I’m not sure that all the folks who need to read this will be able to read this, but for ten years I have wanted to write a letter to those (mostly but by no means exclusively) UK-based musicians who were a major part of my life between the years 1996-2004.
Some of you are still in my life. Not in the same ways. Others of you are not.
Some of you have seen me at my best. Others of you have not.
I never did drugs. Never drank. Never smoked. Never had sex. And after some very early struggles, lots and lots of people knew that I never played/directed secular music during the 24-hour period from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. Some of you will know that this was (and still is) because I was (and still am) what is called a ‘Seventh-Day Adventist’ type of Christian, and so we go to church on Saturday, not Sunday. [Yeah]. We say ‘SDA’ or ‘SDAs’ (plural, of course) for short – or we say ‘Adventist.’
I talked about God more than lots of other people. And in more ways than I can say, I did my best to make God look good – through my life.
But the truth?!
I did believe. I do believe. And it’s true that I tried to be a Christian. But we are supposed to grow in our faith, and I have been wanting to acknowledge that during this time period, I lived a life that was essentially cut off from my own church community. When I came to London from the North, I struggled badly in the London Adventist churches. A handful of people looked out for me. A handful of people in my own age group treated me like a brother. But I basically spent the entirety of the period from September 1996 to March 2004 estranged from Adventists (that’s the name of my church).
And so, I fell into what became a seriously-messed-up way of life where I was trying to do what SDAs were (and are) supposed to be doing, but I was cut off from fellow SDAs socially, spiritually, and even culturally. I had more affirmation as a black person from Sunday-keeping black people, and then from secular black people who were more respectful of who I was and was trying to be than my own fellow black Adventists.
But the folks who helped me keep my spiritual life going were mostly white evangelicals. I never left the Adventist church, and only God knows why and how. But for a long time, I needed those Sunday church services, prayer meetings and Bible studies nurtured and fed me and kept me going in ways that it has become clear most UK Adventists cannot begin to comprehend. And yet, I never learned anything about the Bible that made me convinced that I had the wrong church. Quite the opposite. I believed and still do believe in the doctrines and principles of my church. And when I finally become a doctor of theology, I will still be an SDA. But I totally hate how good my church is at talking a good spiritual fight and how weak we are at living in a way that actually makes a difference in the world. You guys can’t come to us, because we are not ready to receive you. Tragic, but true. [And for the SDAs who think I should not say this, be very careful before you open your mouth or start typing on this subject to me. T6, 371. You have been warned.]
So, you want to know the peer group that truly treated me like a human being whilst respecting and even championing my right to practise the faith of my childhood – and who was there for me when I was broke – and who has supported me in ways that you would think church members would support each other (after all, no-one talks about families more than us!) – and more?
Secular white people – and prominent amongst them, some wonderful musicians who are now doing amazing things.
And at this time, I want to offer a special shout to two groups of people:
a) professional jazz (and session) musicians from London, Manchester and elsewhere – who have been more there for me than many of my own. I don’t think I know how to express how hard it has been that my own community effectively rejected me on a social level, but you guys did the opposite. You never encouraged me to deny my own faith, and you never supported me in any wrongdoing. Some of you kept away from me when you didn’t want me to see what you were doing.
I’m so sorry that I was not always a faithful or a consistent witness or even a good friend.
[For example: I got scared sometimes and told lies to escape pain and loss of face. I’m glad to say that it has been a long time since those days, but it’s something I’ve carried guilt about for a long time and today I’m setting that burden down. So I get angry when my fellow Christians are less-than-transparent, but I don’t judge them, because I know my own story. I will tell all those reading the thing I hated about church then (and now): the fact that as church members, everyone had their little (or not so little) vices, but no-one would ever call you on your hypocrisy – because that way they were buying the right to remain part of the church whilst not living the life. And now that I’m in ministry, it has become clearer than ever that we cannot ever be credible, but the spiritual ghetto in which too many of my church members have chosen to live is a disgusting parody of the true faith to which Jesus has called us. So we’ll remain the reasons why many of you will say no to Christianity!]
I wasn’t always organised and as on top of things as would be ideal. I have decided not to write a detailed list of all the sins and shortcomings of my life, but I want to unambiguously acknowledge that those first years of my adult life were not lived to the highest standard – even when they looked extremely impressive on my best days.
[SDA youth, this is why I have been so tough and uncompromising about certain things. I see you guys at 17-25, and I see where this is going to go if things don’t change. However, I can’t inspire you guys to become more – and especially not in music. I can only hope and pray that you guys find something spiritually less bankrupt than my generation.]
I talked a great fight and then tried to live that out as if my only job was to make God look good and impress everyone with my spiritual life. I know now that you would have known that I was no ‘super-Christian’ – and while some people may just refuse to accept that there was anything good in my life, others of you took a saner, more realistic view and saw me for who I really was at times when I was lost and closer to the edge than most of you could have known. You knew that I had not suddenly become a genius on my best days, and that I had not suddenly become the worst musician ever on my worst days – sometimes I played when I was not musically and mentally ready to play, and I did damage to the music and my own credibility. I have carried the guilt for this for a long time and tried really hard to atone for it in other ways – but today – I am finally letting it go.
I don’t want to disrespectfully impose my faith, but I won’t hide the fact that I sincerely believe that God used you guys to help me when there was no-one else. And to those of you who played with me, thank you to certain of you who kept me honest in both the rehearsal room and the bandstand. Thanks to those of you who believed in me when I was playing well, and still believed when I was playing badly. You have shown more faith in me than my own, and I hope to live long enough to repay that faith without compromising anything that should not be compromised along the way.
b) The second group are a number of conductors who literally believed in me more than I did in myself. Some of you were very supportive and respectful of my decision to go into ministry – and one of you hoped that I would be able to make a change in the approach to music in my own church.
Sadly, this has proven impossible, and so now I am on a journey to become the best conductor of sacred music that I can be – without spiritual or musical compromise. I’d not be doing this at all if it were not for you.
In 2009, I thought I was giving up every form of secular music forever.
In 2015, I now know – after a wild, wild, rollercoaster journey – that my job is not to entertain my fellow SDA church members (whose musical values I generally reject forever, both now and in eternity. Quote me by all means!). I also know that there are very few Adventists with whom I can work (a point acknowledged elsewhere on this blog). But this is no disaster. God is bigger than we have made Him out to be – but He is still holy. He is the creator of music and the author of creativity, and so – as I reflect on the years when I was not as close to him as I am now – I am glad that despite being in physical pain and having other stresses, today has been the day in which I have been able to write and publish these words, and give this monkey on my back to Jesus, who died precisely so that I don’t have to be burdened down.
I am nervous and excited about the re-start of my jazz career, but I know that we will reach levels of profundity and spirituality as well as musicianship that will be all the greater because we are all older and wiser. We know that the music is bigger than us, and if my fellow church members have decided that they are bigger than music and that it must serve them, then they’ll have to do that on their own. I would quite like not to burn too many bridges, but I have tried to keep quiet about all this stuff in the hope that things can improve.
They haven’t. They won’t. And I refuse to be part of dishonest music and dishonest living and call it ‘ministry.’ So because I am going back to an arena that I thought I had left, I see that this is my chance to set the record straight in the sight of both God and man.
As one of my longest friends in the music once said to me, I am neither a secular musician, nor am I fully committed to only playing sacred music. I want a ‘third way’ and that is going to be extremely hard to find!
But there’s something that some of you who have kept in touch with me and know more about me from those days as well as now will know: I am both the same person, but I am not the same person. I have grown. I have learned. And now, I cannot wait to finally fulfil my musical destiny across all three of my genres. I’m further down the line spiritually than I ever imagined possible at one point, but I am not yet the finished article and I’m pressing on the upward way to higher ground…
…spiritually and musically.
And I look forward to being an increasingly faithful ambassador for my faith – and an increasingly faithful servant of the music. See you in a rehearsal before too much longer, and God bless you all!