All great music is a gift and thus an instrument of God
We participated in the inaugural season of Parmer Hall at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania last night. This is a College with the spirit of music all around it. Here’s a photo of the blackboard in the Orchestra’s dressing room; a beautiful, warm hall with acoustics that allowed us to take down the band’s microphones for the second half. A great hall is very difficult to build. This one will serve the College well. Congratulations.
Well, I struggled mightily with my horn for the first hour or so and got a wakeup call about staying on top of it, but that didn’t stop everyone else from playing on their normal high-level. After the concert, I met with students and friends and even later had the opportunity to share a meal in the home of Bishop Nathan Baxter and his most gracious and hospitable wife, Mary Ellen.
Some 20 years ago we met and kindled a friendship which led to our septet playing “In This House on This Morning” in the National Cathedral (I still remember Victor Goines was on fire that night). Just the prayer before the meal would have been worth an admission price, but the one after the meal, produced a fullness that had Mary Ellen and me thanking the Bishop as well as The Lord.
It’s now midnight and the three of us have had a spirited conversation about politics, community and the meaning of change. Bishop Baxter, whose grandfather was a sharecropper and AME preacher, and whose father was a tent making pastor, responds to my questions about the Bible and women, and tribalism vs. universal humanism, with scripture. From Mark 7:24 and Matthew 15:21-28 to John 4:7-24, each passage received a memory, identification and explanation. On the drive back to my hotel, The Bishop and I speak with the easy intimacy of family about growth and the purpose of tradition. He agrees to write a post for today. At 3:30am, he sent it.
The Right Reverend Nathan D. Baxter, Bishop of Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania and former Dean of the Washington National Cathedral:
One of the great spiritual moments of my life was 7 years ago on this very day October 21, 2006. On this day I was consecrated 10th Bishop of Central Pennsylvania. There was a 400 voice choir with brass orchestra and an African Drum ensemble. There were not only Episcopalians present but 20+ different denominations gathered to pray and celebrate together. On that day we sat rapt as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Laureate, preached to me and the thousands gathered about the power of God’s love to break down the walls which separate us from one another and from God. His words were inspired and inspiring. But more than his words, was the spirit of his manner. The sound of his voice, the essence of his very being—-his soul, seemed to reach out and embrace us all across our great diversity of color, race, politics and denominations. There came from that inspiration a spirit of oneness in our singing, praying and even the great solemn moments in the ceremony.
Tonight, on my 7th anniversary, I was equally blessed by the inspired genius of Wynton Marsalis’ Abyssinian 200: A Gospel Celebration. It was not just a celebration of Gospel as a genre, but more a celebration of the Gospel as good news. The Spirit was present in the great concert hall of Messiah College as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and an incredible 70 voice chorale exuded the good news of joy, hope and spiritual beauty. The chorale was directed by Damien Sneed.
This young man in his conducting and choral choreography is indeed the next Dr. Nathan Carter (legendary late director of famed Morgan University Choir). Damien’s ability to channel the Spirit as well as the letter of the music through the choristers and musicians was inspired. He is a maestro! This was difficult music, requiring soul and discipline. But through these musicians the audience of that great hall became a congregation—-clapping, swaying, cheering and moaning; interspersed with powerful moments of enraptured stillness. Those latter moments made me think of God’s call in Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God”. We knew God was in that place in the many ecstatic joyful moments and the moments which called us into a reflective reverent stillness.
All great music is a gift and thus an instrument of God. The human tendency is to divide it in to sacred and secular, classical and folk, or prejudice it by limiting its efficacy to ethnicity or culture. But I think great music inspires and comforts, it challenges and disturbs, and most of all it transcends the limits of our circumstances. A definitive essence of great music is that it articulates most effectively without or beyond words (it’s a language of the soul, not of culture or tribe). Whether love of neighbor, love of the ethereal, or the love that sets my body on fire, these are spiritual realties and gifts of God. Great music speaks of the soul grieving loss (Requiems or Blues); the hunger for freedom and the hope which keeps that hunger alive against all odds.
As African-Americans we often forget that the rich array of music which has kept us a people able to “articulate” our pain and our painful realities, and also articulate a hopefulness and often joy is a divine gift. It is a language of the soul—whether blues or slave work-songs; whether the Spirituals or traditional Gospel—- all of this is a gift given us, a gift of Divine love to cherish and nurture and share. For, the proof of great music is its ability to touch the souls of those beyond the ethnicity through which it was birthed.
Tonight the confluence of Spirituals, Gospels, blues, New Orleans Swing, and yes, some serious Be-bop stirred our souls. As the old Sunday school song goes, “Yellow, Red, Black and White, all were precious in God’s sight” on this night. So, thanks to the genius of Wynton’s composition and orchestration, the commanding conducting of maestro Damien, and the artistically disciplined but spirit-filled performance of orchestra and chorale for liberating the Spirit tonight. For tonight I celebrated my consecration as a bishop, once again surrounded by an audience gloriously transformed into a congregation of celebration.
Now we will hear from a man that the entire orchestra loves beyond any reasonable measure. He is nimble and steadfast as a person and a musician. Incorruptible and absolutely thorough, he has met some of the toughest musical challenges with absolute dedication and an unwavering positivity. He is a lover of 4/4 swing and deserves a “Zen of” book. Mr. Dan Nimmer:
I’ve been asked the same questions over and over for many years now on the road. These questions come from taxi drivers, bar tenders, someone sitting on the airplane next to me, or just anyone trying to strike up a little conversation. The questions usually start off with “Where are you from?” “What brings you here?” When I explain that I’m with a band performing in town, they usually ask, “What kind of music is it?” And when I say Jazz music the response is sometimes, not always, but sometimes, “What type or what style of Jazz is it?”
I love explaining to them about what the JALC Orchestra is all about. I tell them that what we play is not restricted to any era or sub-genre of the music and that we embrace everything that is good from all musics. It’s pretty much like what Duke Ellington said. There are only two types of music: the good kind and the other kind. I’m proud to be part of this thing that Wynton has created especially in the current time period and scene where we desperately need more quality leadership.
Last night’s concert in Mechanicsburg at Messiah College was the second to last gig before we go back to play in New York City. Parmer Hall was a beautiful venue. This was the 14th concert we’ve played. These shows are maybe the best example of how our music isn’t defined by one style or era because the Abyssinian Mass encompasses a very wide spectrum of music. Tonight’s concert was another great one (just like the rest). You have the choir singing their butts off and bringing such an amazing energy to the stage, and you have the guys in the Orchestra playing with such fire, virtuosity and creativity. Both the choir and the band feed off of each other making every performance unique and uplifting. And it only gets better and better every night. Bravo to everyone!
On the road, most of the guys in the band know that I’m a self-diagnosed “foodie”, meaning that I take pleasure in researching and going out of my way to find some great food. Some of the guys lovingly joke with me and say: “You aren’t taking me to one of those healthy places again are you?” or “Dan only likes those fancy fine dining places”. In reality, I’m on the hunt for anything great whether it be a $1.50 carnitas taco or a 15 course tasting menu that does not cost a dollar fifty.
Here a few of the highlights from this tour:
Kansas City, MO
Everyone knows, or has heard of Gates, Arthur Bryant’s, Oklahoma Joe’s, or Jack Stack in Kansas City. Those are the popular places and now have become chains with multiple locations. I’ve tried Gates and Arthur Bryant’s and both were good but not anything special to me. So this time I decided to dig deep and do some serious research. I came up with this spot named LC’s BBQ.
I phoned Vincent Gardner, who is one of multiple barbecue experts in the band. He in turn phoned Chris Crenshaw and on our way out of the hotel we spotted Alex Knowlton and convinced him to join us. All four of us crammed into a small taxi. With the three of them being over 6’3”, that is a lot of height for one cab. It was about a 20 minute ride from the hotel. As we approached the driver said that it was coming up on the right. Vince said, “No, that’s gotta be it up on the left,” pointing at a small rundown looking building with an enormous amount smoke billowing from it.
We walk in and are immediately in sensory overload. The first thing we see when we open the door is that the whole room is cloudy with BBQ smoke. We can barely see the counter to order. Between that and the smell we all knew that this was the real deal before we even let the door close behind us. Behind the counter there were two men handling the smoker with all kinds of meat in it. We placed our orders to go and hopped back in that not so spacious taxi because it was almost time for the sound check. We had to eat, get ready for the gig back at the hotel and depart in a short amount of time. When Vincent, Chris and Alex and I met on the bus to sound check, we just looked at each other, laughed, nodded and said, “Yes”. We didn’t need any other words. That food was better than correct.
New Orleans, LA
I’m always excited to come to New Orleans for many reasons but one of the most important reasons is that I know that I will get in a good meal at some point. On a previous visit I was on a hunt for the best shrimp po’boy in town. I came up with Domilise’s Po-Boy on Annunciation Street in Uptown. I got Jay Sgroi to come with me on the journey this time. It was a 20 minute cab from our hotel and our driver was unfamiliar with the spot. I can see why since it’s a ways out of the way and in a primarily residential neighborhood. It’s on the corner of a row of small houses and the only thing that distinguishes it from the other houses is a small handmade sign: “Domilise’s Po-boy and Bar”.
This a classic neighborhood joint with all kinds of local flavor and character. There are three women who very much resemble each other constructing sandwiches of fried shrimp and oysters dressed on Leidenheimer classic New Orleans French bread. These are the kind of sandwiches that will make you shed a few tears. I found out that this family run business has been there for 75 years and that the menu has never changed.
Victor Goines, from New Orleans, attended Loyola University about a mile from Domilise’s, told me that he used to eat there and spoke highly of their Po-boys. I felt even more successful about my find after it was authenticated by a native.
You gotta eat, so why not eat good?!
One of our greatest honors is to interface with musicians, teachers and families who go through all kinds of changes to attend our shows. I love greeting everyone and being the last person to leave the hall every night.
We now hear from someone who has attended concerts since early teenhood. A young man who is always searching for a way to make a difference in this world.
This is Mr. Jesse Markowitz:
I write from a bench outside the Calvin and Janet High Center within the beautiful campus of Messiah College. The show ended about an hour ago, and my ride will be a few minutes, which gives me a chance to breathe and hopefully make sense of what just happened, though my initial assessment is that an ensemble of 85 people, most of whom I have never met, just guided me on a path of exploration towards the depths of my own humanity.
Last night I hopped on an extremely uncomfortable overnight Greyhound bus from my home in Toronto to Philadelphia, followed by a morning bus to Harrisburg, and then an expensive cab ride to Mechanicsburg. In short, wild horses could not drag me away from the performance of a new work by Wynton Marsalis composed for jazz orchestra and 70-piece gospel choir.
From the time my teenaged self first met Wynton Marsalis, I can trace nearly every tangible stage of my development into a man back to some nugget of wisdom I gleaned from his example, whether it was laid out with remarkable clarity in his (earth-shattering) book “Moving To Higher Ground”, or I was hearing in his music what it means to be an individual working within a democracy. I am still astounded by his extreme generosity when indulging me during those 3 a.m. phone calls, years ago, in which I would approach him with yet another thinly-veiled variation on “What does it all mean?” I have just entered a new chapter of my life, and while I am brimming with pride from newly minted professional relationships with my boyhood jazz heroes, I anticipate that just around the bend await new obstacles.
I take solace in knowing that this music and these musicians will always be there to light my way.
Tonight we look forward to performing in Woolsey Hall in New Haven, CT., the home of Yale University. The Reverend Bonita Grubbs, Executive Director of Christian Community Action — an ecumenical social service organization that expresses faithful witness by providing help, housing and hope to those who are poor in New Haven — has worked tirelessly and with much spirit to promote our appearance, having reached out to more than 900 churches throughout the state, including African American congregations in the Fairfield County area. This list of churches came via the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, the major sponsor of our concert, and we are grateful for all of the helping hands that have made our appearance possible.
“Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration”, will be on tour on October 3-23, and will be webcast live on October 24th, 25th and 26th at 8PM ET on http://wyntonmarsalis.org/live