When I started this blog called “Peace, Grace, and Jazz!” it was to allow me a great deal of latitude (read freedom) to write about all manner of topics, rather than just the more narrowly focused “Celebration Rock” e-journal I had previously authored. Today, we do focus on jazz, but not to the exclusion of the other two gifts of life.
It’s easy to identify the Rev. Mr. Bill Carter as one whom I’ve followed along the path of faith, but harder to write about him. After all, I “work” with him, collaborate on projects, listen to and thoroughly enjoy his music, and will see him at the Firehouse Stage Baldwin piano tonight at a concert that celebrates April as Jazz Appreciation Month. He composes and plays jazz, and I appreciate it. Teamwork.
A sometime radio ministry colleague Greg Hartung is the one who first introduced Bill and me. Was it at a national conference about “preaching?” Washington, D.C.? The thing I remember best is that we had lunch together, the three of us, and we drew strength from all the creativity around the table, if not the slaw-laden Reubens. I knew Bill Carter as the founder/leader of the Presbybop Quartet. It was good that day to get to know him as a friend. Especially since I was already a fan.
I’ve previously written here that my Mom introduced me to big band jazz through the shellac 78s that she had played during the war years (that’s WWII FYI), and as a kid I further scratched up her Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Harry James, and Ralph Flanagan records. My first exposure to “live” music was at big band concerts at the old IBM Country Club in Endwell, NY: the Dorsey Band, Flanagan, the Hi-Lo’s. And in college, my first radio interview ever was with George Shearing.
In the early 1970s I started a radio show on Richmond’s Public Radio station, “Headset Jazz,” playing jazz just for fun on Saturday nights. And on my “Celebration Rock” show, I had broken format a couple of times to feature “liturgical jazz,” by Howard Hanger, Eddie Bonnemere, and others, as examples of jazz going back to church. It is easy to argue that the roots of jazz are the “spirituals” of lament and joyfilled hopefulness sung by slaves in the fields and plantation cabins of the U.S. southland. Thus, jazz was finding its way back to communities of faith.
By the time Greg Hartung got me and Bill in the same restaurant booth, I was producing a syndicated jazz show for Greg’s Presbyterian Media Mission out of Pittsburgh (“The Spirit of Jazz”), and Bill had recorded an album I reviewed (very favorably, of course) for “Presbyterians Today” magazine. I learned that Bill was (and still is) a Presbyterian pastor in Pennsylvania, while composing jazz compositions and performing with his quartet of piano, sax, bass, and drums. And Bill had had a lesson or several from the legendary Dave Brubeck, at Brubeck’s home of all places.
Now, the actual chronology of all of all this learning is fuzzy. But I know that the next time we got together was a weekend for “jazz in the church” fans that Bill headed up at our denomination’s Stony Point Conference Center, just north of NYC. The conferees were to give Dave Brubeck an award for his many religious jazz compositions. Brubeck and his wife and daughter attended, and as he listened to recordings of his music in Bill’s plenary session, Brubeck’s fingers moved over his knee as if it were a keyboard. Eventually, he went to the aging upright piano and played some things for us.
So, yes, it was magic to be in Dave Brubeck’s presence, thanks to Bill’s imaginative conference planning, but that weekend also put me back in touch with someone in my high school past. When Bill introduced his Presbybop Quartet, he reported the hometowns of the players, and the sax player Al Hamme was from my hometown! His first teaching job was in my high school in my junior year. In the years that have passed since that conference, I’ve moved back home and discovered Al’s celebrity here runs deep. He’s been long retired from university jazz studies programs, but still draws musicians together for concerts (like tonight’s) and bi-weekly jams.
Bill in the meantime amazes me with his multi-tasking abilities of serving a church as solo pastor, leading a significant Presbytery committee (yes, there are some insignificant committees), composing and performing and recording jazz, and being a family guy. He is far more Internet savvy than I, and his Presbybop Music projects pop up on Facebook, YouTube, CD Baby, Mail Chimp, you-name-we’re-on-it. I have a lot to learn from him about all that.
Alongside the technical-digital-electronic stuff, or more accurately way beyond all that, is a profound sense of the Spirit that inspires and invades and breathes through Bill’s music. His jazz is prayer. His jazz comes from sojourns at Iona in Scotland, a monastery in New Mexico, the Presbyterians’ Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, NM, and, one would expect, at his piano there in his living room. Sometimes we find the Spirit, and sometimes we are found. Most often the latter.
Bill’s personal friendship is spiritually edifying for me, of course. And his music inspires in at least two ways. For one thing, on a personal level, it provides a soundtrack for the hopes, dreams, headlines, and drama of what life brings day by day. His “Psalms Without Words” 2-CD set includes enough lament and praise to cover whatever happens between the time we rise in the morning and fall back into bed at night. Bill’s music is more than liturgical, meant for more than expressions of worship. (Notice in the Gospels how little time Jesus spends “in church” compared to being on the road?) Jazz helps us in our own improvisational responses to whatever Providence and Grace offer as we live and breathe.
Now the other thing is this: back in my radio days, early on, I used to play recordings of Malcolm Boyd, an Episcopal priest who wrote a book of prayers entitled Are You Running with Me, Jesus? Boyd took his prayers into night clubs like the “Hungry i” in San Francisco, and read them from a spotlighted stool on stage. Occasionally jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd accompanied Boyd’s meditations. It was “church” witnessing to its message in an unorthodox way in an unorthodox space.
So there is Bill Carter playing a jazz Psalm on stage at the Scranton Jazz Festival or on public TV. I love it. As Martin Bell put it as the subtitle to his book The Way of the Wolf, it is the Gospel in new images.
I had the privilege recently of working with Bill on a video about the making of his most recent jazz project, a Presbybop Quartet CD called “Interior Window.” It was great fun to follow the band into the recording studio and watch the tracks come together, from Bill’s manuscripts to the digital mix in the state-of-the-art control room. I shot video throughout the day, and combined my images with some video Bill and I had shot previously. Editing all that together on my home computer (using Pinnacle’s Studio HD Ultimate editing software, for you techies) was a huge challenge, and I got embarrassingly befuddled looking for a file of this scene or that interview. Bill was pushing me beyond my comfort level, which I’m assured is a good thing in the creative process, but he was also calming, rather confidently so, knowing I could do what needed to be done — even if I wasn’t that sure.
So, at the jazz concert tonight, Bill will deliver to me the professionally duplicated and handsomely labeled final product, “A Short Film by Jeff Kellam.” The whole thing is a far cry from my video days and nights at the old Presbyterian School of Christian Education. And even further from my days as “the video minister” at a downtown Richmond, Va. church where the emerging technology was VHS.
So, yes, Bill Carter is one of the forty I have followed, been inspired by, and learned from. This old dog is still learning new tricks. And improvising. In retirement, thanks to people like Bill, my life is indeed a riff.