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‘Prepared and present’
Jazz musician finds that community, prayer and music intertwine


“I’m always trying to let go of ego and self-consciousness in order to play this music,” says John Rohde (pronounced “roadie”), a jazz musician in Syracuse, N.Y. “I’m always trying, and I’m usually failing.  Prayer is the same way.”

He is taking a quick break between numbers in the final set of his regular Wednesday-night gig at Pastabilities, a popular eating establishment downtown. With friends on vibes and keyboard, John has just wrapped up the final chorus of The Time of the Season on his tenor sax and is talking about how his music and his life as a committed Episcopalian go together.  In the past 10 years, the connection has become essential to his life.
“I was born and raised Episcopalian in Arkansas,” says Rohde, “but like lots of young people, I quit going to church in high school and college. I went to grad school in New York City and started going to a Unitarian church there.  Then, when I came back up here, my life really changed.  My marriage fell apart.” He pauses.

“The people I was playing with became very important to me, became my family, and it seemed like a lot of them were involved spiritually. I decided that it was time to do something. I started looking for a church like the one I grew up in.” 

‘Hooked’ from first day

Rohde picked up the phone book, found St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown Syracuse and showed up one Sunday. 

“I was hooked from day one,” he says. “But I didn’t want to tell anybody when I started going back to church.  For one thing, a lot of musicians and artists are wary of church. For another, it felt arbitrary at first – not like anything I’d done before.  I was afraid my close friends would think I was nuts.”

But in retrospect, Rohde has found that going to the cathedral was organic: It followed naturally from who and where he was. The benefits have been organic, too. “As my church life has deepened, it’s made more sense of my relationships both to music and to musicians.  Church and music have become integrated for me.”

 Like most artists, Rohde pieces a living together out of several gigs.  Three days a week, he runs The Band Bus, a traveling music-education program that serves the many parochial schools in the Syracuse area.  One day a week, he teaches reed instruments at Cornell University.

Wednesday nights are always at Pastabilities. Saturdays he might play with a touring performer such as Aretha Franklin at the Turning Stone Casino, or he might play a wedding.  Then there’s Sundays, when he’s likely to be vested and serving a chalice -- but he might be playing the sax as well.

Community is a recurring theme for Rohde. He moves easily through his intertwined communities, as easily as the patrons stroll through the doors of Pastabilities, where years of working in the restaurant and four years of performing on Wednesday nights have made him well-known, and obviously loved, by the regulars.  The community of musicians is a crucial aspect of his life. But the cathedral is his community, too, one where his gifts for serving and for music enhance the liturgy and the life of the parish.

“Church has definitely informed my musicianship in the most fundamental way, in that I know it’s not me,” he says. “The music is a gift that comes through me.”

Prayer a daily discipline

Practice is another recurring theme. “Be prepared and be present,” he says. “That’s the only way you can do this music.  That’s what I’m always telling my students.”

The daily discipline of practicing music is part of being prepared, but the daily practice of prayer is just as crucial, he says.  “In Lent, for the past four years, I’ve made a point of going to Eucharist every day.  I get up, walk with my dog, go to church, then go home and practice.  It’s great. I don’t know if you’re supposed to enjoy Lent, but I really do.”

Rohde’s break is over, and he heads back to the corner by the door where the band is set up.  It’s next to a large window, and the band is equally visible from outside and inside the restaurant. He clips his sax to the cord around his neck, and strikes up another standard.

It’s not A Love Supreme, John Coltrane’s abstract hymn to God’s goodness.  It’s just a joyful tune that swings: something the patrons can get into, something that Rohde and his friends can commune through. The music leads people inside to a mystery that words don’t quite touch, and follows them out again as they head for home.