When The Abyssinian Baptist Church was founded, Thomas Jefferson was President. In 1808, a few African Americans and Ethiopian merchants, armed with their faith in God and strengthened by mercies already seen, were unwilling to accept racially segregated seating in God's house and decided to organize their own church. They withdrew their membership at First Baptist Church of New York City and formed The Abyssinian Baptist Church, taking the ancient name of the nation from which the Ethiopian merchants had come. On April 10-12 at 8 p.m., Jazz at Lincoln Center celebrates The Abyssinian Baptist Church's bicentennial in the Frederick P. Rose Hall in Rose Theater. The performance will also take place at The Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem on April 19th at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
The celebration features the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performing a world-premiere mass with music composed by Wynton Marsalis for jazz orchestra and choir and a sermon by Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and President of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. Dr. Butts is a native New Yorker and a good friend of Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director, Mr. Marsalis.
"Wynton is a very spiritual man," Dr. Butts explains. "He's a deeply faithful brother and serious about capturing the essence of our music, particularly as it has been born of our spirituality. The emotion and the spirituality, I think we both have. The challenge is to translate that feeling and spirit into music and words."
This collaboration between Dr. Butts and Mr. Marsalis has been in the making for some time. "Wynton said he wanted to write a mass. It's something he's been talking about for a number of years," says Dr. Butts. "He kept saying, 'Rev, we gotta get together,' and I said 'Okay sir, we will do it.' Then the bicentennial of the church came up and Wynton said, 'Let's do it for that.' The Holy Spirit caused me to mention it in church one morning and that was it, it had to be done then because the congregation said 'That's great!' Wynton would come by the church and he would listen intently and it was done!"
The Abyssinian Baptist Church choir has earned quite a reputation over the years. "Our choir has done wonderful works with the Boston Pops, we've performed with Zubin Mehta, Hubert Laws and Patti LaBelle. We've backed up Ossie Davis, when he was living," Dr. Butts proclaims. "When you think of American classical music, which I term jazz, when you think of one of the highest art forms in the world, the negro spiritual, all this found its root in our worship experience. So Wynton is going to the right place. We're working closely with him in developing this powerful presentation. The voices and instruments and spirit and words...it's really a challenge."
Many of today's black musicians and vocalists got their start in church. "Most of the men in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra that I have met have roots in the church," says Dr. Butts. "A lot of what will come out of this project they know instinctively. I know Wynton certainly does.
"Jazz and gospel is all the same," says Dr. Butts. "They share the same roots. While the flower may be different in one place or another, the essence is the same. For instance, while much of the sermon is improvisation, there remains a main theme. Sometimes you find yourself scatting or moaning or you get into what is known in the church as 'preacher rhythms' and it flows and the congregation responds. It's all very spiritual."
You can expect to be moved and uplifted by the spirit and the swinging sounds this performance promises to bring. "Oh yes, absolutely," exclaims Dr. Butts. "That's the reason that we want them to come. It's always the mission of the preacher and the music of the church to take people higher, to give them a vision, to turn an ear into an eye. Yes sir, that's exactly what we want to happen.
"My prayer is that this experience will help people to unify and love one another. We want it to be something that will engender peace and harmonious living, good feelings, to cure our whirring madness, to make us more compassionate toward one another," says Dr. Butts.
"I would tell people who come to this, to come first with their hearts and minds open," says Dr. Butts. "Be prepared to engage the Holy Spirit and be prepared to see the other as a person of God. Be prepared to worship in the beauty of holiness, because that's what I think this experience will be. It doesn't matter if you're a humanist, an atheist, Baptist, Methodist, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim‹I think everybody will be able to come into this house because I think it will be like the prophet was told by God, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.' "
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director for Public Relations at Jazz at Lincoln Center.