A conversation with Aaron Cohen—reviews editor for DownBeat, freelance Chicago Tribune writer, and author of one of the more recent installments in the 33 1/3 series, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace—in which we try to talk about writing but end up talking about music.
TriQuarterly: First of all, congratulations on your success over the past year. You had the book out, and then you won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for your Ray Charles piece in DownBeat. You had a book release party at the Chicago Cultural Center and the Gay family performed, so I wanted to know if you could talk about what that was like for you, and about the reception that the book has been getting.
Aaron Cohen: It was an incredible event. Over the last few years I’ve gotten to know the Gay family in Chicago. The Gay Sisters had a gospel hit in 1950, “God Will Take Care of You,” which Aretha performed on Amazing Grace. Donna Gay, who is a wonderful, wonderful singer, is also a middle school teacher, so she only sings in the gospel context. I tell people that my whole reason for writing this book was just an elaborate ruse to have a book release party at the Chicago Cultural Center and get Donna Gay in front of a mainstream audience.
TQ: That worked out well, it seems like.
AC: Oh, people loved her. She was great. She handled the Aretha parts. Gregory Gay, Donald Gay’s son, brought in his choir from his church, so he did the James Cleveland part. It was sort of a reenactment.
TQ: Something I noticed about the book was that you kind of had a built-in story arc with the process behind the album. I was wondering whether that’s what made you decide to explore this particular album.
AC: Writing a book of any kind, even a short one, is such an arduous, long process. You really, really have to love your subject to do it. I’ve always loved the music on this album. One of the things the author of a potential book never wants to hear is that their idea is better as an article than as a book. And I always felt that the story behind this album and its place in history and the people who contributed to it—not just Aretha Franklin—[were] worthy of a whole book. At first I had ideas of bringing in a lot of sociology and history and other music, but once I started talking to the participants of the album, I really wanted to make the story more about them.
TQ: You interviewed so many people, and Aretha herself is notoriously private. Did you try and get hold of her?
AC: I knew going into the project that I would most likely not be able to reach her. I went through her people and never heard back. I did speak to her twice in my life.
TQ: That’s more than most people.
AC: I spoke to her in the summer of 2001. There was a jazz saxophonist named James Carter, and he was doing a live recording session in Detroit, and Aretha would come on and sing four songs. Jazz standards. I met her there, we spoke briefly, and she wanted to just talk about DownBeat, because [we were] the first publication to ever do a big feature on her, in 1961. DownBeat wrote about Aretha Franklin, seriously, before Ebony did, so that’s something she never forgot. Then I spoke with her in May of 2011. It was after I finished the book, and this was when she performed at the Chicago Theatre, and she wanted to talk about how happy she was that DownBeat is still around, so the two times I caught her she just wanted to talk about DownBeat, which is fine. It’s a great magazine and I’m really happy to work for them.
TQ: I’m curious about how you became so interested in gospel—if there’s a moment where you can pinpoint an album, or a song, or just something that resonated with you really strongly.
AC: It’s sort of like American Music 101 that gospel had an influence on contemporary popular music, whether it’s rhythm and blues, especially soul, or rock and roll, of course. I always knew that, but I didn’t really seek gospel out. It wasn’t until I started traveling. I would go to Cuba or Brazil, and I would see how Cuban religious music shaped Cuban jazz, and Brazilian religious music shaped Brazilian popular music. And everybody in Cuba and Brazil were into it. They didn’t have to practice Santería to go and enjoy Santeía music, because Santería, the Afro-Cuban religion, impacted Afro-Cuban jazz. I thought, “Well, gospel music had a similar impact on American popular music, so why don’t more Americans go to African American churches to seek out gospel?” So I started doing so. And just after I graduated from college, I was an intern at WBEZ. They did live broadcasts of the blues and jazz and gospel festivals. I knew about jazz, I knew about blues, but that was the first time I was at a big gospel event. Seeing these groups, with tens of thousands of people reacting so ecstatically— in my early twenties, that had quite a big impact.
TQ: I had the same question about your master’s degree. I know in ethnomusicology you can get involved in all these little niches, so I was wondering how that struck your interest.
AC: I got my master’s at the University of Chicago. I studied the music of the Garifuna people, descendents of African slaves and Carib Indians who live in Belize. By the time I was in graduate school, I had been writing about music enough that I would get free CDs in the mail. In the late nineties, I received a disc called Paranda, which was a collection of Garifuna music. I had heard it before, but I wasn’t able to fully delve into the story of the people and their music until I was in grad school. It was funny because it was right around that whole Buena Vista Social Club craze, and I think they tried to market this as another chapter of the Buena Vista-type story, which it wasn’t. It arrived in the mail and I enjoyed it, I enjoyed listening to it.
TQ: You did a ton of research for this book, and you thank your wife at the beginning. Had you worked with her before in such a capacity, with such a big project? What was that experience like?
AC: Well, I owe my wife Lavonne everything. She works at the American Theological Library Association, which is based in downtown Chicago. A lot of the research I did, a lot of the articles I cited, by people like Pearl Williams-Jones and other theologians, I was able to get through her. My wife loves music too. She played classical piano and certainly knows more about the technique of making music than I could ever hope to. And I love my wife, so that’s the best part of it.
TQ: Are you a musician yourself?
AC: I used to play piano, but not of any quality.
TQ: That’s my piano background as well. You had a busy past year. Do you have anything major on the horizon, or are you taking a break for now?
AC: I’m starting to research a book dealing with soul music in Chicago in the 1960s and 70s, taking into account the cultural and political changes that were going on in Chicago at that time. I found out that there really haven’t been that many books written about African American Chicago from that period.
TQ: That’s kind of strange.
AC: Yeah, it’s very strange. There was so much going on in Chicago in the late sixties and early seventies, and there’s been so little written about it in book form.
TQ: Were there any surprises like that that came with researching for Amazing Grace?
AC: That plays into the research I’m doing now. A lot of times, books about soul music and the civil rights movement cut off at 1968, which is very strange because we saw TV shows like Soul Train here in Chicago, and the rise of black-owned record labels that I think coincides with the rise of black politicians and other changes. Amazing Grace was certainly part and parcel of that, coming out in 1972; that was something I found out when researching, and that’s something I’m still dealing with right now.
TQ: Do you have a favorite record store that you’ve kept returning to?
AC: The Jazz Record Mart, here in Chicago. They have such a great collection of all sorts of things. Dusty Groove has a wonderful selection of R&B, Brazilian music, African music, funk, soul and neo-soul, and jazz. Old School Records, in the suburb of Forest Park, is really nice. Really great selection of stuff, hard-to-find stuff, and the people are wonderful. When I was growing up—in fact, I think where I bought my copy of Amazing Grace—was at Secondhand Tunes on Dempster Street in Evanston. It’s still there, but it’s not as good as it was.
Cohen graciously followed up our phone interview with a handful of churches that provide the truest gospel music experience in Chicago. His favorites:
Acme Missionary Baptist Church (8747 S. Paulina)
Prayer Center Church of God in Christ (526 E. 67th St.)
First Church of Deliverance (4315 S. Wabash)