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October 15, 2013 / robinswood

Jazz Hospitality… what the church could stand to learn

Bud Powell

Bud Powell

What follows is the audio and text from a presentation given at the “Second Fridays” series, presented by the Centre for Christian Studies in Winnipeg on October 11, 2013. The invitation was to offer a reflection on the arts and hospitality, with an eye on how that might inform the practices of church communities.

  • To listen to the audio of the presentation, simply click the arrow:

In his essay “You Have to Be Invited,” Leonard L. Brown offers a picture of how musicians have traditionally been formed in African-American culture. Brown’s working thesis is that in this context musicians “have to be invited;” have to be drawn in, mentored, and shaped by others within the community. “There were no ‘jazz studies’ programs at this time,” Brown writes. “The musicians were the keepers of musical knowledge and controlled its dissemination.” (Brown, “You Have to Be Invited,” John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom)

Does this description of these musicians as “keepers of musical knowledge [who] controlled its dissemination” sound anything like hospitality to you? Or does it sound more like a case in which the established “insiders” get to set the terms for who is in and who is out? But let me give you a picture of how this actually played out… and continues to play out in our own time.

In the late 1940s when he was still in his teens, the saxophonist Jackie McLean was befriended by the great bebop pianist Bud Powell. McLean spent countless hours in Powell’s home, talking with him, listening to him practice, and even playing with him. It wasn’t long before Powell invited McLean to sit in with his band at the legendary Birdland, one of New York’s premiere jazz clubs. Powell also introduced the young sax player to Miles Davis, and at the age nineteen Jackie McLean appeared on the Davis album, Dig. “I think that my concept and my development accelerated fast,” McLean later reflected, “because I was in Bud’s company and I heard him play so much, and the music was going right into my mental computer—into my brain—and I think that helped me to develop very fast.”

Jackie McLean

Jackie McLean

Now, move ahead into the early 1990s, when a young sax player named Jimmy Greene was studying under Jackie McLean at the University of Hartford. “Once I met Jackie,” Greene commented, “it was full steam ahead! Every time I talk about the saxophone or talk about jazz music or play jazz, I always think of Jackie.” Recognizing some real talent in the young Jimmy Greene, McLean took him under his wing, and it wasn’t long before he was taking him to New York City to sit in with the band at his shows at the Village Vanguard.

Now move ahead to January 2012, to a Jimmy Greene concert at Winnipeg’s Park Theatre, in which this now very established musician and educator was showcasing some new material. Midway through the show, Greene invited two of his own students from the University of Manitoba Jazz Studies program (where he was then teaching) to join him on stage. Though these two were not nearly of the caliber of their teacher, he made room for them on the stage, giving to each extended solo time. We in the audience approved…

Jimmy Greene

Jimmy Greene

And of course they weren’t of his caliber; he’d not been up to Jackie McLean’s level when he was invited to sit in at the Vanguard, and McLean was not at Bud Powell’s level during that debut at Birdland. That’s what it means to be invited.

What might all of this have to say to the church? After all, are we not called to always be hospitable? Tom Bandy even goes so far as to suggest that our churches must learn to live with only three walls, the back wall being so open and fluid as to metaphorically not exist at all. Those who want to keep company with us and to try  on for size our way of being must feel absolutely no resistance as they step into our midst. So real must be our hospitality that there should clearly be room for all.

And yet to draw on St Paul’s image of the one Body of Christ with its many members, the reality is that the members in any given congregation or community are not interchangeable bits. Not everyone should preach; not everyone should be entrusted with the formation of children; not everyone should lead music. For that matter, not everyone should bake pies for a community supper… I certainly shouldn’t, unless you want to use a steak knife to cut through my crust.

Yet when the preacher or educator or musician or pie baker keeps his or her eyes and ears open, what they begin to see is that there are others in the community who might need to be invited; who, because of their passion and interest and willingness to learn and grow and serve, could rightly be called out, mentored, and released into new life and service in the community. Far from being a sort of controlling gate-keeping, this kind of “being invited” actually releases people to exercise their gifts and abilities… gifts and abilities of which they might have only been vaguely aware.

Jamie Howison


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