Leaving Cincinnati: UUs and Jazz .

triprptCincinnati is beautiful on 2 wheels. The middle ring of course; not congested downtown, nor the distant suburbs, and certainly not ugly industrial I-75. The middle  area is hilly, lush green with mature trees, and often full of historic houses. Scootering among those hills, popping in and out of shade; climbing, then descending long lazy inclines as the motor changes key; first chugging in baritone, then over revving as a first tenor is just beautiful to experience.

First UU of Cincinnati (they must be somebody, they own firstuu.com) is in the historic neighborhood that includes the medical centre, the zoo, and both universities (U-Cin & Xavier). That neighborhood is poor, and First UU is rightly proud that theirs is the only historic congregation that did not sell their building and high tail to the suburbs. The UU’s built that historic architectural and acoustic masterpiece over a century ago, and they still call it home as an active congregation

cincyuu1Just a few miles away is St Johns UU (unheard of, named after a saint). It has a modern 1960’s sunlight oriented sanctuary, fresh from Austin Powers (baby!) I read somewhere that light streams in on solstices and equinoxes, honoring our druid brethren.

The original St John’s was a German protestant cathedral downtown; now a public landmark next to Cincinnati’s Symphony hall. A century after their founding as a German congregation (with sermons given in German) they finally affiliated with UUA only in the 1910s.

Once again, here’s my insane luck.

Interuor5of St John UU Cincinnati
Interior of St John UU Cincinnati

Cincy’s jazz preservation society sponsors concerts, venues, classes, and encourages sparking interest in jazz, blues, and bebop. They recently hit on the novel idea of an initiative to volunteer their musicians to provide music at area Sunday church services. This might serve to connect with new patrons; people that have forgotten, or have never experienced, good live jazz. Today was the program’s pilot effort (say it) at St Johns UU.

The 4 piece combo had a piano, horn, double bass and drums. The men were a retired head of the U-Cin music dept, a current prof, a professional musician, and the head of the local high school music program. And boy they were having fun!

We sang the simple children’s hymn “let it shine” (this little heart of mine…) and the combo increased the complexity of their accompaniment with each of the three verses, starting with single note unison, adding layer upon layer and complex timing and syncopation. Then our singing fell silent and the musicians ran through the tune four more times with each musician doing a true jazz improvisation solo on this children’s hymn. After the fourth individual crescendo, we all joined in again singing the first, famous, verse as the combo (pick a word) belted out a full volume complex layered musical accompaniment you would hear only in heaven. *sigh*

A black woman then got up to give the children’s sermon, assembling the kiddies on the floor. While the piano gently tickled, quietly, randomly, in piano bar fashion, she spoke in a beautiful pure deep voice about a famous song and its words, and what the song meant to her in her heart. About how God will “bless the children” and then she casually mentioned the song’s author and artist was “a woman named Billie Holiday”. Then while still talking the lesson to the kids, at one key word she just bust into a fully voiced blues club crescendo her voice echoing to the farthest walls and (say it) the combo dropped in, one at a time until it was a full accompaniment (including muted blues horn) on this blues standard. Wow!

The week’s words were from MLK, a somewhat famous piece he spoke about jazz, and how jazz is born of suffering, and that jazz is a combination of many cultures to become its own culture (an analogy for black cultures).

The sermon? How the lessons of jazz and should be applied by UU’s in their actions. Syncopation:notes coming on an unexpected beat. Let your responses be unexpected. When doing good work, use a different timing to bring a fresh, unexpected result. Improvisation: a variation on a known theme. While you have your goal to do good or do social justice, remember to use improvisation in your responses to institutional opposition, so your efforts will have the same theme but a new look will reach a new audience or make a new connection. Call and response: the playful echoing of a musical pattern. When you hear a need to act (whatever it’s source), answer playfully as you bring yourself to action. Bring to your response both life and joy and as you return the message add to it your own personal touch and joy. Oh my!

Then more music, and closing music, then we all had coffee together. And then I went for a ride in those beautiful surrounding rolling hills.


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