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A unique blend of a thriving instrumental music ministry career coupled with a flourishing pastoral calling within one chosen vessel. Complex yet effective, God has used such a vessel to produce a level of dynamic inspiration normally not seen or heard of in the Gospel ministry panorama of today. Normally one takes a backseat to the other--as one being more natural than the other of lesser skill or ability. Rarely do both abide together in such harmonic peace, separate yet as one, but with such impact-bearing fruit and anointed fluidity as experienced in the ministries of Pastor-Saxophonist, Harold Rayford.
Harold excels as a God appointed saxophonist whose mission is to worship the Lord with his gift and spiritually encourage all who have an opportunity to hear him. Rayford is a Stellar Award nominated musician and songwriter, but also the pastor of Faith Hope and Love Worship Center in Madison, Wisconsin. After a ten year sabbatical from recording, Harold recently returned to the music scene on the year of his 30th anniversary as a musician, with his latest project, a Gospel Jazz double CD, Always There.
Rayford believes that while some Gospel instrumentalists prefer to be called an "inspiring Jazz or Smooth Jazz artist, as opposed a Gospel Jazz artist in order to be more mainstream," Harold wholeheartedly embraces Gospel Jazz as his beloved genre. He states, "I view my playing as a service to God. It is a privilege and something that I owe to him. So my music has more of a Gospel flavor than a Jazz flavor."
Many more highlights could be noted from Harold Rayford's stunning biography as well as the brilliant tracks from his latest musical offering--and I would certainly encourage everyone to take the time to explore them all. However, many times the steps on the path of such an unsung hero as Harold Rayford in the world of music, specifically Gospel Jazz, need to be retraced in order to truly recognize and appreciate the awesome mind of God--as He weaved the circumstances of life together to formulate and accomplish his ultimate plan. Fortunately, JGC recently had a golden opportunity to speak with Harold and walk with him as he recounted the steps ordered by God that brought him to the place where he now lives, spiritually and musically. As he shared with us, you will find that no matter what, Harold Rayford always seeks the presence of God and through his music he's always there, always soulful, and always anointed.-------------------------------
TDR/JGC: First of all, I want to say it's a great pleasure to meet you. I've been hearing great things and great music from you. I just wanted to give you my thanks for doing this interview, and it's a great opportunity to meet you at least over the phone.
HR: It's my pleasure. I'm always glad to meet people who have developed an appreciation for our music and will take the time to talk to me about it. I appreciate you.
JGC: Great. Let's get started. First of all, I read your bio and I was very impressed with a lot of the people you have worked with and the people who have influenced you. One of things I wanted to ask you is how did you get your start in the music industry professionally?
HR: That's kind of two questions. I got my start by playing in the church. I was just the kind who brought his saxophone to church and was fortunate enough to be a member of a church that was permitted to play. In those early years, I played in church and at school through junior high, high school and college. That's really how I got my start. As a young man, once I became serious about music, around the ninth grade, I would go to all the local musicals and concerts and perform in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. Professionally, my church at the time, back in the late 90's, gave me $2500 to record a cassette. I did 11 songs, and that cassette was entitled "Young, Gifted and Saved." That was the beginning, and I sold that out of the trunk of my car so to speak at concerts and conventions and things of that nature, which led to another cassette, and another one and eventually I was able to connect with Tyscot Records and did some albums with them.
JGC: What artists have you worked with?
HR: I don't have a long list of persons that I've worked with because music has never been my primary vocation. I've worked with Myron Williams and Juanita Bynum. I've been with Tyscot Records. I've played with Kirk Whalum and Jonathan Butler. I don't consider myself a person who has a long list of people that I've worked with, if that makes sense to you. I have a family; I've been married for 24 years, and we have two children. So, I've never been a person that's supported himself only with music. That's prevented me from being able to get in with a lot of the more notable names. Music for me is all ministry. It's something that I do for God, but it's never been something that I've been able to do professionally or to support myself and my family--if that makes sense to you.
JGC: What is it about Jazz or the style of Jazz that attracts you musically?
HR: Jazz is a freedom of expression. I enjoy Jazz, especially the traditional Jazz sound of the persons that influenced me. There are no rules in Jazz, and I think that whole concept is what I enjoy the most. Because there are no rules, there's no wrong. Being able to play something and it's right because you thought of it has a great appeal to me.
JGC: You mentioned that you don't have a long list of artists and people that you've worked with. I was wondering what it is like being a pastor and simultaneously a professional musician and how do you handle both ministries at the same time?
HR: Because music is for me something that I enjoy doing, the challenge of being a pastor and a musician, a professional recording artist, I give to my availability. When you're a Gospel artist, the best time to promote your gift is on Sunday morning. You can go across the country and minister in pulpits on Sunday morning. I don't have that luxury. Sunday morning I have to be here to take care of my flock. With the shift in the Gospel music business that have added to that challenge, in that there are no tours so to speak and now you play at conferences and other things on Friday and Saturday night. But, for me, being a pastor and a recording artist, I think that's the most notable aspect of the combination. On the other side of that, I think it's made me a better musician because music for me it is a unique way of tapping into the hearts and the minds of the people, and it is always a preparation for the preached Word. So, when a person is listening to my music, whether they realize it or not, it is preparing them for the spoken Word or preparing them to read the written Word. Being a pastor has helped me to develop a greater appreciation for the message that is in the music and that is the message of Jesus Christ.
JGC: On a Sunday morning, would we find you doing a musical [instrumental] selection prior to or after you preach?
HR: Not at my church. If I'm ministering somewhere else, I will play, but here at my church the demands of pastoring don't allow me the opportunity to play on a regular basis. I may play a selection here once a month. If I've written a new song, I'll play it here. What I do a lot of; I do a lot of practicing. During the day, it's not uncommon, I keep my sax out. When I get stressed or have a down moment, I'll just grab my sax and walk through the sanctuary and just play to the glory of God to my heart's content and then go back and start studying some more.
JGC: I'd like for there to be a mic on to record you at those moments...
HR: Some of my best licks have been played at those moments. When I was a little boy, I would play in the bathroom. It's the best place in the house to practice because of the sound just bouncing off the walls and the mirrors. Or, I would play in the garage. In the summer I would sit in the garage and play. I find myself here during the day just sitting and playing. When I play technically, it's unto the Lord, and so it creates this atmosphere. When I do go out and perform, I have to remind myself that there are other people in the room and it's not just me and God. Oh, I forgot about y'all. I'm caught up in the moment. I don't have that problem when I'm playing here during the day.
JGC: What is your concept of Gospel Jazz and what does it mean to you?
HR: My good friends, Ángella Christie and Ben Tankard, have gone back and forth with this definition of Gospel Jazz. To me Gospel Jazz is simply instrumental Gospel music. It is not Jazzy Gospel. That has never been my intent, for it to be Jazzy Gospel. However, I appreciate the title because it has created a title that is unique to the instrumental music. For me it is simply instrumental Gospel or Gospel music with fewer rules. Again, in Jazz, the concept of there are no rules, we can apply that freedom to the Gospel music. The power of Gospel music is there. It's present in the lyrics of the songs; the power of the Gospel is present in the intent of the song; in the heart of myself and those that are playing to God. By adding Jazz in there, it challenges the musician. I can't just play the song; I've got to be skillful. If David were a musician, I believe David would have been a Jazz musician. To be a Jazz musician suggests a certain quality of skill or cunningness on the instrument. I'm not just a church musician, but I'm a person that has exposed myself to other forms of music and I want to express how I feel about God to the best of my ability. So, I will borrow from other forms of music to better express how I feel about God.
JGC: That's great! How do you feel about Gospel Jazz being utilized within church ministry and how would it serve most effectively?
HR: I love it. I grew up in an era where it was not accepted, and so I think that it has a place in the church world. I get emails all the time from men and women who when they were unsaved loved Jazz music. When they got saved, they found it difficult to listen to their old records and their old cds because it reminded them of the life from whence they have come. The Gospel Jazz music is not a - I don't want to use the word "compromise" - but, it is a wholesome alternative for the person that just doesn't really care for a choir or doesn't feel like hearing a big, strong worship cd, but wants something that is mellow, something smooth or something that does not have a lot of singing or words in it. Sometimes that's what you want; sometimes you're in a mood for that kind of music. Gospel Jazz fills that need; it fills that void and allows the person who is listening to Gospel Jazz to relax and to be ministered to by the voice of the Lord.
JGC: Where have you traveled? I know you said you stay close to home because of your family, but when you have traveled, where have you gone with your ministry and what have you learned from those experiences?
HR: I've been fortunate enough to travel the entire country. I've played in the West, I've played in L.A. I'm from Ft. Worth, Texas. I currently live in Wisconsin. That's where my church is. I pastor a church just outside of Madison, Wisconsin. I've played in Chicago. I've played on the East Coast; played in Florida; played in Africa. In March, I will be playing in Burma, Asia and in the process now of setting up some concerts in India in 2010. I've been blessed to travel extensively and use my God-given talent to inspire and encourage hearts all over.
JGC: What have you learned from those places you have gone?
HR: From those places one of the things I've learned is that there is a shortage of Gospel musicians and that I predict, unfortunately, that is going to be a major problem for churches in the next 10 to 20 years. I've been playing the saxophone now for almost 35 years, and I've been playing professionally for much of that and I am noticing how few Gospel musicians there are. And, when I say Gospel musicians, I mean musicians who are committed to the Gospel. When I started playing, it was uncommon for churches to pay their musicians. It was uncommon, but now it's uncommon to have one who is not paid by the churches. A necessity because of the shortage of musicians that are, first of all, skillful musically and also well versed in the various genres of Gospel music. Even now Gospel music has so many different faces; more faces now than it's ever had before. You've got Gospel rap, Praise and Worship; you've got the traditional; you've got the Quartet sound that is still alive. As Gospel music expands its borders or enlarges its territory, it becomes more diverse musically as far as style is concerned. That's something I've seen. Another thing that I've noticed in the last couple of years is that Gospel music is becoming more diverse. The type of music you once only heard in the Black church, now you're hearing in churches that are White, churches that are Brown. You're starting to hear and feel that Gospel feeling in a variety of churches, which I think is a wonderful thing. I've noticed that of late.
JGC: What would you say was the most defining moment for you musically and professionally?
HR: The most defining moment for me musically was in the 8th grade when I broke my leg playing football, because up until that point, my goals were to be a football player. I was going to go to high school and college, and I was going to make it to the NFL. I just loved football, and one day at practice, again, I was in the 8th grade, a gentleman hit me and broke a bone in my right leg and I spent the next several weeks in the hospital in traction and all of that. When I got out of the hospital, it was obvious that I couldn't play football anymore and I couldn't run track anymore. Then music, which was my second love, became my first love. It was that time, that recovery period that I made it up in my mind; I realized rather, that God had given me a gift. That was the defining moment for me musically. Professionally I would say the defining moment again was that concert that I had at my church when Maryann Souters said, "The offering for the concert is going to go towards blessing Bro. Harold to record a tape of Gospel music." The saints began to sow into that. One person gave me 50 cents; that's all he had. His name was Deacon John Stewart, he was an elderly gentleman at the time and he gave me 50 cents. That was a defining moment. At that time the only person doing something like this was Dr. Vernard Johnson. He lived also in Ft. Worth. I think that was a defining moment because somebody opened the door that I am still walking in today. Had they not done that I probably would not still be playing today, and I certainly would not have realized the potential of recording.
JGC: Tell us about your latest cd project, "Always There?"
HR: "Always There" is, I dare say, of all of the recordings that I have done in my life, "Always There" captured everything that was in my soul; everything that was in my heart. What we endeavored to do with "Always There" could not create a studio sound. If you listen to "Always There" you'll realize that - every song on the first cd involved live drums, a live bass, a guitar player and live keyboards. I didn't want the canned sound. I wanted the musicians that were on that cd to be able to express themselves, and I only utilized musicians that were saved. So, what you hear from "Always There" is the anointing; what you feel is the anointing. I think we accomplished that goal. "Always There" is also unique in that we used Kenneth Copeland's recording studios, and that studio is not open to the public, but God gave us favor and we were able to go in and utilize that studio. "Always There" took a very long time to record. I think it took us over a year to record all the songs for that project. So, again, it captured a lot of things because over that year when we would go in and record a song, I may not remember now what I was going through at that time but it certainly came out in the song. That is different from the previous recordings which were all done in like a weekend. We would go to the studio in one weekend and recorded all the tracks. This album had a little more season to it.
JGC: What are you currently working on and what can we expect from you in the near future?
HR: I'm currently working on a live recording. We want to do a live recording next year, and it is going to have three phases to it. It's going to have choirs on there; I'm also going to have a worship team; and, we're also going to do a couple of songs with maybe a 10-piece orchestra. This album is going to be something that is totally unprecedented and very aggressive, and, again, it's going to be a live recording. We're in the process of pulling that together. It will reach back and forward, and we're going to do some things that haven't been done. I don't know of anyone that has done Gospel music to orchestra music. Some of the songs will be recorded in a church, some in a theatre, and some songs will be recorded in a club. In a Jazz club setting. We're really going to stretch out.
JGC: Is there anything you would like to add or mention?
HR: I would like to express again my appreciation to you and to all of the people who support what I do and what the other Gospel Jazz artists are doing. Gospel Jazz has a longer shelf life than any other form of Gospel music. You can purchase one of my cds that I recorded in '96, '97, and '99 and there have been times when people have heard those and played them and fell in love and say where can I get some more of this. Gospel Jazz, just like traditional Jazz, is something that grows better with age. I think that for that reason it is important for me and other musicians that are committed to Gospel music to keep recording and to keep putting this music out, but we can't do it without the support of those who enjoy it. And, it is a small base. There's a small base of people that appreciate what we do, which makes it difficult for record labels and distribution companies to pick it up. So, articles like this and interviews like this and companies like yours are as essential to the survival of Gospel Jazz as are the musicians that are committed to it. So, thank you again.
JGC: Thank you very much, and we definitely want to keep in touch with you.