In his congregation’s newsletter, Pr. Peter Marty of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa, describes being struck by the way a summer camp counselor spoke of her role as a “memory-maker for kids.” He comments that this young woman did not have a summer job, she had a calling—a wonderful experience that can happen to all of us. Pr. Marty goes onto quote Frederick Buechner who wrote that God usually calls us “to the kind of work (a) that we need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done…[Such work] is the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
For Christians, vocation arises out of a response to a call from God to be a vessel of the Holy Spirit, allowing the compassion and mercy of Christ to shine in a dark and troubled world. It follows that to be faithful in vocation,one must listen for God’s call. One must also be prepared for Christ to come charging into our lives with a new opportunity for service at a time which we might consider inconvenient, or downright implausible and impractical. Our response to such a call will not always be carefully rehearsed. At times, the call may come in the midst of a time of suffering or sorrow, and our response may force us to reach to the bedrock of our faith.
Each of us has a way of speaking about call and response. Music—especially jazz—provides the metaphor I need. One of the essential elements of jazz is that it involves improvisation. While much jazz improvisation involves a “soloist,” the giants of jazz are always listening and responding to each other. Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as being like the wind; you can feel it, but you neither see it nor know where is came from or where it’s going. Similarly, both creator and listener in a jazz improvisation are equally on an adventure of feeling the joy or sorrow that is being expressed in the music, yet neither knows where the next phrase will end, or what flashes of harmonic color may emerge.
My personal faith journey has been filled with the call and response of jazz and vocation. Virtually all of my composition projects for the church are a response to a call expressed through the ideas and experiences of friends and family.
I met Joel Marty, one of my close friends, in third grade. We enjoyed activities at school,on the cross-country teams, at church and in the community. Joel played baritone horn and I played tenor sax in the school band. Joel’s mother,Elsa, welcomed his friends in their home, and she gracefully found room to add one more place setting to a crowded dining room table. When visiting with Joel’s family, his father Martin would make it a point to put on one of his favorite jazz records. Martin’s collection ranged from Stan Getz and Jobim to Bill Evans and Lenny Tristano.
During high school, a member of my family’s church, Ken Jandes, started giving me lessons in music theory and composition at the American Conservatory of Music. One of Ken’s favorite composers was CharlesIves. The career of Charles Ives was an inspiration to Ken because Ives composed some of the most creative music in history (e.g., “The Unanswered Question”) while he was, at the same time, a successful businessman. Ken (at that time a principal, now a superintendent) made it clear that a person can be called to be active in many spheres of life, and that “avocation” might, in fact, be part of “vocation.”
David Haas’ gospel hymn, “We Are Called,” boldly proclaims that we are called to justice to and to serve. This call to justice was evoked throughout my youth by the activism of my parents, Joe and Caroline Tecson, in our church and in politics and government. Between them they served as elected officials at state, county and local levels of government. Because of their example, one of my callings was to contribute time and energy to efforts to help those most vulnerable in our society. Although music is deeply imbedded in my soul, the legal profession held the promise of being able to comprehend, work with, and in some small fashion improve our social and governmental institutions. Both music and law are components of my vocation. I can best talk about that by relating it to events and people.
When Elsa Marty was fighting cancer, the Psalms were a source of comfort and strength to her and her family. During that struggle, her faith and spirit of hope led to one of my first jazz compositions for the church, the “Grace Phoenix.” The “Jazz Psalms,” first celebrated on June 19, 1982 at Valparaiso University, were a response to the memory of Elsa’s faith and love. The Jazz Psalms subsequently were celebrated in numerous settings, including New York, St. Louis, Chicago and Minneapolis.
The Psalms are filled with a pattern of call and response, which I have tried to capture in their jazz setting. Psalm 42tells the story of an individual (perhaps a cantor) who thinks back to leading the crowds into the temple, wild with joy. This section evokes a Dixieland jam on the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” In another section, the Psalmist’s enemies revile him,the full chorus taunting “Where is your God?” while a strident cacophony of atonal instrumental improvisation builds to a cathartic climax. Yet throughout, the choir sings a steadfast antiphon of faith, “Trust in God, I will praise Him still, my Savior and myLord.”
Community Care Options, a mental health agency, and Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois have provided a call to use my legal skill in supporting the extraordinary individuals who devote their lives to providing counseling, foster care services, and adoption services. For the past twenty years I have served on their boards. During this time our jazz band has been privileged to participate in worship services, most of which were dedicated to raising funds for those agencies and for Lutheran Social Services of Illinois and Bridge Communities. We collaborated with Paul Manz, Senator Paul Simon, Bishop Paul Landahl, and Pastors Martin Marty, David Abrahamson, Don Hallberg, Linda Lee Nelson, Jan Erickson Pearson, Mark Bangert, Fred Aigner, Dean Lueking and others.
In 1985, Pastors David Abrahamson, Jim Wind and Lee Rosenthal met with me to discuss the possibility of a jazz mass. The word “liturgy” means “the work of the people.” To sing the liturgy is to intensify the participation of the people in the mystery of the Eucharist. Musically, the goal was to create something simple enough for a congregation to sing, yet without losing the sense of swing. Additionally, it was important to respect and incorporate the tradition and text of the liturgy.
Out of those discussions came the “Chicago Jazz Mass,” which was first celebrated at the Evangelical LutheranChurch of St. Luke in Chicago on Ascension Day, 1986. Since then, it has been celebrated hundreds of times. One special celebration is an annual Jazz Sunday as part of the Bix Beiderbeck festival inDavenport, Iowa, at St. Paul Lutheran Church, with Peter Marty as presiding pastor. Each year 600 people cram into each service on that Sunday morning to sing, tap their feet, and smile on the way up to communion as we break bread together, musically, literally, and spiritually.
For two decades, the master jazz musicians of our church jazz ensemble have answered the call to sing God’s praise with their skills: Bobby Lewis, Bobby Schiff, Jerry Coleman, JohnWhitfield, and Ken Jandes. These artists have performed and recorded thousands of times with jazz greats such as Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett. They usually work late on Saturday evenings, and Sunday morning comes all too quickly. Yet without fail, each has risen early and attended the Sunday services. They have gone out of their way to travel to many cities across the country for special worship services. Bobby Lewis, in a recent interview with Rick Kogan on WGN, said that for four decades he has always felt called to bring his art into a worship setting.
More recently, five of our jazz ensemble arranged fifteenChristmas hymns for soloists, jazz band, and choir. The resulting music has been recorded as “Holy Night,” a CD available at Churchjazz.com, a ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Luke. This project brought together our core group of master jazz musicians, my wife, Nancy Hagen, my son, Luke Hagen Tecson, singer Joanie Pallatto, and Adolph Bud Herseth, principal trumpet for the Chicago Symphony.
Recently, another opportunity to serve presented itself in Soli Deo Gloria, a charitable organization that promotes the composition and performance of sacred music. Its principal mission is to provide donors who desire to commission sacred music with the opportunity to connect with the leading composers of symphonic and opera music of our time. Although centuries ago the church commissioned great composers (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Handel, Haydn…)to create extraordinary works to the glory of God, such commissions are rare today, and the number of sacred compositions by the leading composers of our time has diminished radically.
Jazz/law/church/social service – the specific combination is not important. Each person, whether lay or ordained, has the opportunity to listen continually for God’s call. Each person will sense God’s call in a different fashion, and respond in a different way. Like the great jazz improvisers, when we hear God’s call we simply need to be prepared for surprising new endings, directions different than we could possibly have imagined, and a continuous sense of excitement and challenge as we celebrate Christ’s love and mercy in our lives.