Morning Worship Column: To Be in the Spiritual Avant-garde Takes Hard Work and Preparation

no thumb

“I want to start with a quote from that great 20th-century prophet and philosopher James Brown, who said, ‘I feel good, I knew that I would.’ I want to link the lessons of the music with faith and our faith journeys,” said the Rev. Dwight D. Andrews at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “The Spiritual Avant-garde,” and the Scripture readings were Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Luke 4:21-30, Jesus reading the Scriptures in Nazareth and its aftermath.

Andrews is working on a book about the spiritual journeys of jazz musicians including Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef and Albert Ayler. They all had spiritual awakenings later in life.

“Their sacred music came out of the fulfillment of their spiritual expression in music. Jazz led them to their own spiritual centers and truths,” Andrews said. “I am learning how I need to bring all parts of myself together.”

John Coltrane created the jazz album A Love Supreme after a spiritual awakening in 1957.

“It was intentionally created to express his gratitude to God. He had struggled with drugs and alcohol and you can feel the intensity of Coltrane at this later part of his life,” Andrews said.

Andrews tried to link Coltrane to Luke 4.

“You all don’t look like radicals, sitting there in your summer clothes, but I am going to make you all subversives, like Jesus, like Coltrane. You are going to be radical in how you engage with people. Jesus chose outsiders to touch, to heal,” he said. “It is radical to go outside your own people, to reject the comfort zones of the world. You may not look like Black Panthers, but you are on the cutting edge of what it means to love the Lord.”

In order to be a radical, one has to be prepared.

“You have to practice, learn to create your sound, to know the discipline of your craft,” he said.

Jesus knew the Scriptures and he knew how to push to fulfill all that had come before. He knew what it would take to sing a new song. Coltrane was prepared; he practiced compulsively. Miles Davis used to complain that Coltrane’s solos were too long.

“Coltrane was that intense. He practiced all the time and came through all the music, blues, bebop [and] jazz,” Andrews said. “A Love Supreme was his radical fulfillment.”

The next task to become a radical is to search for voice.

“God calls you, knows you and you have to proclaim his praise in your own voice. You have to celebrate your individuality in the midst of the community that I talked about yesterday,” Andrews said. “Mahalia Jackson didn’t just sing; she knew the music of Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and then she pushed forward with her own voice.”

Andrews said when he was learning to play jazz, he memorized a saxophone solo to play at a club one night. He learned it note for note and hoped other players would welcome him in. They were not pleased and one of the older men took him aside and said, “Don’t ever play someone else’s solo. I want to hear your own song. Play what the spirit is telling you.”

“I had to find my own voice,” Andrews said.

The third task is to follow where your own voice is sending you. Coltrane made more difficult music and people wanted him to do the music the way they knew it, he said. People wanted Jesus to speak the same way other rabbis did.

“Prepare your best, acknowledge the power of your own voice and let God take you wherever God wants. That’s what it means to be part of the spiritual avant-garde,” Andrews said. “Jesus said to trust your vessel with what God has given you. ‘I feel good, like I knew I would.’ Because I’ve got God. Amen.”

The Rev. Scott Maxwell presided. The Rev. Laura Hoglund, a retired United Church of Christ minister, read the Scriptures. The Motet Choir, under the direction of Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, sang “Holy Is the True Light,” by Gerald Near. The Harold F. Reed Sr. Memorial Chaplaincy and the Daney-Holden Chaplaincy Fund provide support for this week’s services.


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.