ArtsATL

Your Guide To The Arts In Atlanta

Three things stand out when the Rev. Dwight Andrews welcomes a visitor to his office at First Congregational Church, where he has served as senior minister since 1996.

First, there’s the wall-to-wall coverage of framed photographs that document his close ties to luminaries from the worlds of arts and letters, education, politics and the clergy. The snapshots chronicle his years as a collaborator with playwright August Wilson and director Lloyd Richards at Yale Repertory Theatre — where Andrews served as resident musical director for such Broadway-bound shows as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson. They preserve happy memories of those who have passed on, like his “big hero and wonderfully warm friend,” Maynard Jackson. And they keep cultural compatriots like Quincy Jones, Ken Burns, Phylicia Rashad and Michael Shapiro close, despite the years and miles that separate them.

The second thing that stands out is Andrews’ mono-focus during an hour-long conversation against a backdrop of chirps, beeps, tweets, ringtones and vibrations that emanate nonstop from his mobile phone. He is immune to the distraction sitting within arm’s reach, and never breaks eye contact nor asks to be excused to respond to a single incoming call or text. 

The third thing that commands attention is the collection of woodwinds that dominate nearly half of his desktop. The c flute, bass flute (which he characterizes as “a very unusual instrument”), alto flute and clarinet that stand like sentries are substantial yet small enough to allow him to practice between meetings. But given his pressing responsibilities between the church — which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year — and Emory University, where Andrews is a professor of Music Theory and African American Music, the luxury of time is rarely a given.

Andrews considers his jazz music as part of his spiritual journey. (Photo courtesy the Rev. Dwight Andrews)

“If you’re not playing all the time, all the sensitivities get away from you,” he says. “If there is a sadness, it’s that my life does not allow me the selfish practice time required of a musician. Practice and play is all I did at conservatory. I had no other interest or aspiration. That’s what we did, and I loved it.” 

A lifetime later, practice and play remain central to what makes Andrews tick, not to mention excel, as an educator, composer, curator, historian, theorist and pastor.

His arts education began in Detroit when an aunt gave him a clarinet, and the fourth-grader discovered a natural aptitude for the instrument. By 1969, he was a conservatory student at the University of Michigan, where he welcomed the discipline of having to practice eight hours a day, seven days a week, in pursuit of a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education and a Master’s in Woodwind Performance. As a scholarship student, Andrews was required to play with the Wolverine’s Marching Band — where he selected the saxophone because, he says, “I could at least wear gloves when it was dreadfully cold in the Big House on game day!” The next stop was seminary, where he earned a Master of Divinity degree at Yale (Class of ’77) by day and played jazz with the band he founded, Déjà Vu, by night.

Andrews was ordained into the Christian ministry in 1978 and subsequently earned his Ph.D. in Music Theory from Yale in 1993. Following his ordination in New Haven, he served as campus chaplain and associate pastor of Christ’s Church for 10 years while performing and recording locally with such avant-gardists as Jay Hoggard, and visiting musicians including Jack DeJohnette and Roscoe Mitchell. The creative wellspring was enriched by cutting-edge artists like Oliver Lake, Leo Smith and Anthony Davis, who introduced new horizons to the classically trained Andrews.  

As a young instructor at Yale, his office was bookended by those of Amiri Baraka and Henry Louis Gates (whose children were baptized by Andrews). Toni Morrison, Wolé Soyink and Derek Walcott were visiting professors during that period. Angela Bassett, then a graduate student at Yale’s School of Drama, was one of many friends who enjoyed engaging in philosophical debates with Andrews as they lay on blankets spread along the quad. And playwrights like Ntozake Shange flocked to New Haven to hone their material before taking the show on the road.

Andrews calls that era the heyday of Yale, in terms of African American studies. “It was a fertile community in which we were all asking questions about how can we tell our stories in new ways that are adventurous and important,” he says. 

Andrews (left) with actor Charles Dutton (center) and playwright August Wilson (Photo courtesy the Rev. Dwight Andrews)

Hoggard, a vibraphonist, composer and early member of Déjà Vu, remembers being in awe of Andrews’ virtuosity as a musician and his leadership by example.

“Dwight could have gone though life strictly as a brilliant and gifted musician, or a brilliant and gifted composer, writer, dramaturg, music director or performer,” says Hoggard, who is on the faculty of the Music Department at Wesleyan University. “All jazz musicians speak through our instruments, and there is a kind of healing inspiration that comes with it — whether they’re wild and crazy or restrained. Dwight brought that all the time on the bandstand. But unlike the rest of us, he would step off the bandstand and implement that healing on a day-to-day basis with others — having people call him at three in the morning with their problems. He has always been a genuine, full-time practitioner of jazz — healing, teaching, mentoring, advising and every other capacity that goes with being a pastor. Yet, always a visionary artist.”

Reconciling the sacred and the secular did not come easily to Andrews. He describes his first year at seminary as “traumatic,” saying there was, “too much theory and not enough practical application.” For someone accustomed to getting up in the morning and practicing, the heady environment was a culture shock to the novice, so he turned to Rev. John Gensel, whose ministry at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Midtown Manhattan provided a template for pastoring professional jazz musicians.

Gensel believed that jazz was the best music for worship because the personal nature of a musician’s expression spoke to the existential nature of what it meant to be human. When asked if he ever worried about attracting the wrong element to his services, he famously said, “That’s the kind we want in church. The good ones can stay home. A church is a congregation of sinners, not an assembly of saints.”

Andrews wrote to Gensel, saying he felt like a fish out of water as a jazz musician attending seminary at Yale, and asked how he might bridge both worlds. “John wrote me back,” says Andrews, “and said, just do what you do and let people discover themselves in what you do. If you’re working in a church, perform in the church.”

Andrews (in sunglasses playing the saxophone) performing with his first band, The Seven Sounds (Photo courtesy the Rev. Dwight Andrews)

Gensel’s seemingly simple advice was an epiphany to Andrews. It forced him to question the lie that makes either/or distinctions between God’s music and the (so-called) devil’s music. As a result, he embraced the liberating powers of reclaiming all genres of music. Instead of compartmentalizing his interests, he began to integrate them. Ultimately, he concluded, “Jazz is so expressive, improvisational honest and sincere. How can that possibly be in conflict with the institutional role of the church?”

Inspired by Gensel’s example, Andrews also established Jazz Vespers in New Haven in the early 1980s. The tradition followed him to Atlanta, where he formalized First Fridays Jazz at First Congregational in the 90s and instituted a variation on that theme at Emory. To this day, evening worship service remains a campus staple.

His annual Holiday Jazz Vespers service, held in Cannon Chapel, has developed a strong following and is not to be missed, says Randall Burkett, research curator for African American Collections at Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library. “[Dwight] has been one of the most deeply committed and engaged faculty members I’ve worked with over my past 22 years here,” says Burkett. “He worked closely with the library in creating a three-day symposium on African American Music and Identity at the Dawn of the 20th Century, in celebration of our receipt of the papers of composer William L. Dawson. He has performed regularly, either alone or with music department colleagues, on many special occasions held at the library and across campus. We are truly fortunate to have him as a colleague.”

Emory students and alums would make the same argument.

Jennifer Barlament, executive director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and self-avowed “big music nerd,” was a physics and music major at Emory (class of 1995) when she first met Andrews. His music theory course was required, and Barlament says she had no idea what to expect. But she vividly recalls what she describes as her professor’s ravenous sense of curiosity and musically omnivorous tastes.

“I’m so glad I walked into Dwight’s classroom,” says Barlament. “Early on, he had us analyze the harmonic structure of Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely, and the exercise was transformational. I’d never sat down and taken a pencil to paper and thought about the details of the harmonic structure of any pop song because I’d never really thought about complexity and theory as applying to something other than Mozart piano sonatas. But [Wonder’s composition] is actually incredibly complex and beautifully crafted. It was a tremendous introduction to how melody influences harmony — in the sense that there’s a chromatic descending line in that song — that creates all of these really interesting advanced harmonies. It gave me this tremendous pleasure in listening to popular music in a much more academic and curious way than I had before. It made me a little bit less of a nerd. And it really made me fall in love with Stevie Wonder.”

Andrews considers himself a minister first and musician second, but he has integrated the two. (Photo courtesy the Rev. Dwight Andrews)

Which begs the question: Does the bivocational practitioner consider himself a musician who ministers, or a minister who plays music?

He does not skip a beat.

“I am a minister who plays music,” he says. “Ministers practice by getting up in the morning, facing whatever new challenge we didn’t anticipate and keeping a sense of humor. You practice because in any one day you will go from the great joy of watching a child come into the world, or the great sense of loss of someone passing and consoling a family, and everything in between. We all have gifts and a purpose, and one of my gifts is music. But that’s not my purpose. I think of my music as being my gift for my larger purpose — to increase our understanding of one another, and help build community and a sense of well-being with one another.”

Andrews laughs when recalling the back-handed compliment from a congregant that helped him clarify his role as a minister. “[Mayor] Andy [Young] once said, ‘You’re a pretty good preacher, but you’re a better saxophone player.’ He reminded me that everyone has their own gifts . . . that I did not have to preach like someone else and not share every part of myself. He was right; it just took me a long time to get to that point.”

Gerald Durley — the recently retired pastor of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, former dean at Clark Atlanta University and at Morehouse School of Medicine, and a renowned speaker on environmental, civil and human rights issues — says that Andrews’ ability to integrate culture, music and preaching is changing lives for the better.

“We live in a world where people are dying mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” says Durley. “You also find the sense of loneliness — and when you have loneliness, you have depression. And when you have depression, you have hopelessness. And when you have hopelessness, that’s a dangerous situation. People are looking for two things today: stability and peace. Dwight demonstrates stability and serenity. You can talk about Jesus and faith, but as my grandmother used to say, I would rather see a sermon than hear one. Dwight is the sermon you love to see. He is the real deal. He’s a touchstone and a rock. You don’t find too many people like that in any profession.”

Andrews doesn’t pull any punches when describing what he regards as Atlanta’s “cultural underdevelopment.” He calls the funding from the City of Atlanta to institutions like the Woodruff Arts Center pathetic. He fears that corporate sponsorship for arts organizations, large and small, is unsustainable because the next generation of corporate leaders don’t understand the importance and power of the arts to amplify the socioeconomic vitality of an ecosystem. He is discouraged by the disconnect between Atlanta’s university communities, which he describes as “little silos that don’t talk to each other.” And he is horrified by the state of hip-hop.

Andrews inspires in the pulpit and on the bandstand. (Photo by Dustin Chambers Photography)

“The arts are important because it helps us to understand who we think we are,” says Andrews. “Baraka used to say, ‘The music and the people are the same.’ If you look at the present moment in African American cultural production, which more and more is governed by commerce, not creativity, then you see that’s in large part who we are. We are a culture that is being shaped by commerce. In an ironic way, I think it leads to a new kind of commercial slavery where everything is for sale. Now we have the technology to fracture and sound, any moment, any beat: that is the aesthetic of the time. But also part of that aesthetic is that anything can be a new product, and it doesn’t have to say anything. It just has to be successful. It just has to be shiny.”

Given the erosion of democracy, from the executive branch of government to an ostensibly free press that conflates noise with news, Andrews is not looking to Washington nor mass media to save the day. Instead, he believes redemption can only come via art, culture, education and moral leadership. He sees the church as one of the last community advocates standing because it has no vested interest in government; does not rely on tax-based revenues for its survival; and is not beholden to a multitude of masters.

He says he is buoyed by the “brilliant young leadership” from arts administrators like Barlament, and Doug Shipman, president and CEO of the Woodruff. His mentors and friends in Atlanta include T.J. Anderson (the senior-most living black composer of concert music) and Alvin Singleton (former resident composer at the ASO). And he considers colleagues like Pearl Cleage and Kenny Leon sympathetic spirits.

They, in turn, see a man whose daily focus and practice is worthy of emulation. 

“When I see Dwight, I see a man who happens to be a minister, who is also an artist, but more than anything is just an intellectually curious man trying to figure out the best way to live life,” says Leon. “His curiosity about spirituality, art and music is refreshing to me because it’s honest and he gets the most out of his presence on the planet. And he shares that with everybody. He presents his authentic self wherever he is. I think that’s a real blessing, and what real spiritual leadership is.”