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Presbybop leader and pastor Bill Carter brings his deep appreciation for jazz to the ‘A Matter of Faith’ podcast

His latest book, ‘Thriving on a Riff: Jazz and the Spiritual Life’ was published Tuesday

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — Pastor, jazz pianist and prolific author Bill Carter says if there’s a line between sacred and secular, “it’s a dotted line.”

“If the Holy Spirit anoints the imagination, however that happens, is that automatically wrong if it doesn’t fit with where people think it’s appropriate?” Carter told hosts Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe during the most recent edition of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast,” which can be heard here. “God can find us out in the secular part of the world, whatever that presumes to be, and sometimes God ignores us when we’re in church. It goes both ways.”

Carter, who’s served more than 30 years as pastor and head of staff at First Presbyterian Church of Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, is also the leader of the band Presbybop, whose composition varies from four to six members, depending on who’s available. Carter’s most recent book is “Thriving on a Riff: Jazz and the Spiritual Life,” released Tuesday.

“The question I would have is, how does jazz touch the human spirit and express the Holy Spirit? It’s like going to a concert,” Carter said. “You hear something and it moves you, and you don’t know why … there’s a kind of resonance somewhere deep. A song with lyrics may touch your heart or resonate with a hope or a longing that you have. It gets a little trickier when the music is instrumental.”

He called jazz “one of the few communal art forms. It needs to have a crowd and an audience to resonate with … I think a good spiritual presence and connection and incarnation drives us more deeply into the world. If that’s the case, we can talk about justice, racism, creativity, the creating of community, prophetic speech, and activity — all of which is in the main of what I would call spirit.”

Carter cited the great cornet player Buddy Bolden as “the first real jazz musician.”

“He was a Baptist, and he would lead the singing in his congregation,” Carter said. “He started dancing with the notes, and then he would add some sauce, some jambalaya, to the rhythm. Louis Armstrong said he was the greatest trumpeter he ever heard, and yet his form was readily dismissed.”

“The creation of jazz originated with people having highly differentiated opinions about what was appropriate and what wasn’t,” Carter said. He finds an analogy in the criticism Jesus receives in Luke’s gospel “for always hanging around with the wrong people. For me, this presses the whole question of what’s sacred and what’s secular?”

The Rev. Bill Carter

That’s a question Carter was confronted with as a 15-year-old pianist growing up Presbyterian in upstate New York. “We did a youth service, and I was asked to play piano for a youth group sketch of the prodigal son,” he told Catoe and Doong. “I was the piano player in the honky-tonk where the younger brother ended up blowing all his money.” Dressed nattily in a bowler hat for the service, Carter offered up some Scott Joplin music. Afterward, “some guy more pious than God stopped me and said, ‘That’s the first time I ever heard music like that in my church.’ The implication was it would also be the last time,” Carter said.

“Later I pushed back with ‘The Earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof,’” he said, “not some small slice that we decree is appropriate and what’s not.”

After serving the Clarks Summit congregation for 34 years, “I know church people pretty well at this point,” he said. “I grew up in the church, and I can find God in any number of places. That presence can’t be corralled or manipulated. I think the best we can do is welcome it, share it and pass it along. For me, vitality, creativity, community, healing, engaging life rather than avoiding it are spiritual, and none of that can be reduced because it’s the Spirit’s work in us, not our attempts to be called ‘spiritual.’”

“My quintet just played a concert in a Presbyterian church this past weekend, and people were moved to tears by notes — notes, vibrations of air against the eardrum. That’s what moved them, and they stopped by afterward and said, essentially, ‘God is here.’ I smiled because I didn’t manufacture that. I just welcomed it. We created a situation and look what happened.”

In his book and on the podcast, Carter tells the story of his then 19-year-old mother, an all-state clarinet player from western Pennsylvania, being taken one evening to a Louis Armstrong concert. “She remembers two things,” Carter said. “The first was within 30 seconds, Armstrong was so engaged in his music with the band that he was perspiring profusely.” Armstrong would take a handkerchief and wipe his brow, then drop a growing collection of handkerchiefs on the stage. “I thought, mom, what would that DNA be worth?” Carter said. “The second thing she remembers is the room changed. It was transformed. The music had lifted everybody out of whatever state they were in.”

But this was a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1955, and Armstrong, a Black man, together with his fellow Black musicians, weren’t allowed to spend the night in the same town they’d just won over on the stage. Carter did some research and found that each night during this time in their careers, Armstrong and his band would perform the old Fats Waller song, “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue.”

“He was critiquing the racism that put him on the stage and in some way transcending it with a largely white crowd,” Carter said. “When I revisited that story with my mother and she gave me the ticket (to the concert that night), which cost all of $1.85, I thought, there is so much more here that needs to be unpacked. It also explains why I grew up hearing jazz around the house, going to hear big bands when they would pass through.”

A preacher can write down a sermon, of course, “but what matters is what people hear, what gets put into the air,” he said. “That’s what affects us. It encounters us and confronts us. I find a lot of resonance between the making of jazz and the preaching of sermons, both of which I do on a regular basis.”

Ten years ago, Carter had “the amazing experience” of singing along with 150 others in a workshop led by jazz singer and songwriter Bobby McFerrin. Carter called the process “spontaneously creative.” Afterward, one of the participants hugged Carter and told him, “I know you’re a reverend. I’m an atheist, and this is the most spiritual thing I’ve ever experienced,” he recalled. “I thought to myself, I know you’re giving yourself that label but you’re tapping into something I’m tapping into and it’s alive and vital from the center. It’s building community and speaking truth in a different language. Of course this is spiritual.”

Carter said he’d “love to be part of a faith community that is experiential,” but “what we run up against is the illusion of control, cultural or ecclesial. Who says we can’t do that in church? We’re Presbyterians. We don’t have a pope.”

What he and the rest of Presbybop have to share “is a very deep reservoir of resonance. It’s a certain brand of spiritual friendship,” which he called “my category for understanding it, especially if we are all vulnerable enough together and trusting one another that we can launch into previously uncharted territory and not have it disintegrate into blathering or selfishness or something … We create together, and it’s an extraordinary thing. I’m fortunate to experience it with people in my band maybe even more than with people in my congregation, whom I love very much.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

“That’s kind of countercultural,” Doong joked, “to Presbyterians being decent and in order.”

“This kind of flexibility and creativity can be a relearned skill. Kids have it when they start out,” Carter said. “I didn’t get any of that at Princeton Theological Seminary. I got a lot of other good stuff, but I didn’t get that.”

Asked to talk a bit about his new book, Carter said he wrote it during a sabbatical funded by the Louisville Institute. “It is 30 years of reflection about jazz and the faithful life, the spiritual life, being held in dynamic tension,” Carter said. “I don’t shy away from racism or the prophetic denunciation of that” expressed in songs including Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” or Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”

“There are a lot of stories woven throughout this book,” he said, “many not told, many sidelined because they didn’t seem appealing to the publicists of the musicians they were trying to push.”

He called jazz “a vital musical tradition, and I want to hold it up with faith. I think it offers a trajectory for the church of the 21st century.”

New editions of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drop every Thursday. Listen to previous editions here.

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