CJA Network Newsletter Featured InterviewApril/May 2005


Saxophonist Mark McClure


1) Mark, when did you develop a love for jazz music?

Jazz music found me! In high school (Downingtown, PA, near Philadelphia) I was exposed to it in a variety of ways. Our band director took us to see the big bands of Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson and Stan Kenton. (This was the mid-70s!) There was a wonderful public radio station in Philadelphia, WRTI-FM, that played traditional “hard core” jazz 24/7 and I played that station all the time in my room. When I was a sophomore, a senior named Chet Smith, who was really into jazz organ and vibes, got an ensemble of students together to play some jazz fusion and R&B, like “Chameleon” and “Watermelon Man”. That hooked me! He got me started listening to musicians like Groove Holmes, Jimmy Smith, Lionel Hampton, the MJQ, etc.

2) Who are some of your favorite and most influential jazz artists?

Well, I listened to a lot of Sonny Rollins in high school—I had his “Saxophone Colossus” record and that was among my favorites at that time. Another favorite was Charlie Parker’s “The Savoy Sessions”. I used to play along with that one every chance I could. I also developed an affinity for avant-garde jazz in high school—I dug Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. In college I listened to Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin and John Coltrane. During my college days, Dexter and Johnny were making a comeback State-side, having lived in Europe for many years. I was fortunate to see them both play in 1978. Oh, and I can’t omit Michael Brecker, a fellow IU alum (though 10 years my elder). His larger-than-life legend lives on! He can play anything he can hear.

3) It seems as though jazz music is once again making a comeback in churches across America and Europe. One theory why this is happening is that it is a reaction to the overdose of Alternative rock music from the CCM industry. Many people I talk to are tired of much of the same style…what are your thoughts concerning this?

I don’t profess to have an up-close perspective on European church worship styles, though I’ve witnessed influential worship leaders like Matt Redman and Tim Hughes who are using pop and rock-based styles to great acclaim worldwide. A substantial part of what I do at Word Music is to keep my eye on worship trends in the North American evangelical church. From my perspective, with regard to the evangelical church’s “musical worship vocabulary” the alt-rock influence is very strong right now and is continuing to gain in strength. I see jazz, because it’s viewed (rightly or wrongly) as more cerebral, less congregationally participatory, and more “worldly” than other musical styles, as a hard-sell in most evangelical churches. I certainly would be sympathetic to the view that our churches’ musical worship vocabularies tend to be far too narrow and homogenous and are, perhaps, excessively fueled by the alt-rock sounds found throughout Western pop culture.

I think jazz, used as one of the colors in one’s musical palette, can and should be a refreshing and stimulating means of musical worship. I think an “all-jazz, all-the-time” approach would wear thin. The key is balance and variety! Churches that have a heart for worship and evangelism through the arts—and those that do it well are relatively rare—are, in my opinion, the best-positioned to tastefully weave jazz tastefully into the fabric of a worship service.

4) Of course some churches view jazz with a wary eye…jazz for some conjures up thoughts like smoky night clubs, sex, and drugs instead of being the very deep spiritual music that it is. What is your take on this?

It first boils down to context, then to the godly exercise of freedom in community with other believers. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul taught about food sacrificed to idols. I think there’s a lesson to be gleaned from that passage regarding jazz in worship services. The similarities are quite interesting. Jazz has, in many respects, bowed at the altar of sensuality and self-indulgence, thus the images conjured up at the sounds of an alto sax lip-slide or a C minor nine/sharp seven chord.

Paul said that, in essence, everything is good when God’s in it but that some individuals have weaker consciences or differing vantage points, and they should be respected, also. We musicians and worship leaders should tread lightly in this area! I don’t think that precludes us, however from gently and lovingly stretching the musical borders of those in our flock, as long as God is, in fact, in it, and it’s not a by-product of my own agenda.

My experience of God is that He always works from a well thought-out plan, yet He also values spontaneity. His is a world which deftly balances the predictable and the miraculous, the mundane and the awe-inspiring, the physical and the spiritual. Aren’t those qualities part of the essence of a good jazz solo? Continuing that thought, I think liturgy without spontaneity—without the direct participation of the Holy Spirit, who naturally isn’t always beholden to our agenda or timetable—is dead. I’d like to think God created us to value and appreciate well-thought-out, Spirit-led expression of joyful—or soulful—musical expression through jazz. While that probably happens outside of church more often than inside, it that doesn’t invalidate the music.

5)  We have been conducting a survey and asking everyone what their definition of Jazz music is? Let’s hear yours!

At its best, Jazz Music is a spontaneous dialogue of one’s spirit, soul and body expressed through the syntax of historic and contemporary African-American musical tradition.

6) You have a new Smooth Jazz CD release, “The Power Of Your Love” which covers both Hymns and worship choruses in a variety of styles. Tell us more about this project.

This CD was literally a labor of love! The project evolved over about a two-year period. I started compiling a list of hymns and praise and worship songs that were meaningful to me, and that I thought had real substance musically and spiritually. I’d had exposure to several of the original versions of these while producing anthem recordings at Word Music, and so was in a great position to “repurpose” the master recordings for my project. That helped make the budget work!

7) What other musicians played on this CD… (the horn players are great and charts available for selected songs through Word Music) Here is a link to hear audio examples: http://www.songsofdavid.com/ChristianJazzArtistsMcClure.html

Well, the backing tracks feature a “who’s who” of studio players in the Nashville area: John Hammond (drums), Craig Nelson (bass), David Cleveland and Mark Baldwin (guitar), David Huntsinger and David Hamilton (keyboards), and so on. Horn players include Mike Haynes and Jeff Bailey (trumpet), Chris McDonald (trombone) and Sam Levine (sax, woodwinds).

8) Any plans for playing material from this CD in churches, Jazz Vespers, ect? (If so I would like to book you!!)

I’m glad you asked! I’m slowly gearing up to get the word out that I’m available to play in churches, as well as conduct clinics for worship bands, teach about worship issues, that sort of thing. I’m launching a website this summer: markmccluremusic.com, which I hope will help coordinate all of this.

9) Mark, do you get a chance to play jazz music in churches or other venues in the Nashville area? Part of the strategy of the CJA Network is to encourage Christian Jazz Artists to make it happen where they are (you know, “Takin’ It To The Streets”) by playing in coffee houses, organizing jazz vespers and Christian jazz concerts. Any plans in the works for you to do this?

I play in a couple of local churches now and then, but usually as a member of a praise band. However, this past Easter I played one of the songs from my CD, “Let It Rise” live with the World Outreach Church in Murfreesboro. They book the MTSU arena every Easter and stage quite a production. It was a rush playing for over 8,000 people that morning! I’m certainly open to playing in more churches . . .Years ago I was a “weekend warrior” and played every kind of gig imaginable: Ringling Bros., the Temptations and Four Tops, touring Broadway shows . . . those days are long gone. On top of that, I like being in my home church (Belmont Church in Nashville) as much as I can, after over 20 years in music ministry.

10)  Share with us your most memorable musical experience playing at a church and why.

The most memorable experience for me occurred last summer at my home church, Belmont Church. The congregational worship music was going full-bore when suddenly and unexpectedly, the power for the entire building was cut off. For the next 30 minutes we had a Church of Christ worship experience that was quite moving. It was really inspiring to see the congregation step up to the plate and take responsibility for worshiping, rather than being on autopilot and observing the worship team and band.

11)  Out of all the songs you have ever heard or played share with us one song that has really touched you in a profound way.

That would have to be the hymn, “O, the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus”. The words and music are haunting and powerful. A couple of years ago I played that on soprano sax—unaccompanied--at a retreat for artists and other creative types. It lends itself well to jazz soloing, and I like the plaintive side of the hymn—it’s really uplifting, even though it’s in a minor key.

12) Mark, you have been a music minister in a very wide variety of denominations.  From Assembly Of God to Episcopal…both charismatic and liturgical. Was that by choice or what?

I’ll have to save some of the details for my book. Seriously, most of it was by choice, but God opened and closed doors as He saw fit. I definitely couldn’t have orchestrated the “crazy-quilt” that is my professional/pastoral resume! My reason for coming to Nashville in 1996 was to serve as the Worship Coordinator for St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. I had previously been a music minister in an A/G church in Southern California, and was ready for a change of scenery. “St. B’s”, as it’s known locally, was every bit the challenge I thought it would be—and then some!

13) What is one of the most important things that you learned from crossing denominational lines?

The most important lesson I’ve learned from crossing denominational lines is that whether high church, low church or in-between, this generation has a hunger for God that transcends divisions and boundaries like never before in history. There is indeed a “melting pot” effect with respect to worship style and practice in the Western church which I find very encouraging. I think that’s creating a ripe atmosphere where people are more receptive to a wider variety of musical styles than ever before.


 More information on Mark McClure can be found by following this link:

Mark McClure