Throughout his life, Julian Reid has always found deep joy in playing piano. Hailing from Chicago, Julian spent most of his childhood studying classical and jazz piano at Merit School of Music’s Conservatory and playing piano around the city. He has served in various music ministries at churches, including service as musical director for choirs and praise teams. He has toured with various musical acts around the world, including a duo show entitled Joker & King with the magician Kenta Koga. He is a member of the jazz group The JuJu Exchange with Nico Segal (formerly Donnie Trumpet), his brother Everett Reid, and Lane Beckstrom, which just released their first album, Exchange. Julian is equally interested in theological studies. After having completed his undergrad studies in philosophy at Yale University, now Julian is pursuing a Master of Divinity degree at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He and his wife reside in Atlanta. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @julianreid17 and The JuJu Exchange at @thejujuexchange.
For as long as I can remember, I have been immersed in both the Christian church and in musical study. My training as a Christian minister has broadened my ability to see God at work in the world. It’s expanded my view of how people seek God in all kinds of settings, including music. Being a musician has given me the ability to connect with all kinds of people who may never darken a church door, yet are still interested in pursuing those questions of spirituality in their own way. Becoming a part of The JuJu Exchange, a jazz band I joined in 2016, has been a wonderful way to discover the deep communion between these loves. It’s the first time I’ve thought extensively about how they inform each other in my life, work, and worship, even though The JuJu Exchange stands as only the most recent chapter in a long story of making music and thinking about God.
Throughout my childhood in Chicago, my mother, who was a pastor for much of my childhood and remains so to this day, and my father, a lawyer and author of a book on Christian theology, instilled both the love of Jesus Christ and exploring music in my siblings and me. Though I came out of the womb hearing about God and music, I tended not to think about how music informed my understanding of God, nor vice versa.
I often think back to when, during one of her routine visits to Chicago, I played an old-time hymn for my Grandmommy, Mom’s mother. I don’t remember what exactly I played—maybe it was “Great is Thy Faithfulness” or “His Eye is on the Sparrow”—but I will never forget what happened after I finished. As the last note rang out, I looked up from the piano and saw her weeping. She raised her clasped hands towards God and said, “Thank you, thank you.” I don’t know what exactly she was thanking God for, and I didn’t have many thoughts as to how my music was a form of ministry to her. I just knew that I liked playing, that she liked hearing it, and that moment was somehow sacred.
That experience with Grandmommy typified what happened when I played in church settings growing up. It wasn’t until I got to Yale for college that I began thinking more about why I made music, and what greater impact music had in the world than just making people feel good. My senior thesis in philosophy helped me begin putting some words to why I played. I used the arguments of John Locke and Georg Hegel to argue that the jazz combo comprised of the four members of a typical quartet—horn player, keys player, bass player, and drummer—symbolized an ideal political society. The four musicians served as a small-scale version of society. When these musicians really listen to each other and the audience, they demonstrate an ideal way of being together in a community: The members of the band study the sounds one another make for the sake of improving their individual contributions to its common good. They would take turns sharing the spotlight during the solo section. They understand the importance of each person’s role to the life of the greater whole—nobody is left out. The small society on stage then models this way of living together for the audience, which can, in turn, inspire people to live peaceably with each other in the world writ large. The project helped me see jazz as a means of expressing a certain lifestyle: I loved building dynamic relationships with people on and offstage through playing beautiful sounds, like what happened with Grandmommy.
A few years after undergrad, The JuJu Exchange started when Nico Segal (formerly known as Donnie Trumpet) and I decided to take the improvisational music we’d made in high school and record it as a full-length album. We got my brother Everett involved on drums and production and our homie Lane Beckstrom on bass and production, and the band took off. Our first record, Exchange, was such an exciting project because it enabled me to think more intently about what music means to me. It helped me make sense of Grandmommy’s experience and my undergrad thesis.
What I didn’t understand when I played for Grandmommy is how abstract music can be engaged powerfully on its own, without words. The four of us, as a band, are constantly thinking about how abstract music has been such a critical way for us to think about the world differently, and how we want mainstream music listeners today to experience the same. During the heyday of jazz, abstract music was a key ingredient to America’s mainstream music composition. Sadly, in the contemporary music world abstract music is often a mere vehicle for getting at some other experience. Jazz is background music for classy events; instrumental breakdowns merely color the vocals that drive the song. Our band intends to recast the unique gift that abstract music can be as music to engage on its own.
The JuJu Exchange enacts the hope of my thesis: the power a jazz combo can have to demonstrate what it means to be a community. We truly listen to each other in the band and have a natural desire to model for the world a way of being in community that comes from studying each other’s instruments and making space for each other to be a part of the sound. As I listen to Nico’s horn, and Lane to Everett’s drums, so too can the audience members listen to one another in society, writ large. In so doing, we pursue a common good: beauty.
The JuJu Exchange has shown me the power of forming people’s worlds through music, and God has shown me that music has always been ministry for me, whether or not I realized it. When I played that hymn for Grandmommy, I was ministering to her through the notes. When I play a JuJu show, I do the same. The music is able to communicate my deep love of God and of the people around me. I am able to serve others onstage and in the audience, just as I described in my thesis. I can pour all of my feelings of frustration about social injustice and hopes for a new world to come into my music. The audience members are able to see me engaging my brother Everett and my good friends Lane and Nico onstage, and perhaps they are able to see an exchange between us that encourages a deeper friendship with people around them in their lives. I make music to love God and to love people, and because I love God and I love people.
Becoming a Christian minister as a pastor of a local church, a chaplain to college undergrads, and a prison chaplain has furthered shaped my understanding of music as a way to show God’s love. One key tenet of pastoral ministry is that a minister can convey the love of Jesus to people through various forms of nonverbal communication, which is known as “ministry of presence.” This has helped further my appreciation for how abstract music can do the same. When I stand before a group of youth in prison in Atlanta or stand before a keyboard in front of a JuJu show, I can convey God’s love without saying a word. I want my chord progressions to be pastoral; my right-hand solo lines to be sources of hope.
Because of my time in Christian ministry and in this band, I have a far deeper sense of how the two are connected than I ever could have had I had these experiences separately. I hope that when you hear my music, you’ll hear my love for you and my love for the God I believe created the opportunity for our exchange. Thank you for listening.