Faith and all that jazz

Culture | The witness of Christian jazz musicians

Issue: "Smoking guns," March 6, 1999

For what contributions to civilization will America be remembered 200 years from now? Historian Gerald Early suggests the Constitution, baseball, and jazz. While evangelical Christians have little trouble with the first two, they have not usually embraced jazz. Some committed believers, however, are trying to change what they perceive as a cultural blind spot among Christians. For example, Francis Schaeffer's colleague, the Christian art critic Hans Rookmaaker, was an expert on jazz. And a number of jazz artists have turned to Christ and are boldly witnessing to their faith in the secular music scene. One member of this Christian jazz community is pianist Cyrus Chestnut, a rising star carrying the torch of improvisation and creativity to the church with his recent CD Blessed Quietness (Atlantic). "With jazz," says Mr. Chestnut, " I have the freedom to share my heart, to skillfully put a smile on someone's face after he's had a bad day." This recording is marked by his ability to skillfully improvise on familiar hymns, spirituals, and carols, bringing out beautiful nuances previously undiscovered in these Christian classics. "Jesus Loves Me" starts out almost like a nursery rhyme, and joyfully struts into a shout of praise. "Walk with Me Jesus" draws the listener in with its quiet, meditative, almost mysterious cadence, meandering around corners and alleys. "Holy, Holy, Holy" calls listeners to rise to their feet in praise, with its exclamatory first chorus which leads to a royal procession of notes in its climactic finale. "The histories of jazz and gospel are intrinsically linked," states Grammy-nominated saxophonist Kirk Whalum, whose excellent new recording The Gospel According to Jazz has just been released by Warner Bros. "King David, in Psalm 150, instructs us to 'Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.' He knew the importance of instrumental music in the worship of God as well as in the proclamation of the truth. Anointed instrumental music is able to minister with power directly to the spirit." Award-winning jazz flutist James Newton agrees. "The first music I can remember was when I was 4 years old in my home Baptist church in rural Arkansas. There were four women singing spirituals, with no piano, and it was my first encounter with the Holy Spirit. I obviously couldn't process it all as a child, but God has stayed with me all of my life, and I pursue that feeling when I play." But aren't there evil connotations with jazz, such as smoky night clubs, booze, and unsanctified lifestyles? "I'm here to play for sinners," answers woodwind player Pedro Eustache, who just completed a three-year tour with Yanni and recently signed a three-CD recording contract in Japan. "I use the music as an art form to be a light in the darkness to testify through my music and life." Jazz is simply a type of music defined by syncopation and improvisation. "Music and art belong to God. Good [jazz] music has universal elements that connect to everyone," explains Mr. Eustache. Ironically, the non-Christian world seems more interested in these Christian jazz musicians than the American church is-although Kirk Whalum has played for Promise Keepers. Alex Acuña, percussionist for the pioneer Christian jazz group Koinonia and the Grammy-winning Weather Report, regularly shares his faith on worldwide tours: "The secular record industry is supporting my [Christian] music as a positive influence for kids. In South America, Europe, and Japan, I use my concert and clinic tours as opportunities to tell the world about Jesus Christ." Since jazz arose from gospel music as well as blues and other improvisational styles in the previous century, the roots of its connection to Christianity run deep. Proponents like Mr. Chestnut (who always includes a hymn on his secular recordings) argue, "You definitely leave feeling better that when you arrive." When Mr. Newton plays jazz concerts, he tries to "recreate the feeling I get at church. Every note I play or write, just like Bach, is dedicated to Jesus Christ. If the Holy Spirit is in the equation, if the musicians are praying for His anointing and are behind the cross, it's beautiful."

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