FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Music, especially jazz, has more to do with God than meets the ear.
And that’s something Robert Elkins is basing his life on.
“Jazz relates to the spiritual,” said Elkins, who began incorporating jazz into church music while in high school. “It is a craft of improvisation which allows you to create in the moment and really connect with people.”
Growing up in a musical and Christian family, Elkins never separated music and the church. His mother was church organist and his family was very involved in church.
“Music and church just went together,” he said. “I gradually realized the impact of music on people and its importance in the life of God’s people.”
He began playing piano at age 6 and was classically trained until age 16 when he attended Berklee College’s summer music program in Boston. There he found jazz and fell in love with it.
Jazz musicians can prepare to a degree, Elkins said, but when the moment hits, the music is spontaneous.
“Worship can be that way when the Holy Spirit moves,” he said. “Jazz reflects your own personal, individual stamp. Music is a great tool for expressing yourself, and jazz takes that to a deeper level.”
The spiritual development of Elkins’ music continued while he earned a bachelor of music degree at Berklee, whose alumni include Branford Marsalis, Quincy Jones, Diana Krall and Paula Cole. He volunteered in several churches as pianist, organist and youth minister, and he traveled with creative arts teams.
“I felt most fulfilled when I was serving the church,” he said.
While Elkins received a top-of-the-line music education at Berklee, a contemporary music school, he felt like seminary training was the next step in serving the church full-time. He lacked formal training in sacred music and wanted an understanding of where church music had been and where it was going.
A Southern Baptist, Elkins knew about the six seminaries but was very interested in the then-new music school dean at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Benjamin Harlan, and his contemporary music background. Though Elkins loved Boston and the Berklee community, he moved to Fort Worth, Texas.
He found his niche as a jazz musician at Southwestern. Elkins composed, arranged and played jazz with the NewSound Jazz Ensemble, expanding the seminary’s repertoire. He helped start praise bands for local churches, played in other seminary jazz groups and grew accustomed to hearing chapel speakers comment upon hearing his music, “Things have changed so much since I was a student.”
That change is positive, said Elkins, who graduated with a master of music degree in 1999.
“I feel like jazz has given the seminary another resource,” he said. Whether playing for banquets and receptions, the Texas Evangelism Conference or on spring tours, Elkins feels jazz music is communicating Southwestern’s commitment to reaching a contemporary culture.
“We’re not changing the message but the way it is presented, making the gospel accessible by breaking down barriers,” he said.
“Robert brought wonderful chords that most Baptist churches have never heard,” Harlan said. “As for his jazz ability … genius. He is the only student during my time at Southwestern with a degree from Boston’s prestigious Berklee. His gifts enrich all of the Southwestern family.”
Agreeing that Elkins has “gone at it the right way,” Joseph King, associate dean of the church music performance division, noted that Elkin’s own style “comes off quite artistically.”
Today Elkins is music associate at 10,000-member First Baptist Church, Euless, Texas, a position he was recommended for while a seminary student. He does everything from playing piano and leading the rhythm section to laying tracks on a computer. He considers the position “tailor-made” for his Berklee and Southwestern training.
Elkins dedicates 10 to 12 hours per week to getting his creative juices flowing. Much time is spent listening to jazz or other musicians. Some of his favorites include solo piano projects from Winston Hill and David Foster, Christian jazz by the Brentwood Jazz Ensemble, hymns arranged by Chris McDonald and the jazz of Bill Evans, Diana Krall, Keith Jarrett and Harry Connick Jr.
Elkins would like to earn his Ph.D. and continue teaching and serving the church. He misses Boston and sees a definite need there. For now, though, look for him sitting behind a keyboard somewhere in Texas, playing jazz for Jesus.