Jazz pianist says humility, service keys to music, ministry

Easily recognized venues, highly trained colleagues and potentially opulent lifestyles comprise the perfect slew of ingredients for a life largely, if not entirely, centered on self.

For master’s student Fredrick Sanders, though, faith in Christ and a purpose to his playing make for a well-portioned, God-glorifying, likely understated medley. Sanders, a veteran jazz musician who has played with music legends such as the Marsalis brothers and in industry icons such as New York’s Lincoln Center, says his music style keeps him grounded, reminding him with each ivory key his fingers tap that he is not and cannot be the center.

“The purest nature of jazz forces an ensemble to serve one another,” Sanders says. “A soloist cannot have a place of platform to express his moments of shedding— and when I say shed, I mean moments of deep practice, where he’s got in and really broken down the concept to the point where he can respond to the moment. But the soloist doesn’t have that liberty if the rhythm section cannot give him that pallet or that pillow to lay and rest in.”

Though to the listener jazz lies easily on the ear and has a mostly unpredictable trajectory on the treble and bass clefts, Sanders says the give-and-take of the musicians keeps the art organized and controlled.

“Jazz is known for its ‘freedom,’ and I put quotations on that because a lot of people don’t understand what true freedom is,” Sanders says.

“True freedom is being very responsible for the world around you and in its truest nature, [jazz] is a music that is built off of improvisation, but I’ve come to learn that the word improvisation only means spontaneous reorganization.”

Sanders, who began playing cello as a child, says this kind of freedom can easily be representative of the Christian walk. While Christ sets those who call on him for salvation free from their bondage to sin, those who truly accept that freedom, willingly give themselves back to Christ as bondservants. In jazz, musicians take the freedom they have in the missing or only suggestive sheet music and willingly serve their fellow instrumentalists, yielding to where the others decide to take the music.

This kind of humility, Sanders says, follows the example Christ set before He went to Calvary to give the most selfless gift of all—His life.

“I always go back to the story of the Last Supper,” Sanders says. “Jesus puts on a towel of service, gets on His knees and washes their feet.”

A heart of service makes the difference, he says, both in jazz and in the life of the church. If leaders can find a balance between planning and organization, as well as spontaneity and improvisation, they will create an environment that fosters worship in spirit and truth.

“There has always been that pull from the extreme excellence of someone being totally perfect in their presentation and their skill and demeanor to someone being on the other side of it [going] totally by the seat of their pants,” Sanders says.
Sanders says some worship leaders micro-manage every detail of the service, while others hastily choose a handful of songs.

Like the perfect jazz set, worship and its leaders need to find hidden organization, Sanders says.
Sanders hopes that his love for and abilities in jazz will allow him to explain the Gospel and give him a tangible way to convey the truth of God.

“It’s all about dying to yourself,” Sanders says.
That much is evident in Sanders’ life, even to the point that he does not wave around his lengthy list of accomplishments like a flag. In fact, he mentions his global travels with Alvin Batiste and his work with Roland Guerin and Wess Anderson quickly and without much fanfare. Sanders has privately taught students, contributed to albums, and performed with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and with Wyton Marsalis in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for several seasons. Before coming to Southwestern, Sanders served as the music director at Church of the King in New Orleans where he met Joe Hardin, associate professor of jazz and instrumental studies, while he was visiting.

Hardin told him about the jazz studies concentration in the Master of Music in Church Music degree when they met in Louisiana and a few months after the meeting, Sanders called Hardin in Fort Worth to find out more about the program. Sanders chose Southwestern because it was the only school he found that combined jazz studies with biblical and theological studies—a feature he finds important for his music-ministry combination.

Sanders says the education he gains at Southwestern will prepare him to do the job God calls him to do and to keep Christ and other people at the center and to leave his pride out of the equation.

“We have to be very careful…that we’re not becoming [prideful] in our education and in our intimacy with God,” Sanders says, “because God himself put on the towel and served people.”

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