That’s the Day: “Altar Call”

Hroyuki for The New York Times
Wycliffe Gordon, Reginald Veal, and Wynton Marsalis performing In This House, On This Morning. Hroyuki for The New York Times

There is a moment in Bruce Broder’s delightfully engaging documentary film Chops (2007) when T.J., a very talented young trombonist, asks famed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis the difference between the sound of church in one’s horn playing and the sound of soulfulness. Marsalis offers a great response:

O.K., this is the difference between soulfulness and church. Soulfulness is something that everybody has. Soulfulness is the feeling that when I am around you, I don’t want to leave. That’s soulfulness. You walk into somebody’s house, man you want to sit down there forever […] And that’s a part of our music, the down home, the soulful, the warm, the inviting. Sometimes church is that, sometimes it [ain’t].

I can’t say that I’ve experienced enough church to have encountered the absence of soulfulness that may be found there, but I have known a few church going folk who reflected the lack of soulfulness Marsalis describes; whose homes were not inviting and warm. At the same time, I’ve known people whose church experience has been limited to attending funerals but my encounters with them are certainly soul satisfying, spiritual experiences. Maybe these encounters are ones that informed my long held belief that ministering to the needs of others, caring for the soul, could occur beyond the physical space of a church; which is not to say that church is irrelevant. Church matters–particularly in an increasingly secularizing culture that elevates materialism above all else. Church insists upon the relevance of nonmaterial, spiritual values as well as a higher spiritual power than celebrity. So church matters, but so does the potential for it to occur beyond its walls.

My grandfather performed ministerial work from our front porch during the summer and from our t.v. room in winter. He listened without judgment and offered encouragement to those whose lives seemed far, far from glory. I never talked to my grandfather about what music offered him, but I associate music with the healing he offered others; jazz especially. Not knowing that many church going folk once thought that the secular sounds of blues and jazz were “the devil’s music,” I didn’t consider the possible incongruity between ministry and music in my grandfather’s work. When I learned of Wynton Marsalis’s In This House, On This Morning, a twelve part composition structured in the form of African American church services, I thought first of my grandfather’s lay person’s soulfulness as well as other encounters with soulful church services that I experienced as a child. Here is a bit of Marsalis and his Septet rehearsing “Alter Call,” one of the movements from In This House

I think my grandfather would have approved.

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