Gentle Genius: Charles Covington
BRIAN V. JONES, Baltimore Jazz Alliance, January 2019
Genius comes in many forms: loud and brash, demanding attention and tainted with narcissistic hubris; or understated and gentle, so quiet it goes unnoticed in a world where a cacophony of stimuli vies for our attention. Charles Covington, Jr. is a distinguished exemplar of the latter. At seventy-seven this gentle man is disarmingly brilliant and still capable of rendering virtuosic performances on either the piano or the Hammond B-3 organ.
Covington, a mostly self-taught Baltimore native, is a treasure trove of jazz lore who appears on over seventy-five albums. As a junior high student, he was expelled from school when he was caught in the band room picking out chords on the piano. The rock-and-roll-loving-Fats-Domino-fan’s introduction to jazz came as a high school senior when his principal played jazz over the intercom before the start of classes. After hearing Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal, Covington was “hooked” on jazz. When he heard Ray Charles he decided he had to imitate that sound. As his exposure to jazz grew, he became determined to “find his own way.” Covington could hear any tune and “duplicate it.” Gifted with perfect pitch, by his own admission he became a jazz “fanatic.”
Following a stint in the army, Covington returned to Baltimore determined to learn music and play jazz. He enrolled in the only jazz class offered at Peabody Conservatory. He was not allowed to attend classes, because people of color were not welcomed at Peabody at that time, so he took instruction at his teacher’s home. Covington continued teaching himself piano and organ, spending fifty cents an hour to rent practice space at the Hammond Music School in Baltimore.
According to Covington, his real music education came through haunting the clubs on the famed Baltimore Street in downtown Baltimore. Once the home of night clubs and strip clubs, Baltimore Street provided Covington with an opportunity to hear a myriad of musicians and styles. While his skills were still in their infancy, he apprenticed himself to a local singer named Peaches who took a liking to him and took him under her wing. Peaches exposed the neophyte who never drank or smoked to Baltimore’s club world. His challenge was to learn and play from her personal songbook.
Under Peaches’ mentorship, Covington got to know all the musicians “on the Block,” memorizing twelve to fifteen songs daily so he could play anything. Experiencing disparate treatment from a musician’s union that favored whites, he and other musicians of color were required “not to stand out” during their breaks.
As Covington’s fame grew, he studied Fats Waller, Ray Charles, Wild Bill Davis and Jimmy Smith. He perfected his use of the sustain pedal on the B-3. Musicians spread the word about this young cat who could play anything. Earning steady money and developing a loyal following, Covington became an opening act at the Royal Theatre in Baltimore. His big break came when a local drummer invited him to play in New York. In the audience was George Benson’s manager who, after hearing Covington play, invited him to tour and play with Benson. Although the money was good, there were times when things were slow and “tight” on the road. With a growing family in Baltimore, Covington took up chess and, in an effort to make ends meet, haunted the chess clubs in New York where he hustled chess. True to form, Covington became obsessed with chess and rose to become one of the top ten black chess players in America. He still enjoys “Life Master” status granted by the United States Chess Federation.
Three years on and off the road with Benson took a toll on Covington, and the demands of family life required his presence at home. As a regular in the Baltimore and Washington music scene who was equally adept at piano or organ he earned “a solid living” working with many bands. He also toured in Europe and China with various groups. When asked why he never signed a record contract, his response was simple and direct: “I wanted to control my music.”
His fame and expertise as a jazz pianist and organist garnered the attention of none other than the Peabody Conservatory of Music, which hired him to teach jazz piano. His tenure there lasted twenty years. He also added to his resume a twelve-year stint as a professor of piano at Howard University.
As if music and chess mastery weren’t enough, Charles Covington is also a performing magician and has authored texts on mathematics, chess, and checkers.
Having had a life in jazz, Covington counts among his great experiences concerts performed at the White House, Kennedy Center, Peabody Conservatory of Music, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore Museum of Art, Montpelier Arts Center, Eubie Blake Cultural Center and many international venues. He appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and recorded the album The Shape of Things to Come. Among the performers with whom he has recorded are J.J. Johnson, Ethel Ennis, O'Donel Levy, Nathan Page, and many others. He was featured on the cover of Expo Magazine as Jazz Musician of the Year in 1983.
As jazz pianist in residence at the Kennedy Center, Covington performs there annually. One need only search YouTube to see his stellar performances on the K.C. Millennium Stage with a host of notable musicians as well as his many concerts at Howard University. Charles Covington, pianist, organist, chess master, mathematician, magician . . . and gentle genius.
Jazz Organ History, All Things B3
JIM ALFREDSON, October, 2015
Charles Covington may be the greatest organ player you've never heard of. He's an exceptional player, masterful on keyboard and pedals. A piano player who took up the Hammond B3 in 1959 after hearing organist Ray Chambers in Baltimore, he's never stopped playing in public, primarily on the east coast. He taught music at the Peabody Conservatory and Howard University, has written a treatise on magic, and is a "Life Master" of the United States Chess Federation. He distrusted the recording industry, and although he made several private pressings, his work never appeared on any well-known jazz labels as a session leader. He was either friends with an acquaintance of organists such as Lou Bennett, Don Patterson, Jimmy Smith, and Larry Young. The lack of scholarship on his work is a serious omission in jazz history annals, understandable due to the dearth of available recordings. He has written an autobiography (out of print) now in revision. There are several videos displaying his artistry on the internet, including a tour de force of B3 mastery, Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays."
Baltimore's Renaissance Man in Concert
EMILY CARY, August 16, 2012
Charles Covington Jr. is a local treasure who never stops giving. The celebrated jazz pianist pays his annual visit to the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage on Saturday to present his electrifying arrangements of classical and jazz works.
The Baltimore native appeared on the cover of Expo in 1983 as Jazz Musician of the Year. By then, he had traveled around the world playing concerts with Zoot Simms, J.J. Johnson, Herbie Hancock, Dorothy Donnegan, B.B. King, Chuck Berry and a host of the world's finest jazz artists.
He was the featured performer for President Carter at the White House, toured with guitarist George Benson for three years and has played in major concert halls, on numerous record albums, and on radio and TV shows. Along the way, he was the house pianist for television's "BET on Jazz," and produced and was the resident artist for the "Jazz in the Marketplace" concert series at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
Covington might have continued performing on the road nonstop had the Peabody Conservatory of Music not invited him to become a professor of music and teach his skills to a new generation. His accomplishments as a teacher earned him a citation in Who's Who Among America's Teachers 2000.
"I never considered teaching as a career until a couple of people told me I should think about it seriously," he said. "One of my friends admitted that he always wanted to become famous until he realized how important it is to pass along that knowledge to others. After thinking about what he said, I decided to try it for a semester. By the end of that time, I had discovered how much I enjoyed teaching. A lot of my students have become pretty famous."
From early childhood, Covington utilized his gift of perfect pitch to play the works of Bach and other classical composers by heart and to create his own imaginative improvisations. Such a remarkable musical ability would be ample for most people, but it is just one of the multiple talents Covington pursues with a passion. When he is not at the piano, he may don the smock of a professional portrait artist, play a game of chess with the skill of the U.S. Life Master that he is or devise magic tricks to include in his publication sold to magicians who haunt magic shops nationwide.
"Everything in life is based on patterns," he said. "All the disciplines I'm in kind of link together. When I was 14 or 15, I saw a magician on TV who astounded me, so I went to the library to find books about magic. I studied them until I learned all I could. Then I began creating my own tricks."