Grace comes in surprising packages.
Sometimes grace, that hard-to-define-but-easy-to-recognize quality, arrives in a kind word from a friend, an extra week to pay a bill, a soft breeze on a sweltering day.
Two weeks after the terrorist attacks in September 2001, for me grace arrived, unannounced and unexpected, in the form of a jazzman.
It was the first Saturday night after life forever changed on 9/11. People waiting patiently to enter the Park West Theater in Chicago were unusually quiet as security guards checked and double-checked IDs, even for those who didn’t intend to drink. A queer pall of uneasiness hung in the air.
Many of the smartly dressed folks waiting to hear the jazz vocalist Kurt Elling sing selections from his album Flirting with Twilight had had to force themselves out of the house that night, had to take a deep breath, say a few prayers, and put on something festive, even though that was the last thing they were feeling.
Inside, the nightclub glowed warmly with candlelight; a few concertgoers milled by the bar ordering cocktails while others found seats set up clubstyle in the intimate venue. But still, that nasty pall hovered.
Elling took the stage with his five-piece band and played the national anthem.
Everyone stood. Everyone sang. Some people cried.
Then grace entered the room.
“I came to sing for you tonight because someone wants us to suffer,” Elling told the hushed crowd. “Someone wants us to fail—as a nation, a culture, as a people. We fold? They win. We stay home in fear or depression? They win. Culture must continue. Joy must come out. Life is stronger than death.”
Then Elling, a Grammy-nominated jazz musician and all-around hip cat, quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures. The book of Job: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.”
“We are not encircled by darkness. We’re surrounded by a circle of light whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere. We have beheld this glory; it is full of grace. If we were to ask such a God of grace, what do you think God would say?” Elling asked.
His band answered, playing the first few notes of “Not While I’m Around,” a Stephen Sondheim tune from the musical Sweeney Todd.
Strange choice? Listen to the words:
“Nothing’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around. No one’s gonna harm you, no sir, not while I’m around. Demons are prowling everywhere nowadays. I’ll send them howling, I don’t care … I’ve got ways.
“No one’s gonna hurt you, no one’s gonna dare. Others can desert you, not to worry, whistle, I’ll be there. Demons’ll charm you with a smile, for a while. But in time, nothing can harm you, not while I’m around.”
Yep. There you have it.
There was hardly a dry eye in the house, and the pall blew away.
“It was a special honor and a challenge and a service, a moment of being a servant for whoever showed up,” Elling told me a few days later, reflecting on that night. “People needed to be fed. I wanted to make sure they knew that they had access to this other way, that you listened to this music in this other way.
“I do have a belief that what is happening is a sacred thing.”
Elling is a really interesting fellow. A Rockford, Illinois, native, he’s the son of a music minister from the conservative Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.After college, where he studied history and religion, Elling enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. Were it not for a pesky German exam that he never passed, he says he’d have a divinity degree. Not that he ever intended to be a collared minister, or to use his jazz pulpit for anything more than singing.
Elling, who refuses any religious label for himself apart from “artist,” is definitely not the Michael W. Smith of the jazz world.
Still, his deep spirituality and religious background permeate his music. Just not in the way you could sum up on a bumper sticker.
That Saturday at the Park West, Elling was funny and profound, sexy and spiritual, following in the footsteps of other jazzmen like Duke Ellington. Elling wove songs about soul food and romantic love in between quotations from the German poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Friedrich Hölderlin, and from the Bible.
“I think music has this service to play. Most of the time it doesn’t need to be explicit,” he said.
“People will accept whatever information that you lay on them in a way that they’re ready for. I don’t think that it’s about spoonfeeding anybody what the deal is. Part of the beauty of it is the discovery of the individual. It’s a beautiful thing because you’re discovering art.”
And, occasionally, grace.
From GG’s first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006)