Everyone loves a comeback story. And for people of faith who sometimes feel in exile in contemporary society, nothing fires the imagination as much as someone reconnecting to their vocation through their trust in God. In this connection, I am reminded of a story in the life of the great Duke Ellington.
In the early months of 1956, the word on the street was that the Duke was washed up, a has-been, done. No one seemed to remember or care about the greatness of his early career. Bebop was the rage. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were the new kings of jazz.
As biographer Terry Teachout explains in vivid detail, by the time Ellington showed up at the Newport Jazz Festival 1956, his band was a mess, and he was recycling old material without anything new and dazzling to show that he could still compete.
When he took the stage, the band limped through the first couple of tunes. His new suite of songs composed with Billy Strayhorn got only tepid applause. But then the Duke called an audible and they launched into “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” Ten minutes earlier, it seemed as though a fabled career might be over. But 20 minutes later the crowd was delirious with joy as the pinnacle of Paul Gonsalves’ soaring 59-chorus-long tenor saxophone solo crested, to be followed, if not surpassed, by Cat Anderson’s searing high solo. Producer George Avakian described the pandemonium that ensued: “Halfway through Paul’s solo, the crowd became one single living organism, reacting in waves like huge ripples to the music played before it.”
But the Duke wasn’t through. He could have coasted on his career as the greatest musical genius in American history after the triumph in Newport and as a pathbreaking pioneer in civil rights. But he could not. He would not. He decided instead to employ his full resources in the composition of a “Sacred Concert” of music, his great late career masterwork. He wanted to show where the music came from. He wanted the world to know that Jesus Christ, the Creator God, gave him the music to write, a band to lead and a song to sing.
And although he first performed the “Sacred Concert” at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, he substantively revised the piece and decided to perform it again, this time to be recorded for posterity by RCA. The scene for the revised Concert of Sacred Music was performed at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City the day after Christmas 1965.
“This music,” Ellington declared to the media, “is the most important thing I’ve ever done or am ever likely to do. This is personal, not career. Now I can say openly what I have been saying on my knees.”
The trick for believers in today’s culture is to connect “what they’re saying on their knees” with their life and career, but earlier than did the Duke. This can and should be done through the education of the believing community, from childhood through higher education too. And the church should be involved throughout the process. In fact, it should lead. Remember that once upon a time, Sunday school actually taught concrete skills like reading, writing and overall literacy. Education should once again be the strong suit of the people of God. We should be thinking of desks instead of pews. If a theology of work could become the thing for which Christian communities are best known once again, we may find ourselves back in the center of cultural conversation rather than at the periphery.
Admittedly, it will be a steep climb. But if we are faithful, we may in fact find ourselves back in the days of Marcus Minucius Felix, the second century Christian apologist whose dialogue, entitled Octavius, sought to set the record straight to a skeptical culture about many misconceptions and outright lies that Roman society had perpetrated about Christians, their beliefs and practices. The response of these believers to the slings and arrows of outrageous accusations was love. But in an age in which powerful voices within the Church, such as Felix’s successor Tertullian — who argued for a withdrawal from culture — St. Jerome reminded us that Minucius Felix knew exactly where he should be after becoming a Christian. He knew that upon becoming a follower of Jesus, he should be right back into the Roman Legal Forum, at the center of social debate, where, we are told, he was one of “Rome’s most notable solicitors.”
What connects the ancient witness of Minucius Felix to the late-in-life vocational confession of America’s greatest composer, Duke Ellington? It is the conviction that one’s calling from God should be displayed not in cloistered quarters, “at the boundaries of culture,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “but in the middle of the village,” where people can gather to see what the grace of God has done.
• Gregory Alan Thornbury, Ph.D., is president of The King’s College in New York City.