The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black first noticed the spirituality woven throughout the jazz music repertoire when he was a radio host decades ago in Syracuse, N.Y. Jazz is, as he put it, both inspirational and a spiritual expression. The General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ believes in jazz as liturgy because of its ability to speak to its listeners.
"Jazz always has a message. For us as people of faith, the Bible has traditionally been the source of our messaging," Black said. "There are the ancient narratives of God's relationship with people — God's liberating acts for a people enslaved. There we also hear the lament of God's people in their trials and suffering.
"We want you to go get the biblical message as expressed in the idiom of jazz and spoken word, a very powerful combination."
With those remarks, Black extended an extravagant welcome to jazz enthusiasts from across the country who came to Cleveland for Jazz for the Journey, a national symposium on jazz music in worship. Sixty-two people gathered at the UCC's headquarters Thursday evening, Oct. 24, to kick off the three-day event. The symposium brings together pastors, worship leaders, jazz musicians and music lovers to celebrate and explore the creative possibilities of jazz and its power to speak to our existential situation and transform Christian worship.
"The music is a natural fit. It is spiritual expression in a very pure form," Black explained to the audience. "It is proclamation. It is jubilation. It is longing. It is prayer. It inspires the body to move."
Black's keynote speech at the Amistad Chapel was the first in a series of presentations, workshops and concerts that continue through Saturday, Oct. 26. The Jazz lovers gathered will spend some time discussing ways liturgical music transforms worship in the church, the ways in which jazz is right in worship, and how jazz improvisation acts as a prayer.
Other presenters include the Rev. Henry T. Simmons, pastor of St. Albans Congregational UCC in Queens, N.Y.; the Rev. Dwight Andrews, senior minister of First Congregational Church UCC in Atlanta; and the Rev. Ozzie Smith, senior pastor of Covenant UCC in South Holland, Ill. The symposium aims to give people the tools, resources and inspiration to bring jazz music into their congregations, and provide attendees with the opportunity to network with each other as they learn more about the history of jazz music. A Friday evening concert, a Saturday Jazz worship service, and musical jam sessions are also scheduled.
"Today Jazz and worship are accepted in many places as a natural fit, very compatible," Black said as he detailed the ways he has heard how powerful jazz is in liturgy. "By nature, jazz is an open art form, always growing and exploring new edges to music making. By nature the church too, is listening anew to the voice of God and holding all people in a safe and creative environment in order to explore what it means to be people of God.
"Jazz is infectious. It blurs the lines between listening and player and draws everyone deeper into its contours. Jazz sounds like God, because jazz reflects God's way of blurring lines. It draws people closer to God and to one another."
Earlier this summer, as part of General Synod 2013 in Long Beach, Calif., Black and the Rev. Art Cribbs, of the Southern California Nevada Conference of the UCC, spoke with UCC youth and young adults about the ways in which jazz music can transform and enliven the church. That gathering served as a platform for Jazz for the Journey.
Jazz for the Journey is sponsored by the United Church of Christ, in collaboration with Trinity Cathedral (Episcopal Diocese of Cleveland) and Cleveland State University's Initiative for the Study of Religion and Spirituality in the History of Africa and the Diaspora (RASHAD).