I grew up immersed in the traditions of the Southern Black Baptist Church, where The Word, short for the Word of God, was understood to refer to the text of the Holy Bible, beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelation. In our community, The Word was strong in everyone’s consciousness. Our studies and sermons focused it. Spiritual music, the song of the devotional services, activated it.
The hymns, gospel music, and traditional shouts that surrounded and connected the sermons in our church were at times so emotionally moving that you would actually receive The Word without taking in spoken words. As an early teen, I found that blues music affected me with a similar impact. But where I grew up, you weren’t supposed to play the blues, not anywhere near the church, anyway. Jazz, whether swing, bebop, or blues, was considered to be Satan’s music. I thought, “If that’s the truth, then man, that Satan’s got some happening music!”
It was hard to consider that so many members of my congregation, people I respected as otherwise sensible, believed that God was conflicted about musical genres. Some of our gospel tunes were just as swinging as any hot jazz tune; some of which were performed as jazz tunes. This contradiction amused me to a degree, but to a greater degree it troubled me. I had been taught, and believed, that God loved and accepted everyone. But I would hear of these exclusions; if you played jazz, or if you practiced a faith other than Christianity, you would be set apart from God, condemned to eternal damnation. This discrepancy was too heavy to overlook. I realized that to find the true and consistent Word of God, I was going to have to search for it on my own.
I began to travel the world in 1989, playing jazz music in the Wynton Marsalis Septet. I felt blessed to receive this opportunity to see new places, interact with new people, and, especially important to me, discover and examine new spiritual perspectives. My interest in the spiritual philosophies introduced to us on our travels increased as we went. I read about the teachings of the Buddha and was immediately absorbed. I then read the Hare Krishna philosophy. I read passages of the Koran, and studied different versions of the Bible, including the King James Version, the New World Translation, and several others. When I examined the content of The Word in these multiple and seemingly separate forms, what I saw clearly was a series of different gestures toward one unified motion. All of the writings seemed to move toward the one idea that God loves and accepts everyone.
The songs chosen for “The Word” are sketches of my experience growing up in the Church, and the development of my music out of that experience. I chose the musicians on the Signature Series, in which “The Word” is part, for their common trait of having grown up immersed in the music of their respective spiritual communities. A phenomenon that occurs when a group of musicians with similar church origins are gathered—one person will start singing and all the others will just fall in. All the lines, the harmonies and rhythms, are right there. This unity can channel through to the listeners, the same way the intent of a sermon can inspire a group beyond the limits of words. “The Word” is my tribute to this connection. It is my thanks to God for giving us, in music, a means of dissolving the exclusion and separateness, and of witnessing the truth of our oneness.