Melvin Butler: Crossing boundaries with music
Q: You have written about the tensions in being Pentecostal and a scholar and have expressed discomfort about the way academics often describe Pentecostal worship. Tell us about that and your own journey.
I grew up mostly attending a predominately white Nazarene church in Kansas City, and sometimes a predominantly black Pentecostal church. When I was 12 or so, we started going to a Church of God, but I didn’t have a consistent place of worship until I went to college in Boston and got immersed in the black Pentecostal tradition.
When I started graduate school, I never thought that I would write about Pentecostalism. I didn’t want to touch that. That was my personal life, my religious life.
But I kept encountering articles that anthropologists had written about Pentecostal practice or African-American culture, and I grew increasingly uncomfortable with how Pentecostalism or black Christianity in general was represented in scholarly literature.
It seemed as though I needed to talk about this. I needed to say something as a member of a Pentecostal church. I felt that I could talk about it in a more sensitive and nuanced way, in a way that did justice to how people actually felt and what they experienced in these contexts, because I was one of them.
I had become a Pentecostal. I had experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit while in college and was strongly committed to my identity as a Pentecostal Christian, as I am now.
To write about that seemed necessary but also frightening, in that I didn’t want to reinscribe some of the same kinds of academic representations that I’d been opposed to. I didn’t want to become one of the academics, one of “them” -- one of those people writing about Pentecostalism from some sort of detached reductionist perspective.
But ultimately, I felt like it was my calling. I had to do it. What else was I going to write on?
Q: A few of your articles quote a scholar who says that whenever academics write about Pentecostals, they always have a stock disclaimer that says basically, “This is what they believe and thus it is real for them,” with the unspoken part being, “but not for us.”
Yeah. That’s Glenn Hinson, an anthropologist at UNC-Chapel Hill. I’ve never met him, but I’ve admired his work. His book “Fire in My Bones: Transcendence and the Holy Spirit in African-American Gospel” was eye-opening, because he said exactly what I had been feeling, that there was a tendency in the academy to write about issues of faith or religious experiences as though they were simply rather interesting culturally: “How cute that people think that God is touching them or that they feel this, but of course we really know that that’s simply emotionalism or a psychological state.”
There are all these strategies and techniques of disbelief, as Hinson calls them, through which academics have tended to confine religious experience to this other realm of “less real” than the reality that we enlightened academics are aware of.
And I was like, “Yes! This is what I’ve been trying to say.”
Q: You’re also a jazz musician. What lessons does jazz improvisation offer for church and church leaders?
Someone wrote somewhere that God is the master improviser. There’s a tension between structure -- having a plan, an order, a divine will -- on the one hand but then also allowing for human agency, free will, creativity, spontaneity, where things don’t go according to plan, where anything can happen at any given moment.
Maybe jazz improvisation can be a metaphor for understanding something about God and God’s creation. I don’t know. I certainly think, as an improviser who works with other improvisers, that there’s a really fun and productive challenge to be had. We all have our individual voices -- we have things to say, things we’re working out -- but we find ways to interact together in peace and in fellowship.
The band that I play with, Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, is very much about that. Sometimes soloists are featured, but 90 percent of what we do is centered on this idea of a group sound, of finding ways to talk to each other, to convey a sense of true fellowship and unity. There’s not this spirit of selfishness, standing out from everybody else. We’re all contributing to a greater good, something that’s beyond any individual.
Q: I gather that’s not a typical approach to jazz improvisation, which can seem like a competition, trying to outshine each other.
Yeah. There’s an aspect of sport in jazz improvisation. The classic example is the so-called cutting contest, where soloists line up and see who can outdo the next person.
When I first started playing with Brian, I was surprised that it was so unlike that. It was very much not a competition among us or with other groups.
Listeners were surprised when the first record came out back in 1997, 1998. People wondered what it was and what to call it.
“Oh, is this jazz? Can this be jazz when it doesn’t have that sport element, that aspect of competition and cutting, playing the melody and then everybody taking turns soloing?”
It wasn’t that at all.
Q: Blade comes from a church background, right? His father was a pastor?
He did, yeah. The titles of his songs -- “Return of the Prodigal Son,” “Alpha and Omega” -- from my perspective obviously often reference a biblical theme, but he doesn’t hit you over the head with it. He’s not at all preachy in one-on-one interactions or with his audience.
Unless you ask him or unless you’re attuned to the biblical references, you might not know that he’s coming from a Christian perspective. I think that he would say that his upbringing as a pastor’s kid, as someone who grew up playing in a church, informs his outlook and even the title of the group, Fellowship.
Q: Does faith shape the way you play?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. I’m definitely trying to do more than just entertain people. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t do a lot of gigs now.
I get little satisfaction from playing in contexts where people aren’t there to hear the music; they’re just there to have a drink and talk to friends, and the music is background noise.
Why would I want to do that? I feel like I have something to offer, something that I must offer to people. I want to minister to people while I play.
The older I get, the more I think that way -- that there’s something I convey to them beyond the notes, that I can touch them. Enough people have come up to me saying how their lives have been changed and transformed that I realize that maybe music can work this way and be really powerful.
I’m spoiled now. That’s all I want to do. When I play music, I want to touch people or minister to them.