The Jazz of Worship and Creole Faith

Otis Moss III

As a relatively new pastor of a thriving megachurch, I am witnessing a growing gap between multiple generations of worshippers, highlighted by the worship habits of older adults (who have an orientation towards spirituals, blues, gospel, and soul music that arose out of complex, conflicted black experience) and the postmodern, urban cultural creation known as hip-hop.

Hip-hop is a poster child for this clash of cultures. It represents an urbanized value system detached from the southern, Africanized ethos that shaped the black church, an ethos suspicious of profane rhetoric.1 Hip-hop is not the problem per se, but it points to larger cultural implications that have high stakes for the future of congregational life: How do we create worship space for both the Be-Bop and Hip-Hop generations? I don’t mean gimmicks or new songs, but a value system that embraces African culture, prophetic witness, and the love ethic of Christ?

Merging Democracy and the Blues

I think the answer is found in a “creole faith.” It draws inspiration from a jazz vision of improvisation and democracy, a legacy of Africans in America. Creole faith merges a blues and spiritual aesthetic with democratic new-world ideals, ideals that enliven what we call jazz. Creole faith is an expression of Christianity based on the unique theological vocabulary that Africans brought to America. A jazzcreole approach challenges American-Anglo and African-American churches to try fresh strategies for worship and theology. I consider it one of the most vibrant wings of American Christianity today.

“I take that emptiness and try to fill it up.”2 The blues aesthetic uttered by August Wilson’s character, Ma Rainey, describes the spiritual impulse vibrating through my life. The sounds of John Coltrane’s saxophone, James Baldwin’s prose, Zora Neale Hurston’s “folk-ways,” Fannie Lou Hamer’s grassroots political rhetoric, Martin Luther King Jr.’s democratic Christian witness, Howard Thurman’s southern-inspired spiritual mysticism, the urban-blues-centered postmodern beats of J Dilla and Madlib, the poetic, honey-dipped voice of Jill Scott – these compose the song of my spiritual journey. Through them the Western division of the sacred and the secular dissolves before the bluesand- gospel motif of black church experience, with eternal virtues rooted in Christ.

My parents are children of the South and products of the heritage of the black church. Dr. Otis Moss Jr., my father, mentor, and pastor, is now pastor emeritus of the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, where he served for thirty-three years before retirement in 2008. Growing up in Olivet, I witnessed southern patterns of rhythmic speech and prophetic Christian witness drawn from the Old Testament prophets. Having two parents as veterans of the civil rights movement created a theological synergy where themes of love and liberation danced around the dinner table and found voice in casual conversation.

An Extra Ingredient: Love

A community historically forced to play chords of blues and gospel views Christ as a Savior and Liberator rooted in love and committed to healing. This idea, developed further by King, advanced a democratic vision grounded in Christian ethics and Africanized theological notions of blues, gospel, and jazz – a creole faith. And it added an ingredient: love. Talk of liberation, revolution, or justice is empty rhetoric if the tough question of love is not part of the equation. My theology is founded on this elusive endeavor of spreading a life of love within communities scarred by the cruel nihilism of modern, now postmodern, culture.

The nation’s progressive wing shudders at the notion of engaging any concept that cannot be empirically defined. The conservative community abandons the challenge of love when love stirs people to question doctrine and realign political alliances. In our culture, love gets jettisoned from prophetic doctrine in favor of edicts: Instead of creating a loving dialogue around poverty, abortion, and race, we take positions. But the black church has held on to a vision of love with special poignancy. Its unique history required it to see America from the underside and adopt the love ethic of Christ as a community bruised and scorned by a society claiming democratic ideals.

A vision of democracy infuses that love, and jazz is its deliverer. More than music, jazz is a cultural and theological idea. A jazz aesthetic combines the Africanized faith of my ancestors with democratic optimism. Jazz is the one true American art form, born in the crucible of southern pain and frontier optimism. The womb of slavery and the impulse of new-world exploration created conditions that impregnated a French colony (New Orleans) with Africanized democratic ideals hidden in complex musical notation.3 Jazz sprung from this creole culture.4

Everyone’s Right to Solo

Improvisation and African polyrhythmic composition, layered with European scales, created this new sound in the emerging South. European instruments such as piano and bass were married to drum and saxophone. Jazz composition had a strict thematic structure, but every instrument had the right to solo. This was unheard of within the confines of, for instance, French chamber music, but now it promoted the democratic idea that each instrument was welcome to share in the composition and allowed to speak musically from the player’s own cultural context. Never during performance would the piano oppress the drum, or the saxophone tell the bass player that he or she was “three-fifths” of an instrument. They flourished together. European chamber music maintained a strict class hierarchy where only certain instruments were considered worthy of playing before aristocratic audiences. Jazz stated radically: All are welcome and every instrument has a gift to be played before the people.

The jazz ideal was further leavened by the call and response of black preaching tradition. By now this theological spirit can be found not only in black churches, but Anglo, Korean and Latino faith communities. No church can claim “cultural purity.” We all merge, borrow, create a theological gumbo.

Coming to Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, I found a congregation committed to black cultural heritage, social activism, and a ministry to the Hip-Hop generation still struggling with its faith journey. To honor this mission, we adopted a “Creole Style Worship Experience” with a multigenerational and multisensory liturgy that embodies a very African and yet deeply American jazz aesthetic.

In The Gospel Reloaded, Chris Seay explores the nexus between art and worship.5 His methodology reinforced my sense of the power of a jazz-creole spirit. At Trinity we created a holistic worship team that deploys visual art, drama, dance, music, homiletics and technology. I use the term “360°” (borrowed from graphic design) to explain our worship goals. The church has adopted the phrase “Jazz Narrative of Worship,” which speaks to both disciplined preparation and our conviction that the Spirit creates room for improvisation. This theological idea is the basis for leadership development, conflict resolution, and social-justice organizing.

Any good jazz band lets everyone solo. Any church serious about Christ must allow each person the opportunity to express his or her gifts. Nothing is more beautiful than when individuals find their groove and create a new chord in the church-wide composition I call A Love Supreme. In the twentyfirst century church, everyone has a part in the band, and all have worth in God’s eyes.

The Rev. Otis Moss III ’95 M.Div. is senior pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and the author, with his father, of Preach! The Power and Purpose Behind the Praise (Pilgrim Press, 2012).


1 Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (Oxford University Press, 2004).

2 August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Theatre Communications Group, 2008).

3 Daniel Rasmussen, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, (Harper, 2011).

4 Freddi Williams Evans, Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans (University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2011).

5 Chris Seay and Greg Garrett, The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix (Pinon Press, 2003).