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For Their Tuesday Bop Stop Show, Céline Iris and Eddie Henderson Prove That You Gotta Have Hart

Ce?line Iris and Eddie Henderson“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” the familiar saying goes. True enough, but sometimes it’s not who you know, but who they that matters. Take rising vocalist Céline Iris who asked an all-time trumpet great, Dr. Eddie Henderson, to join her on the bandstand for a show Tuesday night at the Bop Stop.

Henderson was delighted to help his former Oberlin Conservatory student and convinced high-profile drummer Greg Bandy to join them. When Bandy had to bow out, the 81-year-old Henderson quickly stepped in with a more than suitable replacement.

Billy Hart John Rogers / ECM Records
photo by John Rogers / ECM Records

“Eddie was disappointed to hear that Greg couldn’t make the gig, but since he’s on tour with the Cookers, he asked Billy Hart if he could make the gig and he said yes,” Iris said by phone, her voice bursting with excitement. Hart, 81 years young and also a teacher at Oberlin, has more than 60 years of credits as a leader and with players at the highest levels of music.

So, just like that, a third of Herbie Hancock’s legendary Mwandishi band will join the 23-year-old Seattle native on the Bop Stop stage. Is she nervous? “Of course I’m nervous,” she exclaimed, before breaking into the kind of laughter reserved for someone who found a winning PowerBall ticket at the bottom of her purse.

In Iris’ view, she hit the jackpot when Henderson agreed to take her on as a student after a chance encounter outside a practice room. ‘We just hit it off,” she says, and years followed where she would bring songs to Henderson’s office and got feedback on phrasing, tone and interpretation.

But that’s not all she received. “He’s so approachable and nice,” Iris said of Henderson’s teaching methods during a long conversation in a Hingetown coffee shop. “In a moment where I felt so scared of everyone’s judgments, it meant so much to have somebody be open and say, ‘Come into my office, and we’ll talk and have lessons, and we can do anything you want to learn about, talk about anything you want to talk about.’ This sounds so cheesy, but he believed in me.”

That might have something to do with a bit of shared personal history that didn’t come to light until  she began lessons with Henderson. Iris was a dual major who loved biology as much as music. Henderson, who practiced medicine while pursuing a musical career, encouraged her that she could do both. “The inspiring part was that I could choose,” she said. “I could choose music just like he did. He showed me that you can have multiple things that you’re good at and still choose one of those things as a career but never let go of the other sides of yourself.”

On a phone call from the coffee shop, Henderson praised his former student’s openhearted musicality. “A lot of musicians play well, but it’s kind of difficult to blend with them. But she was so wide open with her personal character and that overflows into everybody feeling comfortable. Music is all about relating on a personal level, and that overflows into the musical aspect of it.” While he spoke, Iris blushed generously.

Mutual respect and admiration into action are wonderful, but after Iris graduated, it was time to put them into action. On a visit to see Henderson at Oberlin, Iris told her teacher that she would love to make some music with him sometime. She had envisioned something casual, but Henderson proposed a public show with a band. It was an offer too good to refuse, and Iris set about finding compatible musicians.

For the drum chair, Henderson suggested Bandy, a longtime associate of the tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Roger Friedman, who had worked with both Henderson and Bandy, was a natural choice on piano while Iris enlisted bassist Eli Naragon, a former Oberlin classmate now living and playing in Pittsburgh.

While she preferred to keep the setlist under wraps until the show, Iris hinted at a program of songbook and jazz standards and material associated with Henderson’s illustrious musical career.

“I’m really excited about it,” Iris said. “I’m excited to be able to showcase everyone with the setlist. It’s going to be a great way to give each person a place to shine.” And to show off just who you know.

Céline Iris with Eddie Henderson Tuesday, March 22 at 8 p.m. at Bop Stop, 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland. In-person are $20 advance $25 at the door available here. The concert will will be livestreamed at Bop Stop’s Facebook page. Viewing the stream is free but donations to the band and the venue are appreciated and can be made here.