Faith in jazz …
Bill Carter is all about jazzing up the word of God. As the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Clarks Summit and the leader of the Presbybop Quartet, Carter and his bandmates have been performing and recording jazz favorites and original compositions for years. Originally from Owego, New York, he relocated to our area in December of 1990 and started his pastorship shortly before jazz began to erupt and enter his life. After years of walking the line between faith and jazz music, Carter has combined the two worlds, mixing his devout Presbyterian faith with the sounds of bebop. Presbybop has performed concerts and jazz worship services around the country and has also recorded eight albums. Leading his congregation and the band, meet Bill Carter…
Describe yourself growing up.
I had a normal, happy childhood with a lot of music in the house. Some of the music was old swing band and big band that took root in my imagination very early. I played the piano and wasn’t very good at it. Then I heard ragtime and I wanted to know how it worked. That’s when I got serious about piano. I just labored at it until I began to move with the music.
Were you a very religious person?
Church was never an option. When we woke up Sunday morning, we knew what we were supposed to be doing. I wouldn’t say that I was ever voted most likely to become a pastor. I went to church every week and became involved in the church youth group for high school kids and did a little music as well, but at that point in my life you went to church as much for the pretty girls as you did for God.
You were able to combine your church and jazz music even at that time.
I think some of the work I’m doing now is making those connections all the time. I think there are religious preconceptions that keep people from going deeper. Jazz arises from the within the church as much as it arises from anywhere, with the gospel tradition and the Pentecostal outburst that happens. There’s something liberating and freeing by being swept up in the power of good music. I always enjoyed it, but never understood the connections. I had a very left-brained, analytical education as the son of an engineer. People like me tend to overthink matters rather than feel them and ride them out. Part of our growth journey is to learn how to get with the groove.
How did you find your calling as a minister?
I think my calling found me. I went off to college with a vague sense of wanting to help the human race. I had a crisis my sophomore year. I really began to hear holy voices saying “this is maybe where you need to be.” It’s one thing to go to church every week. It’s another thing to get a sense of a tap on the shoulder that there’s something deeper for you to do.
How did the Presbybop Quartet start?
We wanted to do something unusual for a church service and a friend and I were talking about Psalm 137, which ends with the line “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” It was also Girl Scout Sunday. In some kind of devilish imagination, I wondered how it would sound if it were set to music. I reset the Psalm as a blues in f minor and had a friend in the choir come out and sing it while I backed him up with this blues accompaniment. I remember standing up after the setting of the scripture text and thinking we already heard the sermon. There is some power in this music. Then a call came in from the church organist that she was going to be out of town on Labor Day weekend. She asked me to play the hymns and I said “sure.” As the last hurrah of the summer, who’s going to be there? We put together an approach for a jazz worship service. Somebody sent out a press release and the next thing you know, the place is jammed and two TV stations are there with cameras. People wanted to do it again next year.
Talk about your original work.
I really love to compose. I began by arranging some old hymns and coming up with new pieces of my own. The band has been a wonderful laboratory to explore this music. At this point I’m up to 120 pieces with about 100 of them recorded. We play them for a while and if they begin to come together, the shape of the tune is good and it seems to create the necessary improvisational conversation, then we’ll record it.
Talk about your live shows.
We do a large array of things ranging from concerts to jazz vespers, which is a very loose prayer service with a lot of music. It really depends on the setting. If it’s a concert, we have a lot more flexibility and looseness to simply improvise for a while and see where the music leads us. With jazz it’s very much that nature and dynamic of the music leading you. It’s almost as if it’s a muse and when you compose, it sets up the basic melody and structure. Then it’s bringing all our imagination and focus to that moment and then listening very intently to one another and the tune. New things begin to emerge and new directions begin to come out of the ground. That to me is the thrill of jazz. It’s also a hint of the spiritual power of music and that there is a creativity at work in the world that is greater than human imagination
Compare your role as a minister to your role with the quartet.
Both roles can resemble the herder of cats in that people are often led by their own whims. One of the goals is to become the leader of a community, whether it’s a jazz quartet community or a church community. What are the basic aspects of that? Learning to respect every person’s ability and gifts. Another is to develop a common sense of what is good and right and greater than the sum of the parts and to all move toward that. Another is to be a force for love and compassion in the world.
— tom graham
Bill Carter and the Presbybop Quartet (Carter on piano, Al Hamme on saxophones, Tony Marino on bass and Tom Whaley on drums) will perform jazz selections on April 11 at the Abington Community Library in Clarks Summit from 1- 3 p.m. as part of the Second Saturday celebration. The quartet will also perform a jazz concert on Sunday, April 22 at First Presbyterian Church in Clarks Summit at 4 p.m.