Written by Anthony Moujaes
A cavernous, steel-beam-and-concrete hall of the Long Beach Convention Center was transformed into an intimate club for mellow jazz Thursday evening as part of the Youth@ General Synod 2013.
General Minister and President Geoffrey Black and the Rev. Art Cribbs of the Southern California Nevada Conference served as hosts and interpreters of the music that the Rev. Laurie Grace and her band played. Black's passion for jazz is no secret, and a question from a teen at the National Youth Event last summer brought it renewed attention. So ‘A Conversation between Gospel and Jazz with the Rev. Geoffrey Black and friends' as a Synod event was born.
It was too early in the gathering for many people to have found their way to Hall C, tucked away behind the Exhibit Hall. But as the jazz riffs drifted out, Synod-goers drifted in, clapping and swaying to the melodies of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley and other jazz artists.
"We think that jazz is played in clubs and bars," Cribbs, who clearly shares Black's passion, told the youth who had gathered on a carpet in front of the bandstand. "But it's also played in church."
"Ellington was a very committed, spiritually grounded Christian," Black added, "and some of his earliest works were spiritual in nature. One of his early compositions was Black, Brown and Beige, and one piece was Come Sunday, a prayer, which speaks to us about work and stopping work for a day of rest and reflection."
Grace offered a soulful rendition of the song. "God almighty, Lord of love. Please look down and see my people through…"
The role jazz played in providing voice for the great Civil Rights struggles was a recurring theme with Black and Cribbs.
"Jazz has a certain ingredient called soul," Black said in introducing Betty Carter's Jazz Ain't Nothin' But Soul. "Soul is the essence of your being. . . Soul is from your heart from the depth of your being, and the depth of your being is always spirit."
As a perfect illustration of soul, Cribbs gave a moving spoken-word recitation that he had written as a tribute to the late jazz great Nina Simone. "You carried our pain and celebrated our every gain. . . Nina is gone. Sweet Sister Simone.
"You were our soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement. . . Each song an anthem for our times. . . Take your rest; relax your voice. We'll take what you left us, and for that we give thanks. Nina is gone. Sweet Sister Simone."
"Jazz can be very prayerful," Black said in discussing Cannonball Adderley's Mercy, Mercy, Mercy. "When we run up against adversity, when we're caught up short, in those moments all we can do is pray. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy."
Geoffrey and Jazz served as a seamless segue to Black's next look at jazz in the context of worship, Jazz for the Journey, a National Symposium on Jazz as Liturgy, which will take place Oct. 24-26 in Cleveland. There he will share leadership with the Rev. Henry T. Simmons, pastor of St. Albans Congregational UCC, Queens, N.Y.; the Rev. Dwight Andrews, senior minister of First Congregational Church UCC, Atlanta; and the Oîkos Ensemble, directed by the Rev. Cliff Aerie.