Sermon Archives

"You Can't Jive with the Almighty"

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Mar 26

Text: Selections from Genesis 1

First Church, repeat after me: In the beginning, God.
-- In the beginning, God!
Say it again, In the beginning, God!
-- In the beginning, God!

From the first movement through the powerful poem Jean Dany wrote for this occasion, that motif is an awe-inspiring foundation that underscores the entire piece. In the original program notes for the Concert of Sacred Music, Ellington said: “you may hear a wide variety of statements without words, [but] you should know that if it is a phrase with six tones, it symbolizes the six syllables in the first four words of the Bible, "In the beginning, God," which is our theme. We say it many times . . . many ways.”

So, First Church, let’s say it once more: In the beginning, God…In the beginning, God! And let’s imagine the creative power and potential this conjures, that original blank canvas of the entire universe, the mystery and majesty of it, the deep sense of reverence, awe and God-given goodness it evokes! No wonder this Sacred Concert became such an esteemed and important work and cultural marker!

Before we get back to the music, allow me to sound just a few notes of context about how this piece came into being, and how it came to Cambridge, fifty years ago this week. As Gabe Meline, the arts editor for San Fransisco’s KQED wrote,

“Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington registered thousands of original compositions, performed around the globe, scored Broadway shows and Hollywood movies, and dined with kings and presidents. A list of the honors and awards received by jazz’s most prolific artist could stretch from the stage to the balcony...of the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. And yet it was a concert (first) given atop Nob Hill in San Francisco, in 1965, that Ellington called “the most important thing I’ve ever done or am ever likely to do.”

Ellington continued when he first made that remark: “This is personal, not career. Now I can say out loud to all the world what I've been saying to myself for years on my knees."

Ellington was commissioned to create A Concert of Sacred Music in honor of the consecration of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on September 16, 1965. It celebrated the completion of more than 30 years of construction. Remember that when we are in the midst of our upcoming capital campaign construction! No question, this was a radical move for a largely white Episcopal congregation, or for any congregation at the time. One writer even called it “near-scandalous.” The original concert at Grace was part of a year-long series related to the building’s consecration. It included another jazz mass by the jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. According to Rebecca Nestle, the cathedral’s cultural program manager, “I know for a fact that some of the priests who were organizing the Guaraldi mass got actual death threats.” At a press conference before the Ellington performance, the Very Rev. C Julian Bartlett, Dean of Grace Cathedral, himself a New Orleans native and jazz lover, described the planning for it with simple sincerity: “The offering of sacred music by Duke Ellington and his musicians will be just that— an offering of his talent to Almighty God. We receive him humbly and with thanksgiving for his tremendous talents.”

To get a sense of just how radical it was for Grace to commission the sacred concert, consider what was happening in our country at the time. Consider the context of race relations in September of ‘65. This was just five weeks after Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. It was just a month after the Watts Riots had erupted killing 34 people, mostly African Americans. When the Duke brought his big band to First Church on March 29, 1967, it was just days before King’s famous April 4th Vietnam War sermon at Riverside in New York, and a year before King’s assassination in Memphis. In fact, in May of 1965, the Pulitzer Prize music jury voted unanimously to award Ellington with a “special citation for long-term achievement,” but that proposal was shot down by the Pulitzer Board and the award was never given. As Andrew Gilbert of the San Francisco Chronicle noted: “The 66-year-old Ellington dismissed the snub, famously remarking, “Fate’s being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.” But in private, he denounced the Jim Crow mentality that saw African American music as unworthy of serious attention, telling critic Nat Hentoff “In this country, jazz has always been the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.” Thank God, in 1967, Ellington won a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and in 1969, a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It was in March of 1967 when First Church Cambridge had the honor of hosting A Concert of Sacred Music. Among those who attended were the Nobel Prize-winning Physicist, John Van Vleck, local business owner Frank Cardullo, Harvard President Nathan Pusey, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy. Also here that night were our own Dick and Gay Harter, Art Anger, Anita Anger, Estelle Paris, and perhaps a few others of you along with our minister at the time, Reverend Wells Grogan. It was hosted as part of a so-called “Year of Experimentation” that is described on the back of the program in which the Episcopal and United Church of Christ chaplaincies of Harvard and Radcliffe were together exploring “religious potential in the arts.” Y’all think this has some religious potential? 

Playing with Duke Ellington that night, right here in this space, was his sideman, the great Johnny Hodges on alto sax (who was born in Cambridge – amazing), Paul Gonsalves on tenor sax, Cat Anderson on trumpet, Esther Marrow, or Queen Esther as she was known, on vocals. With them were a host of other big band greats who toured with Ellington to churches across the country and world. The Memorial Church choir was also in the house and there was even a tap-dancer, Dr. Bunny Briggs. In that first concert at Grace, Ellington introduced Briggs as “the most super-Leviathonic rhythmaturgical syncopated tapstamaticianisimist” who, as critic Jesse Hamlin noted, “seemed to float over the floor like a shimmering hummingbird as he clicked and whirred through a brisk-tempo nine-minute reworking of “Come Sunday:” Here in Cambridge, as elsewhere, Ellington also performed a piano solo entitle “New World A-Comin’” that Carolyn will soon play and our own Val Blanc will accompany with sacred movement. Written in the First Church program, right underneath that title, is the following powerful note: “New World A-Comin’ is really the anticipation of a very distant future place on land, at sea, or in the sky where there will be no war, no greed, no non-believers and non categorization…where Love is unconditional and no pronoun is good enough for God!”

Still one can surmise that there was push back at the time, here in Cambridge as well as in San Fran. Our Cambridge program noted: “There are some who would argue that musical innovation and modern sounds do not belong in the Church and with this we would disagree. For us, Duke Ellington’s music represents the vitality and joy that is at the root of man’s religious quest. Its subtle themes cover the range of human experience and speak to the deepest human needs.” Amen.

Just one more word about Duke’s own faith before we get back to the music and meditation: Those who knew Ellington knew his faith ran deep. A friend from his early days in Washington, D.C., once recalled how he would often come home after a performance and read the Bible while taking a bath, and continue reading until the water turned cold. He is said to have the read the bible four times through during his life, with a private practice daily bible study and prayer in hotel rooms across the land! Perhaps it was this intimate and even private sense of faith that made Ellington at first hesitant to accept the commission from Grace Cathedral. And yet, as one of Ellington’s biographers Terry Teachout said, it was more because the Duke “questioned his “eligibility” for the task, which he defined clearly and modestly: “You have to go out there and make a noise that tells the truth. . .. You can jive with secular music but you can’t jive with the Almighty.” Let me say that again. “You can jive with secular music but you can’t jive with the Almighty.” Teachout continues: “Ellington’s program note for the first performance… was in part an apologia for what he thought might be understood as his presumption in writing church music: ‘Every man prays in his own language and there is no language that God does not understand.’”

So let’s continue to hear his prayer, with gratitude to all of our artists and especially to Carolyn. May this experience open our faith to new beginnings, new collaborations and new works of beauty and justice that God may be calling us to in such a time as this!