Preaching the Gospel, Jazz Riffs and All
By COREY KILGANNON APRIL 7, 2017
The Rev. Nathaniel Dixon playing his saxophone at St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church in Marble Hill, Manhattan. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
While a soulful organist welcomed church congregants last Sunday, the Rev. Nathaniel Dixon stood in his office in a natty pinstriped suit, looking more like a hip jazz musician about to hit the bandstand than a pastor preparing to take the pulpit.
His office, in St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church in the Marble Hill section of Manhattan, bore signs of both Jesus and jazz. Its walls had framed photographs of Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, and religious literature shared space with saxophones, keyboards and guitars.
After pulling on his white pastor’s robe, Mr. Dixon grabbed a box of saxophone reeds and his microphone.
“Edmar, let’s bring that tenor down, man,” he said to his assistant, Edmar Flores, who carried Mr. Dixon’s tenor saxophone to the sanctuary.
As the service heated up, with his band backing him, Mr. Dixon picked up his horn and played from the pulpit.
“My Lord, my God — you are my savior,” he sang, his voice swelling up to the church’s majestic rafters.
Then he took up his saxophone. The pastor’s playing style was spare and insistent, reminiscent of one of John Coltrane’s spiritual songs.
“People who aren’t used to seeing a preacher playing the saxophone are surprised,” he said. “And when they see I can actually play, they’re more surprised.”
As a young jazz musician, Mr. Dixon was seasoned in Harlem clubs, and played with the likes of the guitarist George Benson, the saxophonist Sam Rivers, the pianist Kenny Kirkland and the drummer Chico Hamilton. Back then, he played bebop. Today, it is mostly GoJa, his name for a blend of gospel and jazz that swings with a spiritually uplifting message.
Mr. Dixon said he tried to match one of his songs to his sermon every Sunday. Last Sunday, it was his composition “My Lord, My God,” a lyrical ode that recalls the spiritual style of the saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. The tune helped illustrate a point he was making about the Apostle Thomas’s reaction when called upon by Jesus.
“I like Jesus because he calls you out,” Mr. Dixon said, before describing Thomas’s recognition of Jesus as his “eternal God.”
“Somebody ought to clap right there,” he told the spare congregation, which included older women in ornate hats and ushers in white outfits.
Applause went up and seemed to mingle with the morning sunlight filtering through the stained glass windows.
During the song, Mr. Dixon pointed to members of the band, directing each to perform a solo, then adding through the microphone, “Give the drummer some.”
He told the congregation he wrote “My Lord, My God” while sitting in the church alone, “just me and the Lord.”
“I like to doodle on the piano,” he said. “That’s where you get a chance to hear God speaking to you.”
Mr. Dixon said he grew up in public housing in the Bronx and attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. Struggling to land and keep gigs at jazz clubs in Harlem, like Smalls Paradise and Showman’s, taught him how to fend off other musicians looking to replace him.
“Just because Jesus said to turn the other cheek doesn’t mean you have to let people walk all over you,” he said.
The saxophonist Stanley Turrentine taught him to play with no excuses, and the alto player Lou Donaldson helped him choose a better mouthpiece.
Connecting with a jazz club audience helped prepare him to connect with a congregation, said Mr. Dixon, who worked nearly 30 years as a teacher and administrator in New York City public schools. At one middle school in the Bronx, he was allowed to keep a cot so he could head there after late-night gigs, he said. Before retiring from teaching in 2005, he began studying for his ordination as a Methodist minister. He told the congregation on Sunday that he was “happy minding my own business, but God said, ‘I ain’t finished with you yet.’”
His latest CD, “Made in New York City: Nat Dixon and Friends,” includes a version of “My Lord, My God,” with vocals by the Rev. Lori Hartman, daughter of the jazz singer Johnny Hartman and herself a pastor, at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Jamaica, Queens.
Mr. Dixon, who with his wife, Norma, has two grown children, became pastor at St. Stephen’s 12 years ago and set up a Saturday music school. He also helped raise funds to restore the 1898 church building in Marble Hill, a neighborhood attached to the Bronx, but designated a part of Manhattan.
On Sunday, at his bandstand-pulpit, his saxophone strap dangling from his neck, Mr. Dixon reminded his flock to trust in Jesus during this season of Lent. He described how Jesus had helped sick congregants and had even helped cure his own failing eyesight.
On Tuesday, after playing jazz and his GoJa tunes at the Methodist Home for Nursing and Rehabilitation in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, he explained that music can help deliver God’s message in ways that preaching cannot.
“Music helps,” he said, “because there’s awe in the music.”