Words from the road: sabbatical update #4

A note from Jamie Howison: This is the fourth in a series of weekly updates regarding my unfolding sabbatical study leave. For a bit of background as to the shape of my work during these two months, you can go to a piece I posted on this site in mid-December.


nother week filled with books, music and conversation. Some of the highlights included supper with Dr Lewis Porter—a jazz musician and scholar who just happens to be John Coltrane’s premiere biographer—and a joint interview with Loren Schoenberg (director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem) and Christian McBride (also connected to the Jazz Museum, but better known as one of this generation’s leading jazz musicians).

In terms of live music, I have to say that seeing the great drummer Jimmy Cobb at a great little club called Smoke was a real high. Cobb played with Miles Davis, and is on Kind of Blue, an album widely considered to be one of the most important in the music’s history. His weekend at Smoke was in celebration of his 82nd birthday, and it was kind of fun to be able to actually greet him and offer my birthday wishes. “Yeh, my twentieth birthday… again,” he said, with a broad grin. I happened to be sitting by a young student from Australia, who had come to New York to do nothing but listen to live music and take some private drum lessons, and after shaking Cobb’s hand he looked at me and said, “I can’t wash this hand ever again. That was Jimmy Cobb. Jimmy Cobb!”

I also had the opportunity to take part in the two day conference of the Trinity Institute, an annual event hosted by Trinity Church on Wall Street. The theme of the conference was “Reading Scripture Through Other Eyes,” and it included a session by Walter Brueggemann, one of my primary influences. It was a rich experience, in part because of the session by the South African biblical scholar Gerald West in which he introduced us to a method for doing bible study in community that was very, very helpful. In the not too distant future we’ll be trying this model on for size in our own context of saint benedict’s table.

And on Sunday morning, I had my best Harlem church experience of the month. I wanted to go to an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, and on the advice of Dr James Cone from Union I chose one a bit less visible than their big flagship place to which the tourists tend to flock. It turned out to be a great choice. I attended Greater Hood Memorial Church up on 146th Street, where I joined a congregation of about eighty people, with me being the only one who might be categorized as a tourist (… and of course, because I was there to actually join the community in worship, it is probably more accurate to say that I was a guest).

It was an interesting blend of elements, with clergy and assistants wearing simple vestments and the choir doing music from both the European and the African-American traditions. The congregation was very vocal in its call/response role, during both the sermon and the prayers. And what a scorching sermon it was, in which Pastor Kenneth VanLew not only “holla’d” but also “hooped,” meaning he literally sang out some of his proclamation. There was both real style in it all and as well as deep substance, and I walked out after the two hours feeling as if I’d really been sharing with them in worship. The congregation was extremely hospitable, and at the end, Pastor VanLew even asked if I was looking for a new church home. Fantastic.

Oh, and I also got to spend some time with my daughters Jessica and Margaret, who had driven down with their partners to spend a few days in New York visiting friends and seeing their dad. On Thursday we went out for great New York style pizza in a fabulous little place in Greenwich Village, and then I took them to hear some live music at the Cornelia Street Café. So nice to see all of them, and to give them a bit of a picture as to what I’m doing here.

And now it is off to Grand Central Station to catch a train up north of the city to have lunch with John Pattituci, yet another premiere musician who is prepared to take time out to talk with me about my research.


3 Responses to Words from the road: sabbatical update #4

  1. Don Phillips says:

    Hey Jamie – sorry I missed last week’s posting with your birthday. Also sorry to hear about the lack lustre Harlem Anglicans – doesn’t “look good on us!”
    Thanks for taking the time and making the effort to share the journey. It all sounds fascinating. Now, if only Minnesota will warm up a bit …

    Take care.


  2. Sandra Campbell says:

    Jamie, Can I ask what exactly is your research? What kinds of questions are you asking them?
    Sorry if I missed this somewhere in the night.


    • Jamie says:

      Hi Sandra,
      Fair question… basically I’m looking at the way in which music can “enact” theology, or offer a kind of insight that words alone can’t. I’m looking at jazz music, and specifically the work of John Coltrane, so my research has included sessions at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem along with listening to a ton of great music. In terms of my interviews, my line of questioning depends on who it is I’m talking with. When I talked with the bass player John Patitucci (who works regularly with groups led by both Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea), we really explored issues of faith, as John is a very active member of the Christian tradition. On the other hand, when I spoke with McCoy Tyner (who was Coltrane’s piano player), I asked questions having to do with the creation of music and the way that improvisation “works”. Not that I was shy about asking Tyner questions about his own beliefs, but rather that he considers that a deeply personal matter and not the stuff for an interview with a stranger!

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