Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Jazz and church bring up our collective sorrow and give us a place to grieve

By Terry Dawson
Special to the American-Statesman
Scott Laningham played drums with local groups Church on Monday. He will be remembered at the Jazz at St. James' event.
Pianist Rich Harney played jazz music in Austin for decades before his death.

I recognized early on that I'd fathered a precocious child and so resigned myself to a future of facing difficult questions.

Still, when following my response to one such question in the autumn of her fourth year, my daughter dropped onto the curb of a heavily peopled walkway and began to cry inconsolably, I knew I out of my league.

We'd just exited an exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco — one documenting that city's 1906 earthquake and fire. It ended with a short film dramatizing the tragic event and sharing that an estimated 3,000 people died as a result. Fiona, with a contorted expression, looked up at me for a simple clarification:

"Were they saying all ... all those people died ... all in one day?"

When I nodded, grief sunk in deep, its weight causing her small body to nearly collapse.

I wanted, of course, to quickly cure her sorrow but knew no such elixir existed. I marveled at how one so young could generate such sadness but immediately switched gears to recognize the real tragedy: We adults have grown inured to massive death.

Not until our current pandemic have we demonstrated just how hardened we've become. Our day-to-day lives for the most part remain undeterred by the reality that 738,000 of our fellow Americans and almost 5 million global citizens have succumbed to COVID-19.

It's true some memorials have cropped up. A small forest of native seedlings now cover a grove in Chillicothe, Ohio, to memorialize these victims and this past Memorial Day honored those in military service slain by the virus. Yet we must admit that most of us have never felt as if we struck by a bullet of grief at the thought of so many strangers dying, let alone feel compelled to drop where we stand and sob like a 4-year old on a public curb. Yet I believe, on some level, we remain affected.

My co-chair of the Jazz at St. James' event, Joe Morales, and I, along with our rector, the Rev. Eileen O'Brian, struggled to determine whether it prudent, even with the miracle of a vaccine, to open our sanctuary doors to a small, masked and socially distanced audience for our 2021 Jazz at St. James'.

Ultimately we concluded that all the pieces were in place to safely open up the event and that we clearly needed this time to gather and to grieve. We'd already delayed our planned tribute to Rich Harney, a Jazz pianist who'd showed up in Austin to repair a car bound for California, when he barely more than a teen, but remained here until he died decades later less than two years ago.

During the past year drummer Scott Laningham, who'd interviewed our 2020 Jazz at St. James' headliner during the radio show he created in response to the pandemic — a conversation I referred to in the last essay I wrote for the Statesman about the festival — died suddenly as well while working in his yard. While I'd heard both perform and communicated with each via e-mail and Facebook, I'd never actually met either man.

When then I began to write our welcome letter to this year's festival attendees, my thoughts turned to the fallen strangers of COVID-19.

"Yes," I confirmed to myself, "we can no longer wait to grieve."

Terry Dawson is the co-chair of Jazz at St. James' event.

During the 20 plus years I served congregations as pastor, I came to recognize that funerals and memorials afford worshipers the keenest opportunities to sense divine and human alignment. During such gatherings, where friends and family lift up the life of one now lost, our connection as creatures and the glimmer of the Creator within each of us register a bit more deeply.

It was at such a service -— one for Rich Harney in fact — that Joe grabbed my arm and declared: "OK, man, we got to do it ... next Jazz at St. James': a tribute!"

An accomplished sax man, my co-chair determined then and there to invite those fellow artists who'd often merged their souls in music with both Scott and Rich to step into the space usually occupied by internationally known artists.

When then 2021 rolled around, the Rev. Eileen and I had to agree. Only in a sanctuary could these artists properly honor the absence of these two gifted and generous men with their own performative presence. In short, we agreed that, when it came to our corporate grief, we needed to "take it to church" and that Jazz our obvious means of transport.

After all, what other art form has emerged from massive grief? The root of jazz, "is the Blue," as I once heard Wynton Marsalis suggest during an outside concert on the Stanford campus where my wife-to-be was a student. That "Blue" a musical cry rising out of the pain of slavery and the subsequent Jim Crow era.

Somewhere between the abuse and degradation and the improvisational voice we call jazz, the joyous soul of swing birthed itself. This is why Black folk know immediately, and have taught the rest of us to listen for, that "blue note" when struck — a note, even when far from any house of worship, "takes us to church."

There is a reason why the local jazz heroes who gathered around Dr. James Polk's Hammond B-3 organ and Scott Laningham's trap set at the Continental Club called themselves "Church on Monday."

There is a reason why Rich Harney was invited to play regularly at Austin's First Presbyterian Church and why the sacred music he wrote will find its way into the Jazz Mass concluding this year's Jazz at St. James'. When Mary Lou Williams convinced John Cardinal Wright, the then bishop of my hometown of Pittsburgh, to allow the city's first jazz Mass to take place in the Cathedral of his diocese, she knew and shared with him the sacred link between worship, grief and jazz.

This is why after observing that service, the bishop turned around to commission "The History of Jazz" (how folk referred to Mary Lou) to write the liturgy and score for two more jazz Masses.

I never came up with sufficiently consoling words for my daughter as she struggled to swallow the nauseating reality of so many dying, but I did manage to teach her to listen for the "blue note" in the resurrecting reverberations of jazz.

Before she even reached kindergarten, Fiona could identify the nuances in lyrical delivery and tell whose were Ella's or Billie's or Sarah Vaughn's. Not long after our experience at the California Academy of Sciences, I took her to the tribute for baritone saxophonist, Anne Stan Merrill, who died too young of breast cancer and who assembled and led a big band for the first jazz Mass at the first church I served as pastor. I could not stop my daughter. That is, when Fiona jumped to her feet and wildly danced to the strains of that all-female jazz orchestra. I watched her and prayed that as she grooved she begin to release that unbearable sense of loss that she carried for those strangers long dead before she ever took breath.

The best any of us can plead at such moments: “Come thou font of every blessing tune our hearts to sing thy grace.” Find a way, my friends, to tune into jazz this fall, when birds in our trees leave and trees themselves grow bare with much around them withering as more strangers pass away. Tune in and know again God still swings among us.

The Rev. Dr. Terry Dawson is the co-chair of 2021 Jazz at St. James' at St. James' Episcopal Church. 

Jazz at St. James' 2021, a tribute to Scott Laningham and Rich Harney

7 p.m. concerts Nov. 12-13; 10:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Jazz Mass Nov. 14 

Featuring music from Elias Haslanger, Dr. James Polk, Andre Hayward, Masumi Jones and Mitch Watkins

Information and tickets: jazzatstjames.org