Since June is African American Music Appreciation Month, we reached out to Dr. Daran Mitchell, who is an Adjunct professor of Preaching at Hood Theological Seminary, Pastor of Trinity AMEZ in Greensboro, a Hymnologist, vocalist, and Jazz lover.
- Rev. Dierdre Parker, Entertainment and Arts Editor, The Star of Zion
When my sister pastor asked me to share reflections and recollections of my journey with jazz, my mind travelled back to 3 places/spaces: Middleton, the Muppets, and the movies. At Middleton Junior High School in Tampa, Florida, I was a member of the intermediate band (and subsequently the advanced band) under the direction of Mr. Greg Dunn. Mr. Dunn was a professional jazz trumpeter who “moonlighted” leading and teaching rowdy teenagers (like me) in the music department at Middleton. In the band I played clarinet and bass clarinet, but I always had a fascination with the saxophone (alto, tenor, and soprano), because I watched Zoot on the Muppets play the saxophone. In my opinion he was the coolest Muppet on the show. I picked the clarinet however, because I learned to play it so easily that my band director said that I had been divinely gifted.
I remember the first piece Mr. Dunn taught the band, “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”, played by Duke Ellington in the 1943 film, “Cabin in the Sky”. It was a catchy tune, arranged by Mr. Dunn for junior high students that with a surfeit of screeches, squeaks, and squawks we thankfully made it to the end of the piece and thus my entre into the world of Jazz.
Fast forward to the 90’s, when I first watched Spike Lee’s “Mo Better Blues”, a musical comedy drama starring Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, and of course Spike Lee. The movie depicts Bleek Gilliam leading his own band, struggling with the life issues of friendship, commitment, fidelity, and finally, redemption. I was moved by the various jazz selections but the piece that gripped me the most was (and still is) “Acknowledgement” from John Coltrane’s magnum opus arrangement, “A Love Supreme”.
Each morning, I am awakened by this beautiful piece as I rise to meet the challenges of a new day. I use it as my alarm that summons me from the cosmic depths of peaceful into the beautiful daybreak of God’s love—A Love Supreme. When I read the story of John Coltrane’s trek into the spiritual dimension of divine love, I was immediately reminded of how beautiful life becomes when we are enraptured in God’s love. During the pandemic, this piece became my peace as I treasured each day as a gift from God. I vowed never again would I take my breath and life for granted. These grace gifts became, for me, a revelation of God’s creative capacity to partner with frail humanity in a jazz symphony—A Love Supreme.
Without question, Jazz is God’s gift to America and God’s ever-evolving gift to me. Of all the musical genres, it’s Jazz that lifts my soul to cosmic heights of joyful creativity and holy imagination. The innovation and improvisation of Jazz is clearly what inspires my preaching and now, my living. Jazz is the hope for a world that is polarized and paralyzed by the rampant ignorance of individualism that robs humanity of the gifts that collaboration and teamwork offer through the jazz impulse. Jazz is God’s language played out from Genesis to Revelation. Methinks the reason why I love Jesus so is because his life, death, and resurrection is the greatest jazz improvisation ever played out in real time. Terri Lynne Carrington is right, “jazz is a spirit” and dare I assert, that the Holy Spirit is God’s creative impulse bringing joy and gladness to the human search for meaning, purpose, passion as we navigate through this wilderness called life. Finally jazz for me is the invitation to escape the dismal doldrums of rigid, regimented occupation into the bright, blissful space of love—A Love Supreme.
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Watch The Soundtrack Of Our Lives with Rev. Dierdre Parker and Rev. Dr. Daran H. Mitchell, this Thursday June 30th, 2022 @ 8PM EST as a follow up to this article.