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Interview: Dan Forshaw, jazz saxophonist

13 January 2017

‘Jazz in church lets us sing about the harshest realities of life’


Music is central to what I do every day: teaching, performing, and recording. I have a trio with two other Cambridge-based musicians, Joel Humann and Derek Scurll, and we often augment our trio with other musicians, as I did for the Jazz Vespers recording, including the amazing talents of Juliet Kelly, Tony Kofi, and Steve Fishwick.


I studied politics and music at Lancaster. Politics is more useful than you’d think in the music industry. When I left in 2003, I taught for a while, went to New York in 2005, and went to the London School of Theology, where I met my wife. I felt it was my calling to use my skills in music in the Church, but it seemed a good idea to get some theological training behind me.

My day job is as a full-time musician, but I have a role in Digital Outreach at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster. This grew from the skills I’ve developed to survive as a musician in the 21st century, utilising social media and building websites. When I left school in 1997, there was no email, and we were coming out with skills from before the digital age. We were trained to be session musicians to earn our daily bread and to play jazz at night, but we could see how the internet was going to disrupt the music industry. Now we are fortunate to have social media skills, which enable us to have a direct relationship with the people who enjoy our music.


My first saxophone teacher was Ray Wilkes, a legend of the north-west jazz scene, who had played with Cedar Walton in New York during the early 1960s. Ray allowed me to improvise in lessons, and intro­duced me to John Coltrane. I started the sax aged ten; I play all of them, but primarily tenor and soprano. They mirror the human voice so closely, and enable you to convey such emotion.


I held my first Jazz Vespers service at St James’s, Hemingford Grey, in 2012, while I was serving as the church’s worship minister. When
I substituted Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme for the sermon, I half expected to be given my P45. Actu­ally, the church really encouraged me, and even invited the Bishop to a service, who in turn asked me to play at Ely Cathedral.


Jazz Vespers was inspired by a speech given by Dr Martin Luther King to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. Dr King said: “Jazz speaks for life. The blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and, if you think for a moment, you will realise that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.”


Jazz isn’t easy to listen to or to play; so it isn’t accessible to everyone. It demands more from the musicians and the con­gregation than four-chord pop songs. I think that people are becoming aware that they need depth to not just the lyrics in worship songs, but also the music.


I firmly believe that we’re some­times scared to sing in church about the harshest realities of life. Jazz music allows us to do this.


My good friends Ewan King and James Cave have written a Jazz Mass, which I’ve performed with them in St Paul’s Cathedral and at Greenbelt. I’m trying to encourage Chris Grey and Joel Humann, who work with me on Jazz Vespers, to start writing some more liturgical music, but we have to be careful to keep the blues element, and not veer off into the European avant-garde.


I think that some churches are afraid of group improvisation. It’s understandable that clergy and worship leaders like to be organised, and are fearful of having a “free for all” — even Coltrane’s Ascension recording, which is probably the pinnacle of group improvisation, has some organisation. Jazz is constrained in some ways, even if only by the length of the LP. But the musicians bring their whole lives with them, playing in that moment.


Jazz has a lot to teach us about being in the moment, responding to what is happening in the moment. What’s being said? What prayers have been said? How can you respond, bringing everything you’ve done up to that point?


But you need the musical tools to help you express yourself. The greater vocabulary you have at your disposal, the greater freedom you have to express what you feel. I always encourage my students to spend some time just playing melodies on every scale — play a hymn tune — from ear. If you can sing it, you can play it. It brings such freedom.


One of the biggest problems with trying to raise the level of church music is that the level of music training in state schools is now in a desperate state. Unless schools teach music to a high standard, nothing can develop. Luther wanted people to start singing hymns; so they taught the children in schools, so that they could help their parents, and gradually adults came through expecting a higher level. One of these children was J. S. Bach.


I spent 18 months with a gospel choir in Brent Cross, in north London. It was an eye-opener for me, as a white northerner, going into a black Pentecostal church. We play what we’re supposed to play. and that’s it. In this tradition, they’re playing all the time. They play each other’s instruments, jam­ming, playing by ear; there’s no printed music. My level rocketed by playing every week with these guys, but it’s the most natural thing if music is a language. No one teaches a language by reading it first. We’ve lost something of the collective ability and freedom to make music the way that they do.


Music is a great gift from God, and churches should be at the forefront of educating and promoting mu­­sicians and artists. Church leaders come back with CDs or downloads of the latest thing from Soul Survivor or New Wine rather than encouraging musicians in their own congregations to improve their skills so that they can write their own things.


There is a vast pool of competent adult musicians who haven’t played anything since school, and I’m always very keen to get them to play — writing orchestral parts for them, and so on — but clergy do not necessarily consider it a high pri­ority to give music directors and organists time for this. We all need to spend time working on our gifts.


I was attending church every Sunday from before I was born, but, despite fleeting experiences growing up, I would say that my first deep experience of God was lying on my bed listening to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme after reading Ashley Kahn’s book [about the album], and really understanding what love was.


I try to take prayer walks when I can, as I find that getting space in the house with two young children and an ever-demanding iPhone is difficult. One of the joys of working in Westminster is the oppor­tunity to visit the Abbey for evensong and to listen to its incredible choir.


My children laughing is the most reassuring sound to me.


The Bible is the book I turn to for comfort, naturally. And in terms of music? One of my saxo­phone students is a bass in the Clare College Choir. He sent me some of their CDs recently, and they are amazing.


I’m happiest taking walks with my family.


My wife, parents, and teachers have been the greatest influences on my life — but also the Revd Steve Carling, who so patiently guided me back to faith in 2005.


2016 was a crazy year. It’s easy to be absolutely despondent, particularly as a parent, but I believe that, as Christians, we shouldn’t be. The Bible teaches us that God is in control, and the love of Christ will win.


I pray to be able to truly love my neighbour.


If I was locked in a church with someone, I’d like it to be with John Coltrane. I think we’d make some decent music.


Dan Forshaw was talking to Terence Handley MacMath www.danforshaw.com

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