A New Diversity – Religious vs Secular Music
After going to a magnet school in inner city St. Paul for my senior year of high school, studying music in Boston for a few years, and seven years of living and performing in Chicago, I thought my significant experiences with diversity were over after I moved back to Minneapolis, MN. Not that there isn’t diversity in the Twin Cities metro area – there is - but it’s nowhere near as varied, large or international as those cities I spent time in. I’d likely never again take part in jam sessions where Japan, Switzerland, Puerto Rico and Bermuda were represented. I’d likely never again be the only white guy in a 22-piece jazz orchestra or the only Gringo in a band like Los Supersonicos. It seemed I was not going to experience any significant diversity again.
As it turns out, a surprise was in store. In Minneapolis I had new emersion into diversity I had not yet experienced – I got a church gig. Up until that point, when I was just shy of 40, the only music I played or was exposed to was secular. I suppose the closest I got to playing religious music was when I was in the pit crew of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. I knew that famous singers and musicians came up through the church and impacted the world of American music, but I had no first-hand knowledge of the music or the culture supporting it.
The first church gig I landed was with a newly planted evangelical inner-city church with a special focus on racial reconciliation. It was intentionally a multi-racial church although the band was mostly Black and much of the music we played was written and performed by Black artists such as Israel Houlton, Fred Hammond, Kirk Franklin, and more. A number of things struck me in those early months in this new setting. One was the quality of the music and the high level of musicianship exhibited in the songs. I had an idea pass through my mind more than once: “So this is where all the Black musical talent went.” i.e., these church talents seemed to match the high level of artistry we saw in the 70s with popular groups like Parliament, Earth, Wind and Fire, and Stevie Wonder – quality I wasn’t hearing in the pop music of our day. While some of the songs were relatively simple and straight-forward, others had complex arrangements, chords, hits and lines that took skilled musicians to pull off. These songwriters clearly had studied jazz. This was not my father’s church music.
Another thing that stuck out was how high-energy the music was. I mean slammin’ jams that closely rivaled anything you’d hear at Bunkers or other music clubs (maybe that’s because it was often the same musicians you’d find playing in those clubs the night before Sunday service). The pastor would regularly encourage me to crank it up and rock like Hendrix. More than once I was asking myself, “Am I at the club on Saturday night? I couldn’t possibly be rockin’ this hard at church…on a Sunday morning, could I?” I was also struck by how varied in style and genre the music we performed was ranging from these intense jams to salsa flavored beats to acoustic folk to funky Soul. And we had the occasionally worship director from South Africa who brought the music of his home country for us to play. You have to be well-versed in many styles to play in a group like this.
However, all the diversity mentioned above I did or could experience similarly outside of the church. Where I found the most significant difference between secular and religious music was the very concept of their functions, their purposes, and how I had to change my thinking and playing to adapt. In a word I had to become less self-centered, less focused on my playing, my chops, or anything to do with me. In the church, music is used to enhance the worship experience of others, to inspire and uplift, and to bring glory, not to yourself, but to He who made the music possible (not to mention life itself).
It was a foreign concept to me that every note I play should not be about me but someone, something else. It was a change in mindset that to contribute to something larger, I have to be smaller. Not that I completely go away and certainly not refrain from sharing my talent. But there is perhaps the key – sharing my talent rather than exhibiting my talent. To me, that is a huge conceptual difference that makes me a better musician as I think more now about how what I play supports what my bandmates are playing and how it serves the whole sound. Maybe I don’t need to play complicated parts (i.e. show what I can do) when simple will serve the music better. Maybe more space – fewer notes - would be better for the listener than overwhelming them with flurries (even if I am capable of doing so).
This change in thinking has made me a better team player but also, I believe, more enjoyable to listen to as my thought process is not “Look at me and what I can do”, but “how can I serve the music? How can I create music for the audience, not primarily for myself? How about rather than I play for you, let’s experience something together, let’s take a little trip.” Thanks to how religious music has changed my approach, whether you are hearing me at church or the club, you can sit back, take that trip, and enjoy the ride.