Interview With John Carlson

Featuring John Carlson Posted on March 23, 2009

PC:     Tell us a bit about your background:

JC:    I was born in Lansing, Michigan. I grew up around the Chicago area and then the Peoria, Illinois area where I graduated from high school in 1982.  Everyone in my family was very musical.  Mom and Dad met in church choir and sang in church their entire life.  Both played piano, and my father played clarinet, saxophone, and organ. We attended traditional Presbyterian and Methodist churches growing up. While I believed in God and the Bible, I found very little relevant to me, in church. While I was raised with good Christian values, lots of prayer and love, the idea of being "born again" or "saved" just wasn't part of our church culture.  But I loved the music in church - any music that is. I found I had a very natural ear at the very young age of four and was playing piano and my Dad's vintage Hammond M2 spinet organ (I could never talk him into a B3!) by ear until I started clarinet and then tenor sax in grade school. By high school, I was an award winning musician - All State, jazz soloist awards, etc. I had also begun composing and arranging, learning what I could on my own and from some books and scores I had. My senior year I won the DownBeat Magazine "DB" award my senior year for Best Original Big Band Composition in 1982. That helped earn me several scholarships. I longed for something of "purpose" to do with what I believed were my God given musical gifts, but never fathomed they could be used in church.

PC:    Where did you study after high school?

JC:    For college I went, for a year on scholarship, to what is now University of North Texas. (Then NTSU.) While I did well as a freshman amidst 700 jazz majors, I found the school to be a bit too large for my liking and too progressive for where my ears were at the time. I wanted to eventually work in Chicago, and also missed having my very supportive parents be able to attend concerts I was a part of in college. I then transferred to Northern Illinois University.  They had a great jazz program, excellent saxophone professor, and it was just an hour outside of Chicago. While in school, I started gigging professionally and soon was doing well working with some of the top society bands in town playing lavish weddings, parties, corporate events, shows, etc. After graduating in 1986, with a BA in Saxophone Performance, I continued to work around Chicago while also taking a job at a large school service music store as a school service sales rep.

PC:    So when did faith and church come into your life?

JC:    I had gotten a job for a college friend of mine at the music store I was working at. He was a born again Christian. I was at a point where he saw an obvious need for Christ in my life. He kept inviting me out to the church he attended and was involved in as a musician, which was Willow Creek. He always talked about the "great music." I really couldn't put that together with the church music I had grown up with! I was pretty resistant at first, but I finally came out for one of the weekend seeker services. I was blown away by the whole experience. I had no idea church could be like that at the time. The music, production, drama, art was all done on a very high level and very moving. And most of all, the teaching from Bill Hybels seemed to speak right to where I was at in life at the time. God's plan - confession, redemption, salvation and how that applied to my life in tangible ways - all finally became clear. Later on that year after attending, volunteering in the bands, and doing one on one discipleship with my friend, I accepted Christ and devoted my life and talents to serving Him.

PC:    How did you end up working at Willow Creek?

JC:    I NEVER dreamed I would ever work for a church full time! But I had begun regularly serving at Willow Creek as a musician and also started arranging instrumental preludes and offertories, as well as assembled and arranged for the first horn section they used for midweek worship services - all as a volunteer at the time. This was in the hay day of horn sections so we had a lot of fun. In 1991, I was asked to go on staff full time as a Music Director/Staff Arranger working alongside Rory Noland and Tom Vitacco. We had a great team. At one time there were six music directors working full time, all with different but complimenting skills and gifts - for the four weekend and two midweek services, as well as for the many conferences we had started doing, both at the church and internationally. It was a great time to be in ministry.

PC:    It was during this time that you recorded the first instrumental CD at Willow, correct? How did that come about?

JC:    We always did an instrumental prelude and offertory for the weekend services. These were in all different styles – variety was a high value. But with several of the music directors having jazz backgrounds, they tended to lean towards that style. These instrumental arrangements and “the band” really caught on with our congregation. We had recorded some studio and live worship CDs by then. People started asking for a CD of just the band instrumentals. We also saw a need by other churches to have access these arrangements in print form. So in 1996, we recorded the first instrumental CD, which was titled “Preludes.” Later in 1999 we recorded the follow up CD “Preludes II.”

PC:    You also moved to a different job in 1999, right?

JC:    Yes - In 1999 we faced many changes on the horizon as a church and I felt lead to explore some new areas with what I was doing. I had become very passionate about work the Willow Creek Association was doing with producing music resources for churches including online print music and CD projects. I transitioned to a new job there working as a project manager for the music publishing area as well as producer for several CD projects.

PC:    You left Willow Creek in 2002 to move to the Dallas area, right?

JC:    Yes - In July of 2001, in the midst of a large restructuring move between the church and the WCA, my position was phased out in that plan, and I was left without a job. A confusing time in life and unfortunately this was just before 9/11. Not a great time to be out of work! But to be honest, we were already kind of looking for a change of pace and scenery. In early 2002, we followed a calling to move to McKinney, Texas where we wanted to get involved with a younger church there where a good friend of mine, John Wasson (also a Praise Charts arranger) was the Worship Pastor. I had no job to begin with, but my wife was able to find a job in her field. I later worked with John for the church part time, and then full time for a year.

PC:    And then how did you arrive in Iowa? 

JC:    In 2003 my elderly father, still living in Peoria was, for the 2nd time, diagnosed with cancer and given a year to live. We already had a desire to move back to the midwest for other family reasons and with this news we looked for jobs that could allow us to move back. In July of 2004, just in time, God provided a great position as Instrumental Music Director at Parkview Evangelical Free Church in Iowa City, Iowa, which was 2 1/2 hours from my dad in Peoria, Illinois.  My Dad later sold his house and moved near us in his final days before he passed away in December of 2004.  We had also lost my mother to cancer in January of 2001, so this was a hard era of life for me with care involved and then losing both of my parents, the job changes, moves and all.

PC:    What are you doing these days? 

JC:    A year ago, I left the position here in Iowa to focus on freelance work again. I'm now doing freelance arranging for Praise Charts, another publisher, and several churches that I've networked with across the country over the years. I’m really enjoying the work and relationships with PraiseCharts. It feels like a true ministry and that I’m helping to make a difference in churches worldwide. I was a Praise Charts customer when working in churches.  It’s fun now to be on the creation side. 

I also get asked to travel to other churches on occasion to play as a guest artist, clinician/coach etc. and have also done some teaching at conferences on various subjects. But these days, going on 45, looking at the contemporary church these days, styles of music, etc., I'm having a hard time finding what will be a good "fit" for me in a church for the next season of life, and wondering if that's still a "calling" in my life or not as a career. I have a lot of mixed feelings. This is another long conversation! :-)  So right now – I feel like I’m in that season of life again waiting on God for the “next assignment” whatever that may be. And if it’s to stay here in Iowa and continue to freelance, I’m open to that to. However my heart will always be about using music and all the arts in creative and relevant ways to help lost people find and grow in Christ, as well as shepherding musicians that serve in doing that. That's what my true passion is. I never forget that, at one time, I was a year out of college and looking for a calling and passion for my life, my musical gifts, and in need of God’s love and grace.

PC:    Tell us about the new compilation CD “Expressions Of Instrumental Worship” 

JC:     The two Preludes CDs had been discontinued at Willow and were not available for several years when they phased out all of their old resources. Meanwhile, I was receiving many requests for the CDs and charts. I finally was able to put together a compilation of all of my arrangements from the two CDs, which I released independently in 2007. The CD helped in me receiving the honor that same year of “Jazz Artist Of The Year” from through which the CD is sold.

The CD has some great musicians on it – many who were regular volunteers at Willow in the day, as well as some professional players - friends I had worked with in Chicago. We were very fortunate on the first CD to work with Brian Culbertson, who is now a big name as a solo artist/producer in smooth jazz circles out in Los Angeles. He helped produce several of the tunes and worked as a consultant with us. I met Brian when he was still a college student working in Chicago when I had hired him on some other sessions. The second CD featured famed saxophonist Kirk Whalum, who I became friends with when we invited him as a guest artist for our services at Willow. The two of us duke it out together on a big band arrangement I wrote on “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands.” Kirk was a delight to work and play with and is one of the most genuine Christians I know – a true minister wherever he goes, not to mention just an out of this world musician. These tracks and others are all included on the compilation CD.

PC:    What instruments/skills do you have musically? 

JC:    Obviously I’m a saxophonist. I play a little clarinet and flute. Lately I’ve really enjoyed playing piano/keys/B3 for services as well as drums – one of my very first loves actually. I also love playing percussion of all sorts. I transcribe, arrange, compose and produce using a small Mac studio. I notate in Finale and Sibelius and record and sequence using Digital Performer. 

PC:    Tell us a bit about your family and other interests:

JC:     I met my wife Chris when I was in college. She was a strong Christian but we never dated until years later when I was in my “seeker” phase. We were married in July of 1989 – 20 years!  Chris was a music Ed major and is a wonderful classical trumpeter. However she now works in the corporate field as a recruiter for Pearson Inc, a global multi-media publishing company. We enjoy vacations in Great Lakes region and have a side hobby of studying Great Lakes Shipwrecks. We have one daughter, Shailee, who is 11, in 5th grade and VERY into Art. We have two cats and an overly intelligent Sheltie named Murphy. I’m still a Chicagoan at heart, so I'm a tried and true Bears and Cubs fan. I'm also very in to Macs, Internet, HD TV, movies, etc. and love traveling to somewhere new I've never been. As far as music, I love everything from mainstream jazz, classical, country, R&B, soul, hip hop, to Coldplay - anything that's well produced and from the heart.

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