T. BirkettNM: What does Gospel Jazz mean to you?

TB: Gospel Jazz to me is infusing the Spirit into the process of jazz improvisation and composing to result in a gospel message that also celebrates living in the image of God. By fulfilling the creation mandate given to us in Genesis. 

NM: How did you get started playing jazz and what lead you to Gospel Jazz?

TB: As for gospel jazz, I started listening to a station in NY called WRVR which played all spectrums of jazz. I heard the last movement of A Love Supreme, “Psalm” and it sounded like what I improvised during worship. I simultaneously studied jazz theory and harmony on my own, at the same time learning music to play along with the choir and to play solo. It was natural for them to mix.

As for Jazz, I heard Grover Washington Jr., Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Roy Ayers back to back one night on WRVR. Still have the cassette tape! That was it.

NM: If someone were to ask you to define Gospel Jazz what would you say?

TB: I would say it is a fusion of jazz improvisation, flavor and harmony with the gospel message.

NM: How does the church look at your music?

TB: I find that the church in general is very open to gospel jazz if it is accessible to them by hearing it on the radio, in the church etc. If it is presented not as entertainment but with scripture and teaching on the role of music in the church. 

NM: Where do you find inspiration for your music?

TB: In addressing the needs of those around me with the good news of reconciliation and abundant life in Christ. I’ll hear a phrase or an issue that weighs heavy and write something to illustrate it.

NM: Where do you see Gospel Jazz going?

TB: Not too optimistic about the future of gospel jazz as it is defined in the gospel music industry. Lack of airplay, lack of venues dedicated to gospel music, distribution, the whole thing. Some individual artists will continue to thrive based on the relationships they have set up in the past, but I don’t see a lot of new doors open for expansion. However, if gospel jazz would become more concerned with reaching out to world outside of the gospel music industry and churches it can do well. 

NM: What is your biggest challenge being a Gospel Jazz artist?

 TB: The dwindling attention span and patience of the ordinary churchgoer to music that may be a lot more challenging than the usual simple praise and worship songs today. Gospel music (in general) has become more interested in the simplicity of congregational worship music. Built in marketing. I think there has been some “dumbing down” in the tastes of church folk nowadays. And churches have become unable or unwilling to fund a gospel jazz ministry. This can leave you ministering with tracks, which for me is not the best presentation.

NM: What projects are you working on!

TB: Working on a postbop jazz recording project incorporating the music of Mahalia Jackson with the gospel-influenced works of Charles Mingus (Mingus Ah Um, Blues & Roots) and Miles Davis. Along with some originals. Yes, a lot of people do not know that Miles Davis, in hearing gospel singing in Alabama become part of the inspiration for the album Kind Of Blue. Some notable jazz artists have consented to be a part of the project. This project tentatively titled “Strength” will be a call for reconciliation between God and those that don’t know Him. With that reconciliation they can receive the joy and the fulfillment and the strength to live in this world today.

NM: What is your favorite BIBLE verse?

TB: Proverbs 16:3 (Amplified)

Roll your works upon the Lord [commit and trust them wholly to Him; He will cause your thoughts to become agreeable to His will, and] so shall your plans be established and succeed.

NM: Out of your collection what is your favorite song?

TB: At the moment “The Return Of The Prodigal Son” by Brian Blade Fellowship

NM: If we were riding in your car what would we find in the CD player?

TB: old school Edwin, Walter or Tramaine Hawkins John Coltrane, A Love Supreme Anything by Kenny Garrett Michael Brecker, “Pilgrimage”, Claude Debussy, Thomas Whitfield, Vanessa Bell Armstrong’s 1st album, Brian Blade Fellowship, Dianne Reeves, Erik Satie, Curtis Mayfield, Doug & Jean Carn. (I’ll stop now, lol)

NM: When did you know this was your calling?

TB: Playing Dr. Vernard Johnson’s “Jesus I Love You” standing on a chair at 11 yrs old, and seeing the power of God move. Humbling. I understood that I had a purpose and to walk in it in obedience even at that young age. 

NM: Your most memorable moment as a musician?

TB: Not having a date at the junior prom, showing up playing Earth Wind & Fire’s “Reasons” and having 5 dates. No seriously, the whole recording process in making my first CD. Finally after years, no decades of waiting to then get the CDs in the mail!        

NM:  What can we expect from you next?

TB: Less music produced for the church crowd and more jazz. Looking to do some work with visual artists and dance. One of the best ways we can lift Jesus up is to be in the marketplace of ideas as Paul did in Acts 17 and make Him part of the conversation. Even some of the elect accepted Christ as a result of Paul speaking on Mars Hill. And producing my wife’s gospel soul EP.

NM: How has the changes in the music industry affected you?

TB: Not much because I’m a independent label. You’re still selling on CD Baby and ITunes and out of your car. However, the internet has helped to network, connect and keep people connected to you and your music. The gospel music industry has somewhat lost interest in gospel jazz and radio is even more scarce than before. So internet radio and podcasts like yours really helps.

NM: Words of encouragement to other young Gospel Jazz artists?

TB: Stay anointed, be of good character, practice your craft, extend the boundaries of your creativity. Also know how to raise, use, budget and generate money for your ministry.

NM: The word says “without a vision the people will perish” what is your vision?

TB: I listen to how so many jazz artists cite Buddhism as the power that gives them their creativity. And they have the output to show for it. They have given themselves wholly to the enemy. I’d like to see gospel jazz & jazz artists who are Christians exhibit the power of God thru their music to the extent that we can testify of God the way a Herbie Hancock testifies about Buddhism. Let’s have an “Ezekiel” contest in this culture between us the prophets of God, and the pagan worshippers and win it decisively like he did. So God can get the glory and the world can see the power of God and seek Him.

NM: Who would you like to work with on a Gospel Jazz CD.?

TB: On a gospel jazz CD – Kirk Whalum, Kim Burrell, Yolanda Adams. 

NM: How do some people react when you say you’re a Gospel Jazz artist?

TB: Sometimes they ask how such a thing can be possible 🙂

Or they automatically go to Kirk Whalum as a reference.

NM: What will it take for Gospel Jazz to grow and be

recognized and accepted in the music industry?

TB: We need the major gospel jazz artists that are known to the church audience to be strong advocates to help garner awareness. Gospel jazz artists have to be presented along with major gospel artists in concerts and tours. If the music is presented as something legitimate, it will gain more of an audience. Show it on the Stellar Awards and Celebration of Gospel so people can experience it.

Also gospel jazz artists must develop collectives for marketing purposes and for sharing of resources. The “one man is an island thing” is really hurting us. Working together has been very successful in smooth jazz. Guitar and Saxes, the Dave Koz tour, etc. Here in NY, jazz artists have developed record labels, their own performance series, obtained grants and the like. With numbers there is power. Also gospel jazz artists have to remember that it is the anointing and not just talent that is necessary. As the ministry of gospel jazz has a greater impact in the lives of believers, the awareness will grow by simple word of mouth. This has to be done because we can go to the mainstream music industry.

NM: Thank you Mr Birkett for the interview!


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