Make it Swing: An Interview With Dwight Andrews

The accomplishments of Dwight Andrews M.Div. ’77, M.Phil. ’83, Ph.D. ’93 cover the worlds of jazz, church, seminary, Broadway, and TV soundtracks. He is senior minister of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Atlanta and associate professor of music theory and African American music at Emory University. He has served as pastor of the Black Church at Yale and as resident music director at the Yale Repertory Theater. He collaborated with the late playwright August Wilson, serving as music director for the Broadway productions of Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, and other plays. As a composer, his film credits include PBS Hollywood’s The Old Settler, Louis Massiah’s documentary W.E.B. DuBois: A Biography in Four Voices, and HBO’s Miss Evers’ Boys. He has been a multi-instrumentalist sideman on over 25 jazz albums. He has written on the future of race and the church. He is now completing a book on the spirituality of jazz giants John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Sun Ra, Dave Brubeck, Albert Ayler, and Yusef Lateef.

Reflections: The relationship between churches and artists, belief and creativity is often complicated. Why?

Dwight Andrews: Today there is a tension between the individual’s creative voice and the needs of institutions to control its expression. For centuries, the church was a powerful authority over how art was to be used to tell its story. Artists these days aren’t as willing to be constrained by the church or any other authority. They want their work to be driven by their own personal vision of faith.

This challenge to the status quo is also one of the reasons behind the dramatic rise of non-denominational churches in America. New perspectives on autonomy, power, authority, economics, and the very understanding of “church” reflect major shifts in our culture. The explosion of megachurches and so-called “prosperity gospel” ministries also mirror these shifts.

The worship and music experience as well as the commerce of church music is affected. The demise of the denominational hymnal suggests that akey method of binding a particular faith community and tradition together no longer has the same influence. Musicians, supported by new technologies for dissemination and reproduction of their music, want to create their own songs about Jesus. As you can see, the tension between artist and church is both fascinating and problematic. 

Reflections: You’re dissolving that tension in your own church, with jazz.

Andrews: Well, yes and no. We’re actually trying to do several things at once. First, we are trying to affirm the spiritual capacity of jazz and its worth to the worship experience. Second, we are pushing back against the internalized racist assumptions about jazz as the “devil’s music” that continue to plague our community and the world. Third, we are asserting the value of the individual creative voice in the context of the community, not in opposition to it.

In a sense, jazz always requires and encourages your individual contribution – but it is always in the context of the collective. Much in the same way that the spirituals and the blues come out of the collective African American experience. This is of course not unique to the black experience. Bach used folk melodies.

So many jazz musicians and jazz lovers have joined our church in recent years that we have now made it a principal expression in our worship service, alongside but not in lieu of the anthems, the traditional hymns, and gospel song. On third Sundays we even feature jazz as the primary musical style, and it has been very well received. We are attempting to dissolve many different tensions by bringing jazz into congregational worship.

Reflections: Why does it succeed?

Andrews: More than anything, it’s the swing. We’re bringing swing into the service – that feeling and rhythm. And that’s bringing us back to the early church practice of involving all the senses – your taste, smell, sight, hearing … and now your toes. With swing, you can snap your fingers and tap your toes and these immediate tactile responses allow you to participate in the improvisational moment – a moment that one can experience and accept that the music moment will come and go and never be heard again. I think this affirmation of being “in the moment” is one of the most powerful liberating and enlivening aspects of jazz’s potential in worship.

Reflections: Is there a theology at work in jazz performance?

Andrews: Improvisation, at its best, represents a fundamental willingness to “let it all go.” Your practice, discipline, preparation, and study are all a prologue to invite the “in-spiriting” of one’s inspiration to have its way with you. If there is a theology of jazz, it is in the acknowledgement that God is the provider of the inspiration and that we entrust our preparation and ourselves to God so that something important might happen. It’s what we preach and pray about, trusting God “in the moment.” Our trust in the unknown is precisely because of our trust in the “Knower.” This is the theology of improvisation and its applications extend far beyond the practice of jazz.

You hear this type of trust in John Coltrane’s late music, which I am writing about now. He is searching for something beyond what he already knows. He said himself that he was trying to get himself out of the way so he could become a vessel of beauty, a vessel of the Holy Spirit. In the music he made before he died, he’s speaking in “musical tongues.” You might say he did what prophets do: leave behind the safe and familiar and move toward something outside of one’s self. Prophets always show a new way, but not everyone is able or willing to follow.

Reflections: Will Coltrane save the church?

Andrews: Only faith and grace can save us. But the church can and must do a better job of being relevant in a world that feels the church is unnecessary and out of touch. Today if someone wants to meditate, he or she takes a yoga class. If someone feels compelled to do service, he goes online and selects an activity that suits his schedule and interests. If someone is seeking a spiritual experience, there are many options that don’t involve a church. The prophetic voice and responsibility of the church need constant self-critique, clarity, and a unwavering commitment to Christ’s message of love and mercy that is not mediated by the exigencies of the day. I believe at the heart of a relevant church is community and a sense of common purpose. The church has not been rigorous in its study of what community means or should mean in the 21st century. Such an understanding will inform virtually every aspect of a faith community, including worship, art, and music.

Reflections: We need more beauty in worship?

Andrews: Yes, we need more beauty in every aspect of our lives, but for me, art is not the same as beauty. Art is an incisive expression of one’s creative impulses. Art should be human and honest, and that belongs in church. In the 20th century, the human carnage of two world wars forced artists to give up the old idea that everything they create should be beautiful. Picasso, Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein … They asked: What should art be in a world of such brokenness? I believe we are invited to ask that same question in the 21st century: What should our music in church sound like in such a world as this one, broken by divisions of class, commerce, race, poverty, technology, the erosion of families and communities? Human expression should be heard in church – not through a karaoke machine or technological filters, but in ways that acknowledge the world as it is and as it could be. The worship experience should engage all of our senses and allow for our improvisatory impulses.

Reflections: What would such a church look and sound like?

Andrews: The church should sound like the community it reflects. This rather simple response is of course more complicated than it appears. If for example we seek an inclusive, ethnically and culturally diverse faith community, then we must grapple with what such an aspiration means. No church can be all things to all people at once, but the lines of division represented in the sound of Sunday morning worship throughout this country invite a second look. We live in an age where our assumptions about what it means to be a black church or a white church or a rich church or poor church simply cannot contain the ways we now self-identify. The opportunity for people of goodwill is to ask: “What does the beloved community look like?” Our answer will then reveal what it should sound like.

Reflections: Has music always been a religious forcefor you?

Andrews: No. My thinking about this has evolved considerably in the last decade or so. My early interest in the church and Christian ministry was driven by my sense of its potential and power as an agent for social change. I was drawn to the social justice and human rights activism of the 1960s and 70s and frankly had little sense of how my musical background might figure into my sense of calling. My sense of spirituality and Jesus was equally illformed, but by the grace of God, I have come a long way. Frankly, music was my way of replenishing myself. What I didn’t see then was the music’s capacity to heal. For years, my task as a musician was to try to play the notes right and do it with honesty. Then I started meeting people at church who said, “Those notes you played made me cry.” It has become clearer to me over the years that musical expression, faith, worship, witness, and healing can and must be a part of that “network of mutuality” that Dr. King spoke of so eloquently. I feel unfettered, freer now than ever before.