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  • Writer's pictureJeff Perry Guitar

Black Church, White Church: Diverse Music/Worship Traditions

I, as we say in the Church, am blessed to play every Sunday for three different churches. Two are Black-led, urban Evangelical Covenant, one is a White-led suburban Lutheran church. As you might imagine, the Covenant churches are different than the Lutheran one. Musically you could say the urban churches are more "jazz" and the suburban one more "classical". That means, with the latter I am provided with detailed charts that have every section, every bar, every repeat, numbered or marked in some way. There is little question about how the song will flow from beginning to end.

With the "jazz" churches, days ahead of service we get a link to a performance of the songs, from either the original artist or another church's version, and we learn them by ear. However, we never perform it exactly like those we learn it from. The arrangements are essentially improvised on the spot as the mood strikes the worship leader. If he or she is "feeling it", a section might be repeated, sometimes multiple times. Or we might suddenly be directed back to a prior section to perform again. I regularly get called on to solo at a moment's notice. As I never know when that might happen, I have to be dialed in and paying close attention at all times.

I am very fortunate to be able to have both experiences, to play in two music traditions, not confined to just one. Both have their advantages and are fulfilling in different ways. With the Lutheran church, the clarity can make performance smooth and easy, at least as it relates to form. And with all songs charted, it gives me the chance to work on my reading skills (a weak point for me as my formative years were spent in the rock/play-by-ear school). In the Evangelical services, with the greater unpredictability, there can be excitement, even magic when we are flowing on a repetitive groove, emotion and connection seeming to pour out from everywhere. And certainly, I get opportunities to cut loose and improvise (solo) during some of these "flows" in ways I do not get to in the other tradition.

In addition to the musical and spiritual joy these two approaches provide, there is a practical aspect. Like most of my teammates, I play in many other contexts outside of church. Being able to hone my skills in both of these church traditions goes on to serve me well when I play in secular situations. If a date calls for reading tightly arranged charts, I am up on that skill. If it's a "here's the song list, go learn them from the recording and be ready to play the gig, no rehearsal" scenario, I can do that too. And of course, I'm always at the ready for when someone points and says, "step on the gas Jeff." I assure you the engine will roar.

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