Episode Seven: Rev. Edward Scott & His Jazz Worship Service
“My music is the spiritual expression of what I am: my faith, my knowledge, my being… When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang-ups.” — JOHN COLTRANE
Dr. Rev. Edward Scott is the pastor at Allen Chapel AME Church in Staunton, VA. He’s also a jazz music enthusiast. He takes his love of jazz and combines it with his spiritual preaching at Allen Chapel’s “Jazz Worship Service.” Pat Jarrett from The Virginia Folklife Program attended Scott’s jazz service based on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in September of 2021. Pat brings us audio from the service along with his exclusive interview with Rev. Scott. Allen Chapel’s next Jazz Worship Service is September 25, 2022.
Pat Jarrett: Today I wanted to share a recording that I made close to home at Allen Chapel in Staunton. Recently, I was invited to photograph the Jazz Worship at Allen Chapel. Reverend Dr. Edward Scott is the preacher there. He is one of the most electrifying preachers I've ever heard in my life and I'm not necessarily a religious man, but I can appreciate a good orator. Well, Dr. Scott, who was a professor of Mary Baldwin College and sits on the board of Virginia Humanities, is a huge fan of jazz, specifically John Coltrane.
Rev. Edward Scott: My love and appreciation for jazz music is father inspired. My father was a jazz enthusiast and he grew up around musicians. He knew Errol Garner's family. He knew Dakota Staton’s family. Whenever I ask him about these folk, he said, oh yeah, I remember Errol used to play even as a little boy. And then he would remember Dakota, oh you should have heard the other folks in her family. My mother actually graduated from Westinghouse High School with the man named Fritz Jones. Fritz Jones is Ahmad Jamal, the famous piano player. He and my mother graduated from the same high school in the same year. In fact, I was playing an Ahmad Jamal recording one day and my mother came in and she said “Who's that?” I said, that's Ahmad Jamal. And she said, “I know him. He and I went to school together.” And I was convinced she was mistaken. I said Mom, no, no, you didn't go to school with Ahmad Jamal. “Sure, I did.” She says “his name is Fritz Jones.” And she pulled out her yearbook and there was Ahmad Jamal and the caption underneath his photograph says “likes to play the piano.”
PJ: And he took that love and really made something beautiful out of it. He did a sermon called A Love Supreme. And it was a packed house and there were some luminaries in the audience. Poet Nikki Giovanni was in the crowd - that was a rock star moment. We're all there to see a six-piece jazz combo back up Reverend Scott during his sermon that Sunday morning. It was wonderful. Dr. Scott was really making the connection between the secular and the sacred. And how just because music is secular, does that not mean that it's connecting with you spiritually? And what does that even mean? It was beautiful.
ES: In 1979, I went off to Calabar, Nigeria, for two years to teach at the University of Calabar. And I was inspired by everything I saw in Ebo culture while I was there. And what I noticed most particularly was that there was no separation for them between what was considered profane and what was considered sacred. They were bound together. For most of what they did, there was this linkage that if you try to tear it apart, you ended up with practically nothing at all. So, the idea that everything was sacred for them, even things that we consider most profane. Even that was sacred or had a sacred impulse in it. That came back with me, that survived in me the experience that I had while I was there and there were so many other things that survived in that experience, but that was the one thing I treasured probably more than anything else. So when I came back, even though I had been ordained as an AME pastor just before I left to go to Nigeria, I was determined to make this notion of the interpenetration of the sacred and the profane come alive in my church services. The more I learned about the jazz musicians, because I became a very enthusiastic listener. And when I got to college, I really just, I don't know how to say this, but I became a kind of champion for jazz music. I drove my roommate’s crazy. I just drove all of them nuts. They said, who is this John Coltrane? They're sitting around listening to Booker T and the MGs and I'm playing John Coltrane. If you want to hear a real tenor saxophone player, here you go.
PJ: It was put to the chord progression of John Coltrane's famous A Love Supreme. It was wonderful.
ES: I can imagine a service where I would play nothing but jazz in the service and at the time I had Thelonious Monk on my mind. And there are various pieces by Monk that I thought could carry a whole service. Crepuscule with Nellie, I said, would be a perfect thing to play for prayer. I mean, just perfect for prayer. Straight, No Chaser would be good as a benediction. It would just be great as a benediction. And I was half joking, but I was half serious. And next thing I knew we were planning the service and laying it out, a kind of jazz liturgy. And the more we worked on it, the more alive it seemed to me to be and I just thought oh this is going to work.
PJ: I think the argument that he was making about how you can find spirituality in the secular is something that I can identify with in what I come across in the Folklife Program and I was honored to be in the audience that day.
ES: So, the first one we did, I'll never forget, I wanted them to open with Joy Spring by Clifford Brown, use it as an invocation. And they played Joy Spring by Clifford Brown and I sat up there in that pulpit and wept and I said, oh I'm not gonna make it through the service, I’m crying on the intro. It was so well done. It was so beautiful. And so the rest of the service just seemed to float on air. I was transported. And the place was packed because we had advertised it. People heard of it by word of mouth. My friends in other churches decided they were going to play hooky from their own churches that day. They want to hear how this jazz service was going to work. And the place was packed and the people relished it all, every single second of it. It was a smashing success. People say I've been listening to this music all my life and I never heard this connection to the sacred in it. And what they don't understand is that many of the jazz musicians including Monk started out in the church. They remember their church experience and the church experience is not very far removed from them. However commercial the music seems to be, however secular or profane it might seem, however gutbucket it might seem (I would make the argument the more gutbucket the more sacred).
Chris Boros: I almost wonder if what he does on stage kind of reflects the improvisation of jazz. He's probably improving a little bit up there, right?
PJ: I'm not sure how much he was improving, but he was playing a hell of a solo.
ES: Oh, the music inspires the sermon. I love knowing with the scripture ought to be from which I should preach on any given Sunday in the Christian year. I just love the unfolding of the Christian year. I love the way it moves. I love the lectionary. I love the passages that are provided for preachers to preach from. But when I do the jazz service, I go on holiday from the lectionary and decide, particularly based upon the tunes that we decide we want the musicians to perform, I try to think of what would be appropriate for what they are performing. In other words, the music itself becomes my lectionary. Every jazz musician will say to you that if you play a popular song from The Great American Songbook, you must know the words because you're telling that story for that song. So those songs become a kind of script for me. Now A Love Supreme is different, of course, that's a composition by John Coltrane with a very definite intention. He's very specifically composing jazz music to worship the holy, the sacred, the eternal. He is clearly trying to articulate musically what it would mean to have a relationship with this ultimate source of being. And so that's a wholly, original composition by him and I knew I wanted to do A Love Supreme, I just knew. I want to do a sermon based upon A Love Supreme by John Coltrane.
CB: I wonder how special this was for the musicians. They're probably not used to playing in a chapel, a church.
PJ: Robert I know goes to the church and he's done this before and so he knows it works. I think that Dr. Scott gets something out of it different every time. I think that he and Robert curate the music for maximum impact.
ES: This was an album that was produced by and recorded by John Coltrane with his quartet, his very famous quartet and it covered both sides. So it was a suite and the whole suite was to be performed together, you could not just play one section of that song and then be done. This was not a series of tunes. This is a suite and these pieces are connected. They're interconnected. So one part of it is called “Psalm.” Another part of it is called “Acknowledgement.” Another part of it is called “Resolution.” Another part of it is called “Psalm.” So he structures the composition as though it was to be performed in a worship service. John Coltrane is very intentional about it so he intends for anybody who listens to it, to hear the sacredness of it. The longer John Coltrane, after A Love Supreme, the longer he worked as a jazz musician, the more obsessed he became with the notion of the sacred everywhere. And so album after album, Dear Lord from the Transition album. Another album entitled Meditation, another one entitled Selflessness, right? Here's another one, even more than Selflessness. For jazz aficionados. They'll appreciate this - Ascension.
CB: You had mentioned that you're maybe not a huge religious, man. I'm wondering when this was over, did you have a moment of: Hmm, maybe I should be?
PJ: Dr. Scott's message really resonated with me. What I took away from it was that spirituality and religion can be found anywhere in this world if you're looking with the right lens.
CB: So this took place at Allen Chapel in Staunton. What can you tell me about the church?
PJ: Well, I asked Dr. Scott about that actually.
ES: Allen Chapel was established here in the city of Staunton right after the Civil War in 1865. It is the oldest church founded by people of color west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is the oldest church founded by people of color in this town. It's a venerable congregation and traditionally small, but somehow, steadfast - resilient. After many, many years, the church is really quite healthy and we are seeing a diversity of attendees. It's a historically black church but it’s a historically black church that has a particular appeal for certain people who are not black. And I'm saying people who are white, people who are from other parts of the world. It's become a very attractive place for other people and our membership is growing through that particular kind of diversity. So we’re very happy about what we see happening. We're surprised by it, but at the same time we're more than pleased to see it too because we are convinced that this is God's intention.
PJ: So, I think, regardless of your belief or non-belief, you can have religious experiences if you're open to them.
ES: Look at the people who come to the Jazz Service. Here's a Jim Harrington, who is himself a musician, but a former colleague of mine at Mary Baldwin University, who eventually was elected to the school board, who later became an elected member of city council. He's in attendance at the jazz service. Look who sits beside him, Doug Gwin, who used to be the city attorney and is now still the attorney for the school board. Look at the others. Shelby Owen, who is the pastor of Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Members of Covenant Presbyterian Church decided to play hooky from their church and come. These are friends of ours from other churches in this community, historically white churches. But there are other folks from all these other communities who come to that jazz service and we don't make them come, they come because they want to and they're looking for something. They're looking to see how does this jazz work in this worship service, but they’re also looking for community in a different way in which community can be expressed and manifested across racial lines, across historical lines, across political and class lines. And the jazz surface throws them all together.