I discovered jazz when I was a student at Boston University School of Theology from 1955 - 1958. Father Norman O'Connor, a Catholic priest, had a program that featured jazz on the BU radio station, WBUR. The creativity, improvisation, call and response that is endemic to jazz has shaped my life and ministry.
Many United Methodist lovers of jazz including me were elated when Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday" was included in the United Methodist Hymnal. In the summer of 1966 I invited Ellington and his orchestra to come to Union Church in Boston where I was pastor, to present his Sacred Concert. More than 1,000 people were present representing a diversity of religious traditions, races, national backgrounds and political perspectives. The Boston Globe published a review of the concert that was informative and positive.
Since the summer of 1966 a number of noted musicians have played in churches where I was the pastor: the late John Hicks, son of a father who was once pastor of St. Marks United Methodist Church in Harlem, along with Dianne Reeves, Billy Taylor and other noted musicians. I am pleased that Asbury United Methodist Church in Atlantic City where I was once interim pastor is continuing the monthly Jazz Vesper Services that were launched when I was there. So The United Methodist Church and its General Conference has more than a passing relationship with jazz,
Recently I saw the movie "Miles Ahead" with Don Cheadle in the role of Miles Davis. Mr. Cheadle was present at the showing. During a question-and-answer session afterward, I said, "Although the movie has language that is far from being church-sanctioned, "Miles Ahead" is the story of Davis hitting rock-bottom and then re-discovering his God-given musical gift, returning to the stage to share his gift with the world. I would call ['Miles Ahead'] a movie about resurrection." Mr. Cheadle nodded in assent.
Like Miles Davis and many other jazz greats, The United Methodist Church is in need of resurrection!
Billy Taylor, the gifted jazz pianist, was a frequent guest on CBS TV. I remember him as the composer of what could be a theme song as the denomination struggles to break free from the self-imposed chains delegates placed on the Church at the 1972 General Conference: "I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free (To Break All the Chains That Are Holding Me)." Nina Simone, called by some the "high priestess of soul" has sung this with unbelievable power.
What "chains" that are imprisoning the UMC? Perhaps the strongest chain is that of assuming (like Donald Trump) that "greatness" is achieved by returning to or replicating the past. Women, African Americans and others would say "NO!" Not understanding that "tradition" too often imprisons rather than liberates makes another chain. When some of us read/hear it, it reads/sounds like "traditional segregation of blacks and women." And the most imprisoning of all the chains is locking God into the past, and in doing so, making God irrelevant for the present and the future.
Billy Taylor could have written his song with the words of poet James Russell Lowell from nearly two centuries ago shaping his composition: "New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth."
Let's take the lessons of jazz to heart. United Methodists, General Conference delegates, this is the 21st century. Break free from the chains of the past!
The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell of Asbury Park, NJ, is a retired clergy member of the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference and a longtime leader in social justice movements for civil rights and LGBTQ inclusion.