Common Grace: My Dad, Harry James, and All That Jazz

My dad loved jazz. Growing up, I never thought this strange even though in those righteous days Nazarenes didn’t smoke, drink, attend dances, or go to movies. It seemed there were more things we didn’t than did. Jazz, of course, sprang up smack in the middle of all the things Nazarenes didn’t do. And Dad, a third-generation Nazarene, played it.

Dad played the trumpet, so he especially liked Louis Armstrong and Harry James. Dad was amazingly good. I am the youngest son, so I never got to hear him play when he was at his best. I know when he was in high school and college, he turned down invitations to play at dances. He sometimes played solos at church or played trumpet and violin duets with Mom. He only played jazz at home. It wasn’t anything sneaky—just different music for different places.

I still have the sheet music of his favorite song “Ciribiribin.” It was the signature song for Harry James after he left Benny Goodman and started his own band. It starts out slow and respectable but then Harry James “swings it” and throws in a bunch of triple-tonguing.  The song was incredibly difficult. As Dad would say, “You have to have some chops to play it.” It was jazz, and Dad played it beautifully.

Dad also had a bunch of Louis Armstrong records. Armstrong (Satchmo) grew up in the worst parts of New Orleans and had played everywhere including dance halls and whorehouses. Only looking back on it, do I realize how strange it was for a Nazarene pastor to love his music and gravelly voice.

And only now do I see the gift this was to me. I had a father with a passion for God and a heart big enough for jazz and Jesus. He had an instinct for the common grace that recognizes that all the good in the world comes from the grace of God.

Though I grew up a preacher’s kid, my home never felt cramped by a narrow religiosity. We read everything and took nature walks everywhere. Curiosity was the air we breathed. I never smelled a whiff of anti-intellectualism or the fear of ideas. And when we discovered good things in our broken—but—beautiful culture, Dad and Mom embraced it. Holiness meant wholeness.

I keep harping on this common grace idea because I think the heart and experience of the church should be as big as my Dad’s heart. There should be room for every kind of music. Bars should not be the only place a person can go to hear good jazz. Those who love the arts for their inherent goodness and beauty, not just as another evangelistic strategy, should be valued by the church.

Not that all kinds of music must be part of the worship service. I am not arguing for jitterbugging for Jesus, though that sounds fun.  I simply want all the arts and every kind of artist to find a home in the lives of believers. Whenever we refuse or shut-out anything that is truly good—even if in the world—we shut out God. I long for us to have hearts as big as God who has embedded and embodied his grace in the world.

When I remember the joy on Dad’s face as he played “Ciribiribin,” I realize that faith “don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.”

About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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