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Theology Thursdays: In This House On This Morning by Playthell Benjamin

Although I am not a religious man I am often compelled to defend the church, especially the black church. In this I am much like my intellectual hero Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. Returning to America after a stint working on a Doctor of Economics degree at the Kaiser Wilhelm University in Germany – then considered the leading university in the world - where by his own estimate he was “educated within an inch of my life” – Dubois was a skeptic about the claims for divine providence. And like Du Bois, who referred to the African Methodist Episcopal Church – the first church founded by Africa’s descendents in the new world – as one of the most magnificent institutions ever organized by men, I too am in awe of the sheer splendor of the African American Church. As Zora Neale Hurston said, it is a place that houses a religion for people who love magnificence and can’t get too much of it! That the church has been the rock upon which black folks stood when all else failed is an eternal truth that none can deny. On this question every head must bow in acknowledgement and every tongue must confess it.

The service was magnificent from the outset as we stood and sang that moving anthem penned by the Brothers Johnson – James Weldon and J. Rosamond – “Lift Every Voice and Sing!” The sanctuary of the Nazarene church is a model of elegance amid simplicity. Because it is a protestant church that adheres to the commandment against graven images there is none of the elaborate statuary that adorns the sanctuaries of Catholic churches. But the beautiful stained glass windows extend up to the ceiling as if offering an artful prayer to heaven. The entire sanctuary is a marvel of design, with beautiful varnished wood ceilings and elaborately painted walls across the sanctuary facing the colorful windows. It looks like a place worthy of the body of Christ.

For 132 years black New Yorkers have gathered together to seek God’s blessing in this hallowed space. On this occasion some luminaries of the black world turned out to celebrate the men of this church, and among those singled out for special recognition by Pastor Conrad Tillard was the venerable Harlem minister Rev. William James – whom he called a “mentor,” and the award winning Spanish language broadcaster Malin Falu, host of the nationally and internationally televised show Dialogues Coast to Coast on the Hispanic Information Television Network.

Over the course of our sojourn in America the Nazarene Congregational Church provided a podium from which some of the greatest figures in the black world have alerted the community to the dangers we faced along the way, while the congregation was fortified with song and prayer. For many years during the golden age of this venerable institution Dr. E.E. Proctor was Pastor to the flock. I first encountered Dr. Proctor in Dusk of Dawn, the first autobiography of Dr. Dubois, who singled him out as one of the most impressive of his classmates at Fisk and praised his good works as a man of the cloth later in life. And in selecting the dynamic young preacher Rev. Conrad Tillard, the contemporary congregation at Nazarene has demonstrated that they intend to march on in this great tradition of committed leadership.

In 1931 the King of Swaziland spoke to this congregation and told of the protracted struggle for black liberation in Southern Africa. But in this House on this morning – the annual men’s day ceremony – the world’s greatest trumpeter and Pulitzer Prize winning composer had come to anoint us with wisdom and understanding, relating the history of Afro-American sacred music with learned speech and marvelous music. It is altogether fitting and proper that Wynton should come to this black church and make music, since it was from these houses of worship that the grand tradition of Afro-American music was born. The number of great musicians who got their start in the black church are far too numerous to even attempt a listing here, but suffice it to say that among their number can be found leading musical artists of every genre. They range from the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, to the greatest of all modern percussionists Max Roach, to the path breaking saxophonist Jackie McLean, to the greatest living classical singers: Jessye Norman, Grace Bumbry, Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle, et al. The illustrious array of musicians alone would justify the mission of the black church, but when it comes to the great leaders of the race – whose good works have enriched the nation at large – the black church provides an embarrassment of riches!

It was a day when the church recognizes the good work of the men in the congregation. It was an impressive ceremony in dark proud men that grabbed your attention and tugged at the heart strings of all who were lucky enough to witness it. Praise poems came forth from the children and the wives, as well as from brothers acknowledging the good works of one another. It was the kind of ceremony that filled our hearts with joy; it was enough to drive a godless heathen to tears. And when they sang one of Paul Robeson’s favorite spirituals – created by our enslaved ancestors, those “Black and Unknown Bards” of whom the poet James Weldon Johnson sang – I wept. And when the Reverend Tillard, standing in the high pulpit decked out in the princely robes of his sacred office, offered up a passionate prayer of searing power and eloquence to the melodious sounds of the Grand piano, many in the audience felt the spirit and were moved deep in their souls.

By the time Rev. Tillard completed his prayer – an amazing demonstration of the sacred and the social gospels melded into one – a little child no more that 10 years old took out his saxophone and began to play the refrain from the hymn the congregation was singing: “We fall down but we get up.” As I listened to the mellow tone of that child’s saxophone, I couldn’t think of a single place that young black people could have gone to better renew their spirits and lift them up to higher ground. And when this was followed by a rousing rendition of “Amazing Grace” by a magnificent tenor who wore a woolen cap and scarf to protect his delicate vocal instrument from the ravages of the cold, the congregation was rejuvenated through song and the joy of the moment, and all rose to their feet in salutation. When Reverend Tillard said “let the church say Amen!” the praises to Hosanna in the highest resounded through out the sanctuary and rolled out in the streets.

In that marvelous display of sacred ritual and business acumen that so distinguishes the best black churches they passed the collection plate to the triumphant sound of the Hymn “Glory Hallelujah we are going to see the king,” now fortified by Wynton’s drummer who joined in with the masterful church pianist, no doubt moved by his own upbringing in the church, and the child to my left began to play the melody on his sax again. And the dollars flowed into the plate; all having been elevated in spirit by virtue of their giving. Sitting directly to my left was the world renowned concert pianist

Professor Felipe Hall sang every hymn with the skill and feeling of one who is an authority on black sacred music. The men’s choir led the congregation in a rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” it touched Wynton deep in his New Orleans soul and he joined in on trumpet while sitting on the podium waiting to be introduced. My spirit danced as I took it all in.

In a marvelous mix of poetry and philosophy the Reverend Tillard showered us with the word. Although many in New York still remember him as the fiery minister of Mosque #7 of the Nation of Islam in Harlem - that hallowed space where Brother Malcolm X once chastised this nation for its sins against black people. But none who saw him in the pulpit at Nazarene, which has a legacy of 132 years of struggle, can any longer doubt that this man was called to this ministry. And we may all be the better for it. His introduction of Wynton was a model of the art of the panegyric, the praise song, and not a word of overstatement. Because Wynton Marsalis is a man of uncommon attributes. A world class artist and man, none among us in America is more worthy of praise. And none has worn his accolades more humbly. It is no exaggeration to say that he is one of the tallest trees in our forest, and there is none that I have seen more worthy of praise. Wynton is the realest cat that I know.

Following a rousing gospel performance by the men’s choir Wynton took center stage. As eloquent with his voice as with his horn he began to tell the tale of our history through music. As he spoke about our African past his drummer began to play and African inspired rhythm in 6/8 time with the cow bell carrying the beat. It is the same rhythm one hears in the sacred music of black people – Christian and Pagan – everywhere we are in the world. You can hear it in the Santeria of Cuba, the Haitian voodoo, and the Brazilian Macumba and the Pentecostal church. And it still accompanies the praise songs to the gods of our fathers deep in the rain forests of West Africa as I write. He spoke of the meaning of the spirituals and he sang to us for emphasis.

He spoke of ring shouts and pattin Juba, and told us where syncopation came from. I thought of the great composer R. Nathaniel Dett, who wrote his composition “Juba Dance” as an evocation of the soul of African American culture. And the premiere authority on slave culture in America, Dr. Sterling Stuckey, chose the “Ring Shout” as the central trope of early neo-African culture created by Afro-Americans. Wynton also spoke of the unspeakable horror of slavery, and the shameless sin of the minstrel show that found in the crimes of the plantation a source of humor. One has only to contrasts this understanding of the origins of the Sambo figure to Whoopi Goldberg’s defense of her use of this symbol of Afro-American oppression as a vehicle to entertain her Jewish boy friend and his cronies. And Wynton spoke poignantly of the “promise and the pain” of Afro-American music that informs the blues – the root of all great secular American music.

Wynton went on to show how the ebullient rhythms of ragtime represent a song portrait of the triumph of the Afro-American spirit over one of the foulest systems of human oppression ever devised by man. He told us of the glories of improvisation when jazz was born in New Orleans, then he took up his horn and wailed while his drummer, Ollie Jackson, laid down a funky butt New Orleans beat. In spite of a century of misguided church condemnation, none in this church crowd will ever call jazz the devil’s music again! Wynton preached on, telling us how Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and Mahalia Jackson were all baptized in the blues. He conjured up old Buddy Bolden – who “invented Jazz” – and that piano playing Creole sweet Mack man Jelly Roll Morton, and he sang the praises of that sober genius James P. Johnson. He conjured up Eubie Blake, Pops Armstrong and Professor Thomas Dorsey, who invented the model gospel song and placed it in the mouth of Mahalia Jackson – a powerful contribution to western sacred music whose artistic achievement is powerfully elucidated in Ralph Ellison’s seminal essay “As the Spirit Moves Mahalia.”

Wynton preached on to a full and responsive house and flat out told us he wasn’t gonna stop til he got to “Trane:” John the Prophet. If “Pops” and Ellington were the original Jazz incarnation, John Coltrane was the New Testament. Thus it would be a sacrilege to quit before we got to the original Soul Trane! He talked about the healing powers of swing and gave the drummers some. He hipped us to how the drummers swung so hard they set the whole world to dancing. In fact the white folks began to name entire eras of their history by our music: “Ragtime,” The Jazz Age,” “The Swing Era.” And he made us to know how great artists and lovers of art, the whole world over want to be like us! Although their art was praised around the world, he pointed out, these descendents of African slaves were disrespected, oppressed and sometimes murdered for kicks at home by an insecure white society that wondered if our songs would render their pretensions to cultural superiority obsolete.

Finally Wynton told us about the blues and abstract truths of that genius from the American heartland who was nicknamed after a chicken: Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, an artist who changed the world of music as profoundly as Albert Einstein changed the world of theoretical physics. Like Einstein, Bird changed the way his most gifted colleagues viewed the relationship between time and space forevermore! Then he took up his horn and showed us how Bird did it by performing “Cherokee” at blinding speed on his trumpet. The spell bound congregation went wild! And thus we came finally to the gospels of John the Prophet, a magic man, a sonic healer, whom Wynton points out “brought the love of God through his music.” Then he told us that in John Coltrane’s music we hear the cries of the great black struggle of the Sixties rendered in song. The same thing that Trane once told me himself.

“It was truly a love supreme,” Wynton told us in conclusion. The audience rose as one in salutation. After the applause died down Wynton was honored with a proclamation from the Brooklyn borough President Marty Markowitz, an avid fan of black music, and the congregation of Nazarene presented him with a custom made felt hat that complemented his high style. My lord what a morning! If there is a God somewhere in the great expanse and eternal mystery of the universe, he dwelled in this house on this morning.

Playthell Benjamin is a journalist, novelist and former columnist at The New York Daily News. His articles and commentaries appear in major newspapers and magazines in the USA and Europe.

This article was published by The Black World Today.

Playthell Benjamin

Thursday, February 1, 2007

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