Fall 2004 CJA Network Newsletter Featured Interview Part II

Jazz Pianist and Presbyterian Minister

Bill Carter Interview ( Continued )

 You have a new Jazz book," Swing A New Song To The Lord" which is a resource for using Jazz in the Church. Provide us with the details.

Bill: “Swing a New Song to the Lord” is a collection of nearly sixty jazz settings of congregational hymns and worship music. Through a grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship ( www.calvin.edu/worship/index.htm), we have commissioned a number of jazz musicians to write charts that an average congregation and/or choir can sing. There are lots of familiar hymns in the spiral-bound book, and musicians can swing their way through it as a hymnal accompaniment. There are also a number of prayer settings in a jazz idiom (both psalms and corporate prayers), which are ready for a worship service. Our task force wanted to compile a resource that was truly helpful to the wider church. It’s my personal hope that this book will spark the creativity of jazzers to do some similar compositions and arrangements. It’s available through our website at www.presbybop.com.

The key to the book is that it is communal. All public Christian worship is inherently communal. We belong to God as a people. We inherit the scriptures and songs of faith as gifts from this community. Even our private devotions are part of a worldwide movement called “church.” Public worship, therefore, should build up the community of faith by focusing on the God who redeems us. This raises an immediate concern: jazz has developed as a performance art that emphasizes the soloist. Jazz worship among Christians will always need to blend the personal expression of the soloist with the congregational participation of those in the pews. Neither group is present merely for themselves, but to bless and honor God. If we import jazz into a worship service without regard for the congregation’s involvement, it can be a superficial bend toward “hipness” that merely replicates the whims of the prevailing consumer culture.

In a larger sense, this is a critical issue for the American church. We don’t worship God in order to “get something out of it.” That is a form of blasphemy and idolatry, for it assumes that God can be “consumed.” No, we worship God because (a) the creature repeatedly needs to be reoriented toward the Creator, (b) we are enrolled in a Story that began before time and can catch us up in its plot, and (c) communal Christian worship shapes our discipleship. I am vehemently opposed to worship that is self-serving. God does not exist to make me feel better. Jesus did not give himself in life and death in order for me to get my entertainment fix. The Holy Spirit does not speak through the scriptures so that I can become a better consumer. We worship God, not ourselves. Authentic jazz-shaped worship will always point to the Giver of the gift, to the Ultimate Composer, to the One who can improvise life out of death. For musicians in service to the Gospel, it’s more than a gig.

 It’s very exciting to see the younger generation embracing jazz and even recently some of their music has reached the top of the Jazz charts. Thanks in part to excellent Jazz Education programs it looks as though Jazz has not only endured into the 21st Century, but one could say that presently there is a "Jazz Revival" across the entire world! What are your thoughts concerning this? 

Bill: From where I sit, most creative musicians are still starving and scrambling for work. The only jazz musicians who are making real money are either the “superstars” (i.e. the top one percent who have had some good breaks) or those who have sold out their creative gifts. Sadly, both groups are treated as market commodities in a consumer society – they make music to be bought and sold, and rarely benefit from their own work. Just witness how the record companies are currently obsessed with re-releasing forty-year-old music, rather than investing in new jazz musicians.

Walking through a theme park with my family recently, I heard a lot of slick “happy jazz” as background music for the tourists, kind of a “music to spend by.” I found that deeply disturbing, but indicative of how the culture will co-opt our art form. True music-making is never about the sales charts. It’s about reaching toward the Eternal or expressing the depths of human experience. As most jazz musicians know, going in either direction will demand great sacrifices. If we can take a cue from Jesus, maybe it’s the practice of making sacrifices that is the key to eternal life.

I applaud the jazz education movement. I think it’s wonderful. It has helped to professionalize our music, highlight its history, and theorize its harmony. But I have bigger questions: where are the gigs? Where are the appreciative audiences in America? Where is the public encouragement to make music for a living? Where is the systemic support for the music of freedom? When worldwide audiences respond to jazz, I think they are mostly responding to the freedom in our music. That’s what the U.S. State Department was thinking when it sent the Dave Brubeck Quartet on a worldwide tour in the 1960’s: they were ambassadors of freedom. Sad to say, but these days some of the last people to taste that freedom are the American musicians who are still making the music.

  Share with us one of your most memorable experience playing Jazz at a church/concert and why.

I have been blessed with hundreds of memorable moments. Within the past ten years, the quartet has led worship services and presented concerts around the country. I’ve enjoyed friendships with extraordinary musicians, and kept in touch with the people who encourage our music. Back in June, we played for 4500 Presbyterians in Richmond, VA. It was a kick to try and get them to sing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” in 5/4 time. Or maybe it was playing for 800 preachers at a recent conference in Washington, D.C., as the Baptist legend Gardner Taylor stood to preach. One of our best gigs, musically speaking, had only twenty people in attendance. Yet the musical moment was very special. For us, special moments come pretty regularly.

The best experience, however, is having the opportunity to contribute something positive to somebody’s day by playing our music. It happens regularly enough that I’ve come to believe that God often has something to do with it. Maybe it’s a swinging solo that connects with someone’s heart. Or the band might be feeling feisty and there’s a lot of interaction between the musicians. Or a tune might be particularly well-played, and there’s an intersection between human effort and divine presence. The musician can serve a priestly function, mediating the presence of God by offering musical skills. That, I believe, is what the ancient Levites of Israel were up to. If you read a text like 2 Chronicles 5:11-14, you get the sense that God drew near to the temple when the trumpeters were jamming to his glory. All of us who love music can affirm its power and potential. Those of us who make music are particularly blessed with a great privilege. We should never take it lightly.

Do you find a spiritual connection in playing, arranging, and writing music? What kind of music touches you down deep?

 Yes, but the connection is neither automatic nor simple. When I write and arrange, it’s a lot of hard work. There are no shortcuts, and it’s quite typical for the writing process to be all-consuming. I’ll stumble on a musical idea, explore it, reharmonized it, change the rhythms, displace the melodic cell, and so on and so forth. At critical points in the composition process, I will criticize and evaluate what I’ve done thus far. It’s rare for me to finish a new tune in less than three weeks. A new arrangement could take even longer. Often, we’ll play a new chart as the second tune in the second set of a concert, when we’ve had time to build a rapport with the audience and warm up to the situation. Even so, I will frequently retrieve the parts after the gig and keep tweaking them until I think they’re right.

Playing music, on the other hand, is an act of spontaneity, trust, joy, and trust. All the practice time and study leads me to that point, and the trick is learning how to let myself be fully attentive to that moment. For an uptight first-born overachiever like me, this is a learned behavior. It is an exercise in trust: I must trust myself, trust my musical colleagues, and trust the Spirit to draw near in inspiration.

It strikes me that these are two complementary dimensions of the spiritual life. There is, of course, a time for study and reflection, as well as a time to cut loose and let the music flow. Both are opportunities for us to connect our abilities with God’s creative life-giving energy. As Ecclesiastes 3 points out, there is a rhythm between the different seasons of human life. God meets us when we discern what time it is, and when we make the most of each moment. If I can be attentive to these things, the music can touch me the most.

  What is your favorite church hymn and why?

I like hymns for their texts, as much as for their tunes. My favorite hymn text is “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art.” The words are attributed to John Calvin, the sixteenth-century reformer. The hymn speaks of our secure salvation through the work of Christ. The last verse speaks the heart of my faith: “Our hope is in no other save in thee; our faith is built upon Thy promise free; Lord, give us peace, and make us calm and sure, that in Thy strength we evermore endure.”

In terms of hymn tunes, I like many of the classic tunes which informed my faith from very early. One of my current favorites is “Slane,” the melody upon which “Be Thou My Vision” is based. The tune flows across the bar lines in an inventive way, and I love to play it with the band.

 How has being a jazz musician shaped your outlook on being a pastor?

Bill: When I went to seminary, I thought I had closed the musical door for a “greater purpose.” It was much later that I realized that I was compromising some of my God-given gifts for the sake of another skill set. These days, I have given a lot of time to integrating my life, so there is little distinction between the spheres of my life. My church pays for the “pastor part,” but I am most effective as a pastor when I bring all of my abilities to the people and situations before me. Spiritual integration often requires a blurring of boundaries. My pursuit for integrating ministry and music has taught me how to be focused and spontaneous, diligent and free, productive and reflective, passionate and still. Thanks to my music-making, I am more willing to cut myself a break, and to be hospitable toward others. Most of all, I have learned how to appreciate and trust the gifts of others. As the Benedictines point out, there’s no telling when Christ may walk through your door. It’s best to always be welcoming and hospitable.

 Name three books on Theology/Spirituality that have made a deep impact on your life?

Bill:   I can’t name only three! I’m a perpetual reader, and am constantly plowing through a book. I can recommend three which have been helpful in recent months. Searching for Home: Spirituality for Restless Souls is the latest book by my friend Craig Barnes. I found it to be a moving exploration of our tendency to wander from God, and personally quite helpful to me. Joan Chittister’s commentary on the Benedictine Rule was also a helpful read. Published under the title The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, it offers a practical application of St. Benedict’s ancient guidance, and makes an ancient church leader accessible to a dull Protestant like me. Finally, I’d recommend the poetry of Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer who practices sustainable agriculture and keeps the Sabbath. Berry has become a model for a lot of us who pursue a balanced and productive life. He has been a role model for many pastors and poets who work the landscapes of soil and heart.

  Share with us a Bible verse that has helped shape your outlook on Music in the church and why?

Bill: Musically speaking, I love Revelation 5:11-14. When the door to heaven swings open, we hear a new song. It is a song exalting Christ, and blessing God for Christ’s good work. We get to overhear the saints who are lost in “wonder, love, and praise,” and that has come to personally mean a great deal to me. When we praise God through music, we are participating in the primary reality of God’s eternal life. We are harmonizing with heaven, and moving beyond the blues of daily life. I can think of no higher biblical mandate for what jazz musicians do. God bless them!

 More information on Bill Carter can be found on his website: