I’m not much of a musician, but I love to listen to music – especially jazz. My intro to the American idiom goes back forty years, to the summer of 1980. I labored on a grounds crew at a large Chicago-area hospital, marking the days, eight-shift hours at a time, until college started that fall.
I had recently graduated from a suburban Chicago high school and the Upper-Midwest baked and scorched under a record heat wave. Halfway across the world, fifty-two US hostages lingered helplessly in the American embassy in Tehran. Countless Chicagoland teenagers, me included, bopped their heads to the aggressive bassline of shock-jock Steve Dahl’s parody hit, “Ayatollah.” Based on The Knack’s 1979 chart-topper, “My Sharona,” the parody expressed adolescents’ rage toward Iran’s revolutionary leader whose followers demonstrated in the streets and chanted “Death to America.”
Steve Dahl, in his lyrics, countered with similar bravado: “Don’t get us too upset or we’ll do something nuclear.” But he also chilled out and encouraged his adversary to do the same: “Cool your jets. Meditate. Eat a hamburger.”
Music as language – the capture and expression of emotion – can calm, inspire, incite, humor, encourage, soothe, make you swing, take you back in time, and even heal. At eighteen years of age, my music of choice was rock ‘n’ roll. My brother and I, while lifting weights in our backyard, would turn up Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bayou Country” as loud as we could on our stereo system. It was pure adrenaline.
Jazz and its more subtle powers introduced themselves to me through my summer job at the large Chicago-area hospital. One day, my supervisor instructed me to go to the supply department, located on the bottom floor of the 15-story hospital building. I carried my boss’s written instructions for my pick-up task – the specific item I was to retrieve is lost to memory. What I do remember: Dim fluorescent lights, a basement-type mustiness, and endless chain-link fence cages – work-space cubicles – separating a sea of desks. The men (it was 1980, I don’t remember seeing any women) all wore bland khaki uniforms as they labored to keep the hospital and its machinery humming. They supplied plumbers, electricians, masons, woodworkers, and various types of construction workers and technicians. I also distinctly remember thinking that a job like this is exactly what I don’t want to have in the future – all the more reason to go to college to equip myself for “better” work.
In this decisive state of mind, I arrived to my destination. Inside a fenced cubicle, a short man sat at a desk, his head keeping time with music. He looked up at me and greeted me with a smile: “What can I do for you, pal?” I held out my requisition note. Both his upbeat demeanor and his music – classic jazz with a bopping bass – startled me. “Give me a second,” he said. “I’ll be right back with the part you need.”
Wow. I had half-expected some grizzled guy, having a bad day at a despised job, to ignore or belittle me and my duty. I was fully prepared for: “What the hell do you want, kid?” Instead, “Jerry” – as the tag on his work shirt proclaimed – interacted with me warmly. By all accounts, he looked to be having a good day and seemed to enjoy his job. Even better to my eighteen-year-old impressionable mind, his eight-hour shift grooved with hip music emanating from the radio on the corner of his desk.
I’ll never forget it – my intro to jazz. I had heard jazz before, but it had yet to make an impression.
Jerry’s example – a burst of light in that expansive and dim bottom floor of the building where he worked – showed me that whatever type of work one does can be positively affected by attitude. I might be wrong, but I walked away from his fenced cubicle that day with the impression that his positive attitude was jazz-flavored.
Jazz is hard to define. More than 125 years after its birth in New Orleans, jazz is an incredibly varied genre with worldwide expressions. But when you hear it – you know it. It swings, just like Duke Ellington declared in 1932: “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” Ellington penned his famous tune between performance sets during a month-long gig in Chicago.
I did go to college. After which I went to seminary, living for a time in South America in order to better master Spanish. I became a pastor and moved to Houston where I had the offer to work bilingually. The jazz and blues shows on Houston’s KTSU became my mainstays and I enriched my personal music library with Miles, Coltrane, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Oscar Peterson, Houston’s own Jazz Crusaders, and Mark Whitfield – to name a few.
A few years later, we moved to Austin where KUT played jazz every afternoon. My disc collection continued its expansion: Joe Pass, Eliane Elias, McCoy Tyner, Diana Krall, Gary Burton, Arturo Sandoval, Brad Meldau, Eddie Palmieri, Gene Harris.
I’ve now been in Texas for thirty years and currently direct social ministry efforts for a group of churches in Austin. But I haven’t forgotten my Chicago roots.
Over the years, while visiting family in the Chicago area, I’d always tune into 90.9 FM, WDCB, Chicago’s stalwart jazz station. What a gift, a few years ago, when ‘DCB started to stream its signal over the Internet. I now listen just about every day. As I do my work – writing, researching, reading, or driving to a meeting or event – my world is jazz-flavored. Jazz makes my world lighter, fuller, and richer – with a touch of swing.
T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”
I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”