxophone in churches for many years.
The blend of jazz and traditional gospel music is one of my favorite styles to play. Compared to jazz, gospel music is a rawer form of music, a rawer expression. There’s more emotion behind it, and it’s less governed by complex cliches. Jazz is more defined by certain chord structures and patterns. If I’m doing a gospel jazz presentation, then I may alter the chords of a gospel song that weren’t able to create patterns in a jazz structure. A trained jazz player in a gospel setting has to understand that less is probably more, and then come up with other ways with sound and inflections to express musical expression.
Here are the top 10 gospel jazz saxophonists who’ve most inspired me!
Kirk Whalum is a pioneer saxophonist because he is probably the first saxophonist to truly cross over into various genres, become very popular, and still very much keep the gospel sound and style. He is very skilled as a jazz musician, very fluent in the tradition of jazz. His sound and delivery touch me in a way that I know his music is truly God-inspired. He is the most known and celebrated gospel jazz saxophonist, so you’re probably not surprised to see him on this list. You can check out his Gospel According to Jazz album series.
Kevin and I grew up in COGIC churches in Portland, and we’ve performed together consistently even though he moved to the Bay Area several years ago. I like how he interprets melody. He opened at our N Touch Reunion show, and I’ve performed with him at Yoshi’s in Oakland several times. You can check out his albums The Prayer Closet and The Prayer Closet, Vol II. Here is Kevin playing “More than Anything.”
In the late ’80s and ’90s I was listening to O’Landa Draper, who was a choir director and Grammy award-winning gospel artist. On his recordings, I’d hear a saxophone player, and I was like, “Who is this horn player?” And it was Donald Hayes, and I noticed he played with a lot of fire, a great sound, but a lot of fire behind his playing and very complimentary player. That was before I heard any of his solo music. He has a recording of a Donnie McClurkin song “Speak to my Heart” that I also perform. He has worked with some of the biggest artists in the world in the gospel, R&B, and soul scenes.
Someone gave me a recording of Harold Rayford back in the ’80s, and that’s how I got hip to him. He had a very skilled approach to the gospel genre, and I was drawn in by his creativity. Harold is also a pastor and titled his latest project I Am The Instrument. Check out “Alpha & Omega” from it.
Vernard Johnson is a true pioneer and legend of the gospel saxophonists. He doesn’t just play, but he also shares his powerful testimony and preaches the word of God. He used to come to town for our church conventions when I was a kid. I can still see him walking the isles holding that one note while pointing a finger to the sky! Here he’s playing “God Has Smiled on Me,” which is a song I love to play too.
Evangelist Rosie Haynes was a COGIC musician from East St. Louis. She started recording in the ’70s, and I started listening to her when I was a kid in the late ’70s when my grandparents would play her album He Can’t Fail. She has made her mark through preaching, singing, and playing the saxophone. Check out “He Can’t Fail.”