West Market Miracle
Bethany Baptist plays a different kind of “soul” music
By Andy Clurfeld
We are back!” exclaims Barbara Roberts, standing steps from the altar at Bethany Baptist Church on this take of a “First Night” in Newark. “Welcome, welcome, welcome to everybody!”
The beaming member of Bethany Baptist’s Jazz Vespers Committee was heralding the new season of Saturday night sermons-set-to-music, a dream of the Rev. Dr. M. William Howard when he began his run at the church on West Market Street in Newark in 2000.
His mission was— and remains— multifaceted, and it began with one request: that the first Saturday of every month, save summertime, would bring Jazz Vespers to the congregation and the public at-large.
Now in its 15th season, Bethany Baptist’s critically, culturally and spiritually acclaimed Jazz Vespers has brought some of the finest jazz artists to the church’s sanctuary. On the night Barbara Roberts opened her arms in welcome, the Sharp Radway Quintet punctuated prayers, scripture, homily and offering with songs both written for, and dedicated to, the evening.
The Doctor Is In
The Rev. Dr. M. William Howard Jr. (right) wears bow-ties and cuts a dashing figure, both from behind the pulpit and outside in the very big, very real world. He’s got a pedigree that impresses and inspires: As a young man in Georgia, he engaged in the first massive voter education and registration drive. He graduated from the highly regarded Morehouse College in 1968, proceeded to Princeton, where he earned his masters in divinity in 1972, and was ordained in 1974. He’s been president of the National Council of Churches, president of New York Theological Seminary, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the former chair of the Rutgers Board of Governors.
When he heard almost 15 years ago that Bethany Baptist was looking for a new pastor, he jumped across the Hudson in less than a heartbeat, his only request to make the move from New York City that he could initiate a Jazz Vespers service on Saturday nights. He’d experienced much success, he says now, asking “rich people for money for the church.” He was ready to dig in elsewhere.
Since 2000, Dr. Howard has been doing just that at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark. “Bethany is very close to celebrating its 145th year,” he says. “It’s the first African-American Baptist Church in Newark. It’s meant to be relevant to today’s challenges. In other words, it’s an old citizen, and it wants to be current.” The fact is, Dr. Howard says, that “Newark is a fascinating and rich place. The image of Newark is very different, though. There are people who say, ‘We’ve got to erase 1967 (and the riots),” but you can’t erase 1967. You’ve got to understand that Newark has emerged.” He pauses, then emphasizes the word emerged.
“It is what has emerged from the past— NJPAC, the opera, Bethany Baptist, the galleries and all the arts— that attracted me to Newark. I wanted to be part of it. It was time for me to go to a place and help build.
” To that end, Bethany Baptist’s outreach programs are legend; the adult literacy program alone has served more than 1,000. The Jazz Vespers program, free and open to all, engages not only those in Newark, but those who come from the surrounding suburbs and New York City to hear world-renowned jazz artists. Last month, the church hosted a fund-raiser called “Look Who’s Cooking” that further extended its reach.
NJPAC’s annual JazzFest now opens that series not in its own spaces, but at Bethany Baptist. While many cite Dr. Howard’s charisma, connections and common sense as the reason the church has become an integral part of Newark’s cultural fabric, the reverend is quick to credit Dorthaan Kirk for the successes that have sprung from Jazz Vespers.
“She took it on as a labor of love,” Dr. Howard says, “and what she has done to keep this going for 15 years is remarkable.”
For the reverend, jazz is integral to the church’s fabric. “Many jazz musicians have gotten their first exposure to a musical instrument through the church.” The series he initiated at Bethany Baptist underscores the fact that “jazz artists get it – they play music that ignites spiritual sensitivities.”
The reverend chuckles. “You know, not all sacred music appears in the hymn book.”
“We are so happy to be with you this evening,” virtuoso pianist/composer Sharp Radway told the congregation as the members of his quintet (Kenny Davis, bass; Vince Ector, drums; Shenel Johns, vocals, Bruce Williams, alto sax) smiled. “I wrote this song specifically for this place: ‘Blues for Bethany.’ It swings more than it blues.”
And it did. Williams’s sax pumped as Davis’s bass fortified Radway’s key strokes, a soul-satisfying merger of excitement and subtlety; Ector’s drums underscored it all with expertly controlled vigor. The congregants in the sanctuary, nodding their heads to the music, suddenly were grateful that summer was over and the fall’s lineup at Bethany Baptist had begun.
It was, this kickoff of the 15th season, the 127th Jazz Vespers, said Bill Lee, also a member of the Jazz Vespers Committee. “If anyone was here for Bill Cosby, you’ll remember we’ve had to turn away people,” he added.
Book of Love
Barbara Kukla, long an editor at the Star-Ledger in Newark, now retired, doesn’t miss a Jazz Vespers at Bethany Baptist. “It’s my church,” says the city resident of some 50 years. “Dorthaan and I sit next to each other every Sunday.”
But it’s more than the sermons and wisdom of the Rev. Dr. M. William Howard Jr. that attract Kukla to the sanctuary. It’s the music. “Dr. Howard is a jazz buff, like me,” Kukla says, reaching into her satchel and pulling out a book called Jazz in Newark.
Kukla wrote the book that documents and extols all that jazz has meant to the city. “There’s a whole chapter on Jazz Vespers in this book,” she says, “including Bethany’s history of Jazz Vespers. It’s been a very important part of keeping jazz alive in this city.”
Indeed, the jazz musicians who have performed at the church are world-class, according to Dr. Howard. Some have performed while on top of the charts, and others are hand-picked newcomers with limitless potential. “Gregory Porter was an unknown singer when he came here.”
That’s a credit to the woman who curates Jazz Vespers, Dorthaan Kirk, the reigning First Lady of Jazz in Newark. “Dorthaan’s an ambassador,” Lee told the congregants, “and she brings us the best of the jazz world.
As Dorthaan— known both in Newark and jazz circles by first name only, like Madonna and Prince— accepted flowers and rose to address the congregants, Radway and his ensemble led the applause.
“Bethany only will give you the best,” Dorthaan said. “I try to mix it up — male and female artists, vocalists, instrumentals, the experienced, the newcomers. It’s fun, doing what I do. Don’t tell them at WBGO (Newark’s jazz radio station, where she’s in charge of special programming and events), but it comes to me pretty easily.”
“We love you, Dorthaan!” Sharp Radway shouted, before leading his quintet in a combined tribute to the late jazz luminary Horace Silver and Trevon Martin in another original tune, “Brother Trey.”
As the congregation applauded, Dr. Howard asked, “You like that music?” The applause grew louder. “I’ll bet you never heard that in a hymn book!” The applause grew even louder.
The reverend continued. “No music speaks to me like this music. It pains me that too few people of a certain age haven’t caught on to its depth.
“It’s mighty powerful.”
Heads, once again, nodded.