Sunday, December 11, 2011

Young Adulthood in the 80s: My Experience with a Christian Jazz/rock group

My installations of episodes from my life continues into the 1980s. I am not happy about this state of affairs because the 1980s are not as innately interesting to me as the 70s, yet there was something about the 80s that couldn't fundamentally shake so many elements of the 70s.

Our story takes place during the Christmas season: I am going to say 1984. It concerns the exotic curiosity which is American independent Christianity, whose vast and manifold arrays of denominations, ideologies, subcultures, and lifestyles together must surely comprise some of the most colorful and at times extreme of religious belief systems to have ever been practiced by a human culture. Please be aware that this story is but of one particular expression of evangelicalism and by submitting it I intend no aspersion towards the many well meaning and sensible Christians who populate these United States.

Somehow, alongside my regular class work at the New England Conservatory, I found myself playing with a rather odd Christian Jazz/rock group, owing to an acquaintance who happened to be a fairly decent tenor saxophonist. This would prove to be one of the weirdest experiences of my musical life. The musicians were good as was the pay, but the lyrics and sensibility were another matter altogether.

We had a couple of rehearsals and, after playing some hotel gigs, we were slated to play a Christian wedding. In this particular subculture Christian is something that is applied to anyone or anything. All matters, great or small are decided on the presence or absence of the designation of "christian" or non "Christian". I gathered that this band was formed because they wanted to form a purer branch of jazz and pop music with the Christian label. I was never asked about my beliefs or lack thereof when I was asked to join the band. Curiously, they just assumed I was a Christian. I presume that had I been named Mitch Rabinowitz, rather than Mitch Hampton, there may have been some questioning alongside the requisite pamphlets from the Jews For Jesus and inquiries into whether I was a "completed Jew".

This band had a don't ask/don't tell policy about religious belief: it was good enough that I attended New England Conservatory. All I know is that when we weren't playing music all the band members would discuss their life with Jesus Christ, how their relationship with Jesus was going, and if they were "right or wrong" with Jesus. They discussed little else. One would think from the way Jesus was discussed that Jesus could have been the name for their girlfriends - so personal and intimate were their comments on Jesus. I have spent a part of my life among Born Again Christians but they never were as insistent upon Jesus in so intimate a way. Music was never discussed. During my two rehearsals scriptural metaphors were used instead of musical vocabulary. I had to learn how to translate on the spot. I remember we had to play some cover tunes by this woman named Amy Grant. I never listened to her music so I didn't know it.

There was never any sheet music with this band. I was supposed to play along by ear and memorize the arrangmements by ear. Part of the reason they worked with me is that I was good at listening. This wasn't too hard as the music had a crude simplicity that allowed me to have fun with it, so to speak. They seemed to like, even encourage my embellishments, which made the music a little better than it would otherwise have been. After the experience of playing a concert with the great George Russell it felt a letdown but the pay was good. Hundreds of dollars. These Christians seemed to have some money at that time.

The wedding we played was very lavish. It was a wedding of extraordinary wealth, in some wealthy suburb of Massachusetts, I think, in Brookline. I remember that the bride and groom wore pastels: teal matching dress and suit. The groom wore a teal tie that matched the color, but not the fabric, of the suit. It was the most awful clothing I had ever seen at a wedding, which, when one considers the attire worn at weddings during the past forty odd years, is saying a lot. Both the bride and groom had hair so tall, wide and thick you could not have seen around a corner if you were unlucky to have their heads in your field of vision.

All of the guests at the wedding danced to our music and rarely did they appear to be without the widest of smiles, and they combined the smile and the dance to great effect.

Although my job was to perform the piano part well, as the music requires, and I approach every musical situation with all the powers within my possession, I could not go along with all of this group's ideas. One thing I refused to do, during an original song by the saxophonist called "Save Us", was to thrust my fist into the air. There was this rhythmic cue where the entire band decided to thrust their fists high into the air everytime they sang "Save us!" I just wouldn't do this. The saxophonist - I'll call him Bob - noticed I was not raising my fist into the air, but instead continued playing piano chords. "Hey Mitch why aren't you putting your fist in the air? The whole band is supposed to do it!"

I explained that since my instrument was the piano and since the piano usually required two hands rather than merely one that I be allowed to be exempt from this bit of stage theater. Bob thought for a moment and then said I made "some sense" and that probably the wedding party would not notice or be disappointed by my lack of..."thrust".

I remember during the wedding dinner, all of the talk concerned Jesus, and how this or that church was faring.

I remember that when the bride and groom stood and kissed we had to stop abruptly during a song. "They are going to kiss!" Someone shouted.

Well the newlyweds did kiss after which entire room erupted in loud catcalls, whistles, moans and cries of "Hallelujah!" and "Praise Jesus". All of this fervor was in response to the most paltry, passionless peck I had ever seen. You would miss the kiss if you blinked but you would be haunted forever by the shrill cries in that room as this outburst lasted for a few minutes. It was if this couple were afraid to kiss, knowing how much their families and friends had invested in them, in watching them. Perhaps they were embarrassed by the religiosity of the room gawking at them. that they knew that they were objects of all of these emotional projections and fixed gazes. Or perhaps they were not really in love at all and it was all arranged by "the church". I just couldn't tell because all emotion was veiled behind this private language - this arcane and ritualized vocabulary of Jesus. This experience greatly depressed me and soured me on the idea of marriage for some time.

What follows is an account of one of the most awkward, absurd and ultimately mystifying conversations and/or lectures or pitches, hustles - I scarcely know how to classify it - I had ever encountered in my life to that point.

When the gig was over Bob was so happy with how I played that he came over to me as soon as we finished playing, excited and exuberant. With a cry of "Praise the Lord", he handed me an envelope that appeared to contain evening's pay in the form of a check.

I quickly opened it to look inside and saw it was a check. I read the writing. It was the amount promised. I looked at that check for a long time while Bob waited. I was tempted to do the Groucho Marx bit and throw the check down on the floor, which, owing to the laws of gravity, never entirely insults the other party since thin paper usually hits the floor without a bounce. Bob was offended though that I opened the envelope so early.

"Ah Mitch. This man is a Christian. It is a Christian bank account. No fear. The devil is not at work here. This is Christian music. Satan free zone."

I was so used to hearing about Christian music shops and Christian dentists that the prospect of a Christian bank account didn't seem so improbable.

Bob went on further.

"Mitch it was so beautiful and joyous for you to come to this holy affair with us and share the spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ like this with us."

"Why thank you."

"Did you enjoy sharing Jesus with us today?"

(I suppose this was their way of saying the gig went well.)

"Yes. You all played well."

"It sure is great sharing the Lord isn't it?"


"Isn't the Lord Jesus Christ great? He is just so great and perfect. He makes all of this possible. He made this wedding possible. He made you and I possible. He made music possible! He created music." Bob gave me a big hug and I moved back a bit, wishing some space.

"Great invention, music. Couldn't agree more."

"Mitch you play so great me and the boys wanted to ask you a deep and spiritual question."

"Okay. Go ahead." I doubt his question was as deep as my dread.

"Would you like to take a trip and go share the Lord Jesus Christ with us?"

I paused for a moment.

"Take a trip to share Jesus? I am not sure. What exactly do you mean? I'll have to look at my calendar...Wait. What does that mean?"

"It would be a great opportunity to work on your faith and share Jesus with us. It won't cost anything. It'll be like today. It will be rewarding spiritually as well as financially."

"When you say share Jesus with us, what do you mean? I mean I have my own church", I answered, "and I am not much for travel and retreats or that sort of thing. I have my own way of studying the Bible."

"Are you sure your way is true Christianity though? I wonder, Mitch. You know we were noticing that you don't share your faith out loud like we all do. You don't talk about how you are with the Lord Jesus Christ. We can sure hear the Lord in your playing. But how about in your talk? How will you spread the Gospel? It is not enough to keep it to yourself. You have a duty as a Christian. The boys and I have chosen you. That means the Lord Jesus Christ might have something.. a plan for you. Hey Mitch. Not to criticize you or anything but why did you not seem happy when the bride and groom kissed? That kiss was so passionate and loving. We were all praising Jesus and and sharing in the spirit of the Holy Ghost and you seemed to just look at the piano."

"Well I was nervous because I didn't know when I was going to come in with the piano part. I was concentrating. I don't know the music as well as you guys and I was focusing on that."

"Isn't that a great couple? Isn't it a joy for a couple to be married through our Lord Jesus Christ like that? Think of all of those sad marriages without Jesus present! What a waste!"

"They seemed like nice people."

"Well getting back to the band. Me and the boys think Jesus has a plan for each of us. And you know what Mitch? Jesus...he has a plan for YOU!"

"Oh He does? You talked to Him?" I asked with the straightest of faces.

"In our church we speak to Jesus directly. That is the only way. We are a beautiful Christian fellowship. We would be so honored to have you come share Jesus with us. Your piano playing is a gift the Lord wants you to share."

"But Bob... my focus is music you understand. If you want me to play a concert or a gig I can do that if it the pay and quality are comparable to what we did today, but you haven't said when or where we are going to be 'sharing Jesus'. You haven't explained what it is you want me to do."

"Well we call it sharing Jesus. But what that means is I have this beautiful cabin in the woods, near the Berkshires. It is a Christian cabin in a Christian community. You know its mostly Jewish up there, but just wait. The Lord wants to spread the news there too! When I say share Jesus I mean that I have this state of the art recording studio in the woods and we want to record a Christian album. It is a Christian recording studio. And you can stay overnight there. No fee. We will PAY you to share Jesus with us..I mean record this record. Don't worry about that. Hundreds of dollars to record with us. And we have this lovely girl who has just joined our church and gotten saved. Oh her life was the lowest you can imagine. Just bad family. Real Satanic influence. But then Jesus won this time, boy. She came to Jesus. And now she sings like an angel. She sings like... you ever hear Blossom Dearie? Like if Blossom Dearie were Christian. You would get to perform with this girl. Can you imagine her singing our tune Save Me? How powerful she would be?"

"Well..I'll have to look at my calendar."

"The only problem this girl is really beautiful and you know I'm a Christian. And you know the Lord wants me to be Christ-like and I don't look at her as purely as I should as purely as HE wants me to. Did you ever watch the show Dukes Of Hazard? Well this girl looks like Daisy Buchanan on that show. But she dresses Christian, I mean modestly. Don't worry about that."

"Is she part of this same church you guys go to?"

"Yes. You'll get to perform with her. She sounds like Blossom Dearie and looks like.. I remember who that was...Catherine Bach and lives a Christian life. She will have no sex before marriage you know. She has a new life now. She is reborn.

"Well, Bob. I think I get the general picture. I appreciate the offer and the compliments but you know, I have this offer from this great jazz sextet, and they play like all of the Art Blakey arrangements. It is really more the kind of music I've always wanted to play since I was a child. So thank you very much, but I am sorry that I have some other things planned for the season."

I went home the following day, deposited that check, and never called this band nor heard from them again.


  1. Fun post!

    You dealt with them very tactfully. I'm sure Jesus would approve!

  2. I love your responses especially when you say you have to look at your calendar. I can actually picture your face when responding to Bob. You've had quite a colorful past Mitch, always an interesting story.