by Grant Moser

Ambler resident Jim Holton, 52, didn’t have much of a choice about becoming a musician. His mother is a singer and pianist. His father is a clarinetist and saxophonist. His grandfather was a violinist, pianist and music teacher. He spent most of his summers as a youth at the New England Music Camp in Maine, where his parents were part of the faculty; two summers were spent as a counselor.

Jim Holton is a “music minister” at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Ambler, playing every Sunday. Every third Sunday there is a jazz and gospel-flavored service.

“It wasn’t so much ‘Are you going to play music?’” Holton laughed. “It was more ‘What instrument are you going to play?’”

He studied cello as a child and sang in the Cathedral Boys Choir of St. John the Divine in Harlem, where he would practice almost five hours every day. It paid off when in seventh grade he won “Outstanding Choruser of the Year” and went to England to sing with the Royal School of Church Music at the Canterbury Cathedral. Unfortunately, as he became a teenager his voice changed from soprano to bass, and he lost his desire to sing. So he concentrated on his cello.

His father was a jazz musician, and Holton would listen to his albums and accompany him to Manhattan’s West Village to hear shows at clubs that included luminaries like Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. Holton wanted to play jazz cello, but his teacher didn’t know any jazz cellists in the city. However, she did know Chris Cherney, a jazz pianist. Holton saw him play one evening and took up jazz piano.

“What drew me,” Holton explained, “was the interaction, the team aspect of playing with other players and making art with musicians. I love that spontaneity, that sense of being. I liken it to basketball: the dynamics can change depending on who you’re playing with and what you’re playing at any given moment. Sometimes you’re supporting, and sometimes you have to step up.”

Holton’s move to the Philadelphia area came by accident. He was attending the School of Performing Arts in New York for cello when he broke his leg the summer before his sophomore year. Jim couldn’t carry his cello up and down staircases, so the school arranged for a tutor to visit him. But the tutor wasn’t showing up, and his father was preparing to leave to take the position of superintendent at Radnor High School. So Holton moved with his father to the Main Line.

After graduating from Radnor High School, he attended Mansfield University of Pennsylvania as a cello major for one year, then transferred to the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts [now known as the University of the Arts]. He transferred again in his third year to Temple University, where he switched his major to jazz piano performance with a cello minor.

It was at this time that he started getting gigs playing with bands in Atlantic City and Philadelphia seven days a week. “So it was around 1984 when I decided I didn’t need a degree in jazz piano performance since I was already performing so much,” Holton explained. He quit school and became a full-time musician.

This might sound like a dream come true, but things didn’t stay that way. By the early 1990s, Holton had gotten divorced and “off track. I call them my dark days. I stopped playing cello for about 10 years there. I was not spiritually centered. My life started to head toward the tubes. Someone suggested I pray and ask God for some help.”

A higher power did enter his life, and he began to turn things around. “I’m a reformed atheist. I found myself being lifted out of places I was in and realized that things were going beyond coincidence,” Holton said. Then in 1995, he met fellow musician Cindy LeBlanc at a jazz club, and they’ve been together ever since.

Today, they both live in the church parsonage at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Ambler. Together with Christine Djalleta, they serve as the “music ministers” for the church, playing every Sunday. Every third Sunday they include Tyrone Brown for a jazz and gospel-flavored service.

Holton first came to the church around 2002 to play piano for gospel singer Barbara Jackson. He and LeBlanc had been looking around for a church to attend, investigating Quaker meeting houses and Unitarian Universalist congregations. “We wanted to find a church that was accepting of all people, not an exclusive country club. We wanted a church that was diverse.”

They heard the answers they wanted to hear from Rev. Dr. Sandra Ellis-Killian of St. John’s, and they began attending regularly, which culminated in their being asked to become music ministers.

Playing music at the church lets Holton share his love and passion for music. “I’m showing folks what I love. I teach people from 7 to 75 years old. I will talk about improvisation, working on harmony or theory, but my main focus is piano and cello.”

On top of playing at the church, teaching students and playing gigs, he has gone back to Temple University full-time to finish his jazz piano performance degree. “I’m going to be a student for the rest of my life,” Holton said, “and keep trying to improve until I die.”

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