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Interview: Patrick Gilbert, jazz musician

07 June 2019

‘Jazz informs and expresses my faith. It’s liberating.’

My first instrument is piano, followed by drums, percussion, guitar, bass, a little saxophone, and vocals. I play anything from solo pianist to Big Band. I also currently play piano, guitar, or cajon in our worship team. I still do the occasional gig, but not as much as I used to, now that I’m training for ministry.

My parents said I used to rock the high chair in time to music; so I guess rhythm was in me pretty early on. My first instrument was the drums, but, when I was six, my parents bought me a little one-octave Casio keyboard. I used to pick out tunes by ear, and one of my favourites was the theme to The Pink Panther. It would always bring out a few smiles — in fact, making people happy by playing the piano became addictive. I was mainly self-taught, but a neighbour helped me with things like basic scales, and I started performing in my early teens.

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked why I’m giving this up to be ordained. I’m hoping that the music will continue. The Huddle Café is the community hub for the new church-plant in Falmouth, where I’m the Creative Pastor, and we’re going to be holding different music events here. So it’s not a full stop, but a transition, or a new expression of my gifting.

Jazz informs and expresses my faith. It’s liberating. Improvisation is like a journey. There’s a beginning and an end, and anything can happen in between — a bit like life. Sometimes, it can be a great way to get close to God.

So many musicians have influenced me. It’s difficult to say, but here are a few: Bill Evans, the Beatles, Nat King Cole, Art Tatum, Herbie Hancock, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner, Zakir Hussain, Oscar Peterson, John Hicks (my teacher in New York), Johann Sebastian Bach, Maurice Ravel, John Cage, Nils Frahm.

I have happy memories of growing up in Cornwall. It is a beautiful place to grow up. But I encountered racism, which often left me feeling a little ostracised. I’m half-African, half-Indian, and was born in Kent. I was adopted by British parents in London who had four sons already. They thought St Austell would be a lovely safe place to bring up a family; so they moved down here when I was one.

For the most part, it was a safe place, but there was a lot of ignorance in the ’70s and ’80s: people had never seen anyone like me before. Some took a dislike to me immediately, just because of the way I looked. I was also much taller than anyone else in my class. It was a tough time, and if I hadn’t had very loving parents, really close friends, and four older brothers around me, it might have been impossible to get through that.

Life now is brilliant — full, fresh, and exciting. It’s overwhelming at times, but it’s great being a student again, and to be back in Cornwall again. It’s changed quite a bit: there are 10,000 people from ethnic backgrounds now; so, although there are some of the same attitudes, people don’t shout names across the street at you. At least, people know that that’s illegal now.

I always had a sense that God was watching over me, but my first experiences of God were in quiet moments by the sea. I remember feeling very safe then, and found much comfort. The sound of the sea is the most reassuring sound to me.

After finding my birth-mother in India, my faith was transformed, and I became a true Christian for the first time. I was 25, and I’d moved to London and then Brighton, and was struggling with depression. Everything seemed to come back to my adoption, and why my mother had given me up. It felt like the end, and I had no hope; so I knelt down and prayed: “God, you’ll have to help me. I need a miracle if I’m to go on.”

Suddenly, everything lightened, and a friend suggested I auditioned to work on a cruise ship. It was great fun, and, for my second cruise, in February 2002, I was booked to go to India and Thailand. I realised we’d be going to Madras and Pondicherry, where I’d been told my mother was born. I couldn’t believe it, and I starting telling people on the ship my story, who began to share my surprise and excitement.

On the last few days of the cruise, we were approaching Pondicherry, but a cyclone forced us to go straight to Madras. The cruise director knew of my longing to see Pondicherry; so he laid on five or six buses from Madras on the last day, and it was absolutely beautiful. Some of my musician friends asked if I wanted to ask about my mother, but we only had two hours, and just to be there was hitting the jackpot for me; so we all got into a rickshaw to see the highlights.

My friends spotted a school — one of 70 in the city of a million people — and we jumped out to look. I asked the receptionist if they had records of any past students there called Jeanne Felix. She said: “We have a teacher here called Jeanne Felix.” And there was my face in the photo she showed me. I knew instantly, shockingly, that I’d found my Indian mother, my amma.

Jeanne was teaching a class; so I walked up after the class was over. I nervously explained who I was and how I came to be there, and said: “I think I’m your son.” She said: “I’ve always prayed to God for forgiveness for letting you go,” and we hugged one another. She’d become a born-again Christian, and had prayed for me, that I would come to know Jesus. I knew God had led me to her.

I discovered later that, if we’d been in Pondicherry on the Friday as planned, she wouldn’t have been in the school. The cruise company heard about the story and offered my adoptive parents a free cruise with me and my amma; so we all went to Italy, and got to know each other, which was a real time of healing.

So my life changed for ever. Amma helped me to get a scholarship at the New School in New York, the place to go to study jazz. I met my wife at Times Square Church, and we went back as missionaries to Pondicherry for a year.

I’d say to anyone who’s prayed for something and hasn’t received an answer: “Don’t give up hope. Keep praying, keep believing.” Remember, it’s not so much about anything that we do, but God’s grace, which is limitless.

Speaking the truth, especially in a culture unreceptive to the gospel, is the most courageous thing I’ve ever done. In India, it’s relatively easy to speak of God — and, if you’re a Westerner, people give you a lot of time. In this culture, it’s very difficult to start talking about Jesus. It’s a secular society, and people don’t have much time for God. All of my friends are atheists or agnostics. People are amazed to hear the story of how I found my mother, but they reason it through: “These things happen”; “You were just very fortunate.”

I pray most for the health of my wife and kids, family both home and abroad, and my community. Watching my children grow in Christ gives me hope for the future.

At first, I might be a little concerned that I’m being locked in a place of worship; but, once assured of my freedom, I think I would enjoy the company of C. S. Lewis. He once said: “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance.” I couldn’t agree more. I think there are times in our lives when words fail to express our gratitude to God. Wouldn’t it be great to see more joy in our churches? Perhaps it’s time to put on our dancing shoes.


Patrick Gilbert was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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