Opening words for a jazz service

Opening words delivered by Rev. Dan Harper before the annual jazz concert given for the past quarter of a century at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the words below are a reading text. The actual opening words as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.

What makes a good jazz musician? I’m no musician, but speaking as someone who listens to jazz, I believe what makes a really good musician is the ability to listen. For me the best jazz ensembles are the ones where the individual musicians listen closely to one another, incorporate the best ideas that they hear from the others, and play those ideas back to one another.

In the beginning, African American blues musicians listened to the badn music of white Americans, and incorporated the best ideas from that band music, and played it back to the world; and so jazz was born, and it was good. And then Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie listened to Machito, and incorporated the rhythms of salsa and merengue and charanga, and Latin jazz came into existence, and it was good. And so it goes: Anthony Braxton plays jazz inflected with avant-garde classical music, Chick Corea plays jazz flavored with bluegrass, and jazz musicians listen to all the musics of the world, and they play it back, and it is all good.

As we continue to struggle with the evils of racism in this country, maybe we should listen more to jazz musicians. They listen to one another. They respect the musical integrity of each other. Jazz isn’t a melting pot. It’s more like a rich stew, a callaloo where all the original ingredients retain their integrity but they blend together to make a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

As we listen to this jazz concert, inevitably some of us are going to be thinking of this week’s Supreme Court ruling. As American schools become increasingly segregated, as our country becomes increasingly segregated, jazz can remind us that there is another way, there is another possibility. As we listen to jazz, it’s like experiencing a little bit of heaven here on earth, where all persons are respected for who they are, where we truly listen to one another. So listen, and dream of an earth made fair with all her people one.