Covenant’s newest scholarship, the Rookmaaker Jazz Scholarship was introduced and celebrated on Monday, March 12, with a special chapel, a chapel luncheon, and a jazz concert.
The endowed scholarship is for students pursuing jazz music education at Covenant and is named in honor of Hans Rookmaaker, a Dutch scholar whose doctorate was in visual arts, but who also loved and studied jazz.
During the Monday chapel, Dr. Bill Edgar, who is a professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary as well as a jazz pianist, and Ruth Naomi Floyd, vocalist-composer and music educator, performed and spoke about the power and history of jazz.
In between performances of classics like “Lord Don’t Move That Mountain” and “I Want Jesus To Walk With Me,” Floyd described black music in America, such as jazz, ragtime, gospel, and spirituals, as being “birthed in sorrow” but portraying movement from “deepest despair to unspeakable joy.” This echoes the gospel story: “You can’t have the joy of Easter without the despair of Black Friday,” Floyd said.
Edgar recalled his first encounter with Rookmaaker in 1964 at Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri. In the study center, he found a chart of the history of African-American music and learned that Rookmaaker, a close friend of Schaeffer, had made the chart. They later became friends.
Rookmaaker described jazz as putting “iron into the blood” and “utterly harmonious and yet full of life and vigor.” Rookmaaker was part of the Neo-Calvinist tradition and thought art should reflect the reality of life, both the sorrow and the joy.
At a luncheon after chapel with students, Floyd and Edgar, along with Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, Rookmaaker’s daughter, and musician and performer James Ward (‘72) who also directs Covenant’s jazz ensemble, discussed issues regarding jazz and music.
Hengelaar-Rookmaaker recalled going to her father’s lectures as a child and the important part music played in her father’s life. After growing up with a scholar of art and music as a father, Hengelaar-Rookmaaker is still involved with art as a musicologist and editor-in-chief of artway.eu, a website providing information and resources about art.
Floyd, Edgar, and Ward offered their perspectives on engaging with music, particularly with jazz.
Edgar explained platforms like Spotify are great for finding new music, but you lose some of the context when you don’t listen to an album as a whole.
These platforms also allow access to music from all over the world, Floyd said, and encouraged students to “go underground” to find music as well, because producers and labels have so much control over the music.
As for listening to jazz in particular, Floyd said “it’s a conversation” and “history is crucial...you can’t tell the story of African American music without the dark part of history.”
“I love jazz because it’s so aligned with theology,” Floyd said. “With mistakes, you have the next beat, the next measure, another chance to correct it. That’s the theology of grace!”
For those who want to start listening to jazz, Ward suggested starting with Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue.” Because there was no rehearsal before the recording of this album, you can hear the conversation — the players are really listening to each other, Ward said.
An evening jazz concert in the packed-out Kirk featured the Covenant Jazz Ensemble, directed by James Ward, as well as Edgar and Floyd, with David Schwab joining them on bass.
The concert featured a number of classics such as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” and “Wade In The Water.”
During the concert, Hengelaar-Rookmaaker spoke about her father’s work and legacy. After her father became a Christian as a prisoner of war during World War II, Hengelaar-Rookmaaker said he took a great interest in neo-Calvinist theology and saw art as a great gift from God.
Rookmaaker’s heroes were classical musicians as well as jazz performers like Mahalia Jackson, Bumble Bee Slim, and Blind Willie Johnson, Hengelaar-Rookmaaker said. Rookmaaker saw similarities between Baroque music and African-American music, because he thought they were “similar in spirit.”
Hengelaar-Rookmaaker recalled Rookmaaker’s view of African American music like jazz as “music that is joyful and clear, truthful about the hardships of life but holds fast to hope.”
At the end of the concert, Edgar remembered Rookmaaker’s idea that the best music was “protest in love,” and Floyd added “creating is an act of resistance against the darkness,” encouraging students to continue creating art.