[This is the script for my show “The Spirit of Jazz” heard on an internet radio station (Geneva Community Radio).]

This week on the Spirit of Jazz, something completely different…at least for this format. We’re going to play the same tune over and over. Well, I should clarify…it’s one particular jazz composition, but with five varied arrangements.

For jazz flute players, it’s a classic, at least since Moe Koffman penned it in 1957: “The Swinging Shepherd Blues.” It hit #23 on the Billboard pop charts in ‘58, and jazz artists have been playing it ever since.

Why did I choose that particular tune for this “Spirit of Jazz” show? Well, for one thing, you never really know which program will be your last one, and I just felt like doing this! But I have to add, too, that “The Swinging Shepherd Blues” was my first jazz radio theme song, forty years ago. So, allow me, on my 40th anniversary of jazz radio shows to play my theme, over and over and over.

You’ll hear the original Moe Koffman version, plus my first theme song, a Reggae version from the 1970s featuring Herbie Mann. We’ll also hear a vocal arrangement from the extraordinary Natalie Cole. And just to make the stew more rich, we’ll also throw in a Latin version from Tito Puente. And why not jazz harp arrangement from Deborah Henson-Conant?

Plus, of course, in keeping with the Spirit of Jazz, some reflections on the job description of shepherds! First, let’s begin at the beginning: the composer Moe Koffman.

SSB  #1 Moe Koffman

That’s the original “Swingin’ Shepherd Blues” played by its composer, jazz flutist Moe Koffman. The album he was working on in the late 1950s featured what someone has described as a “catchy little blues,” but Kaufman’s original title for it had nothing to do with shepherds. The tune was called “Blues Ala Canadiana,” a bow to Koffman’s “home and native land.” The story goes that the album’s producer Morty Palitz didn’t care for that title, and he suggested the one that stuck: Swinging Shepherd Blues.

That story was news to me. I always had assumed that the tune was a tribute to Pastor  John Gensel, the shepherd of a Lutheran flock in midtown New York City. For over three decades, John Gensel developed a jazz ministry, based at St. Peters Lutheran Church, but not limited to the building by any means. Pastor John went where the musicians were, meeting the jazz community in the jazz community. He counseled with the musicians, baptized, listened, visited the sick, and presided over the funerals of jazz greats like Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Erroll Garner, et al.

He also led the final services for Duke Ellington to whom Pastor Gensel was a close friend and confidant. Here’s where my misunderstanding about the title “Swinging Shepherd” comes in. If there ever were a genuine shepherd for the swingingest flock, it was Pastor Gensel. But his ministry had only begun a year before Moe Koffman wrote his now well-known blues piece. I doubt the Canadian Kaufman had even heard of the NYC pastor. Turns out that the tune written for Jazz Pastor John was an entirely different piece, and written by Duke Ellington, who dedicated a composition from his “Second Sacred Concert” in 1968 to – and here’s the title – “The Shepherd (Who Watches Over the Night Flock).”

I’d play that piece (it’s in my vinyl library), but I want to be true to the Swinging Shepherd theme, so here’s another version of it: something Pastor John would especially enjoy if he were alive today. If he’s up there in some heavenly jazz venue, I’m sure he’s got better things to listen to than my radio show, but I’ll dedicate this to the memory of his ministry to jazz folk: Tito Puente’s arrangement of the Swinging Shepherd Blues.

SSB #2 Puente

Coming up next, a vocal version from the wonderful Natalie Cole. But first, I want to tell you why that long-time Jazz Pastor at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in NYC would have loved that particular Latin version of the SSB. It’s because (and I didn’t know this until a few minutes ago as I wrote this script), this John Gensel, pastor to the jazz community, and the one who originated a Sunday 5 p.m. Jazz Vespers service there that continues to this very day, Gensel (which sounds pretty Lutheran to me) was born Juan Garcia Velez in Puerto Rico. He adopted his aunt’s married name when he come to live with her in Pennsylvania. He left his Roman Catholic roots for the Lutheran Church, and after seminary and a couple of pastorates in Ohio, he headed for NYC.

There he took a jazz history course, started hanging around the Village and Harlem night clubs, and became a chaplain to the night flock. See, the word “pastor” means a shepherd of souls. As he took his caring and compassion to musicians in jazz clubs, it didn’t take long for them to follow him back to his church. And their gifts of jazz were welcomed there. Pastor John once said, ”I think jazz is probably the best music for worship, because it speaks to the existential situation of a human being. It is the personal expression of the person playing it.”

If anyone was afraid that this swinging, spontaneous, syncopated, free-spirited music might attract the wrong element to church…the swinging shepherd said, ”That’s the kind we want in church. The good ones can stay home. A church is a congregation of sinners, not an assembly of saints.”

Now, with her vocal version of the tune we’re centering on this week on the Spirit of Jazz, here’s Natalie Cole:

SSB #3 Natalie Cole.

Well, what have we learned so far? That this one particular pastor John Gensel became not only the pastor of a good-sized church in NYC, but reached out to sheep far beyond his own flock, listening not only to their music, but to their feelings, hearing the cries of their hearts, sometimes serving as a guide (as good shepherds do), providing comfort and nurture (as good shepherds do), and keeping watch for vulnerabilities, while listening for the bluest of notes and the most joy-filled praise a horn or piano or drums or voice can express. Sitting in a club in the wee small hours, Pastor John sensed the loneliness that exists even in vibrant communities of jazz musicians and fans.

John was part of a centuries-old shepherding tradition, of course. From the 23rd Psalm (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) to the Gospel Of John, where Jesus says in contrast to the sometimes poor examples of religious leaders who claimed to be shepherds, “I am the Good Shepherd.” And through his life and teachings, his compassion and love for his flock, as well as for those he knew to be outside his flock, Jesus proved to be more than good. In those agrarian days in that pasture-rich holy land, it was said that Jesus laid down his life for his sheep.

You can tell a good pastor by watching her or him exhibit deep love by both reaching out in compassion and inviting in with honest hospitality. And, you know what? We who follow the Good Shepherd are all called to be pastors. And I’ll tell you how that is after we listen to yet another arrangement of the SSB, this time the first jazz theme song I used on the radio back in Richmond, Va. in the early 1970’s. Here’s the flute of Herbie Mann.

SSB #4 Herbie Mann

Herbie Mann and a reggae arrangement of the tune we are featuring on this edition of the SOJ…I’m Jeff Kellam. One of the highlights of my jazz radio gig in Richmond, Va. was emceeing one night of the Richmond Jazz Festival. I got to introduce Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz that night. Dave Brubeck was to be on the program too, but he took ill, and Herbie Mann stepped in. I told him that his version of the SSB was my radio theme, and he made sure we all gave credit to Moe Koffman for composing it.

As this SOJ program has progressed, I’ve shared the story of the late John Gensel, who for over 30 years was the shepherd of the jazz community in midtown New York, and I’ve talked a little about what it took to be a good pastor to that flock, and how every pastor is following in the path of the one we call the Good Shepherd, Jesus. And now as we head toward the end of this program, and a jazz harp version of SSB, let me tell you why everybody who follows Jesus is called to be a shepherd.

After Jesus’ death, John’s gospel tells of a resurrection appearance of Jesus, and we almost have to smile about the everyday-ness of the details. Jesus is, well, cooking breakfast: fish over a charcoal fire on the shore. He calls to his disciples who by this time had back to their fishing boats. They come onto the beach for fish sandwiches. And after breakfast, Jesus asks Simon Peter, “Do you love me?” “Yes, of course.” The Q&A is twice repeated and each time when Simon Peter affirms his love, Jesus says, “Then feed my sheep.”

Disciples are called to be shepherds to the flock. Pastors. Servants. That’s why when some churches list the church staff (no pun intended!) on that sign out on the lawn or the city sidewalk, it says, under the term “pastor,” “All the members of our church.”

We all have work to do among our sisters and brothers. Feeding, yes. Visiting. Listening. Helping. Building and repairing. Healing. Teaching. Comforting and, yeah, sometimes correcting. No one said being a pastor was any more easy than being a shepherd out in the fields of Palestine or Vermont!

May the Good Shepherd be your guide through life, and may you be a pastor to all whom you meet, being gentle with people, and with yourself.

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