A photo journey of Craig’s early musical life
A popular mainstream artist with his own jazz group and with the successful rock band, “Honk!”, as well as an in demand Christian music minister, Craig Buhler’s mastery with wind instruments has garnered for him a reputation as one of the Pacific Northwest’s premiere artists – a label he quickly denounces.
“My music is a gift from God,” he says. “Since it’s from Him, it’s for His glory, not mine. Music is intended as a tool to advance the Kingdom of Jesus, not for ‘the cause of Craig Buhler.’ Whatever musical expertise I have, I know God gave it to me for the benefit of others. I get great satisfaction in knowing that my music pleases someone, but I get more fulfillment realizing that it has helped someone come to know and love Jesus.”
Can a Person Do Both?
Some would say, however, that Buhler is compromising. After all, he plays both Christian AND jazz music and enjoys a solid reputation with both Christian and jazz musicians.
Can a person do both? Buhler philosophizes. “What makes music (especially instrumental jazz) ‘Christian’?” he asks. “J.S. Bach’s work was commissioned by the church – that’s how he made his living. In fact, that’s how most composers up until about 1700 made their livings. After the Reformation, the secular nobility gained greater influence, and the great composers were hired by them. But many of these musicians were still Christians, and their music still radiates the love of Christ.”
“I try, with everything in me, to glorify God with every note … regardless of what band I’m playing with or what sort of audience is before us.”
Buhler grew up in Newport Beach, California, becoming a professional musician at the wise old age of 13. His first clarinet ‘gig’ was with “The Downbeats” serving up New Orleans Dixieland at school dances and luaus. From there, Craig took up saxophones and contracted surf fever with “The Viscaynes.” But R&B grabbed his ear, and he joined “Yes Indeed,” playing Hollywood’s hottest haunts – like the Whiskey a Go Go – and recording with “Jackson 5” engineer David Hassenger.
While majoring in musical composition at the University of Redlands and UCLA, Craig gained a deep appreciation for such diverse forms as Gregorian chant, baroque organ music, Twentieth Century twelve tone, and serious electronic music.
It was during the UCLA years that Craig was profoundly impacted by the strong, resonant tone of his saxophone teacher William Green. Mr. Green was a virtuoso woodwind player who, while running from studio to studio participating in many of the major motion picture soundtracks of the 60’s still found time to offer weekly lessons to LA’s young musicians for a whopping $8.00 per hour
Two years on the road with a top-40 group called “Shepherd” constituted a “musical boot camp”. They travelled the West Coast, playing 2 weeks in Phoenix, 4 weeks in Boise, to service men and secretaries seeking friendship in back alley taverns.
However, it was joining the Laguna Beach based “Honk!” band that gave Buhler a taste of the success and recognition that were waiting for him. “We really hit it off,” he remembers. “We toured nationally with ‘the Beach Boys’ and other major acts and headlined all over California and in Hawaii. My musicianship got more professional, and my mind focused completely on music. In the past twenty plus years, ‘HONK!’ has released four albums (for Epic Records, Twentieth Century Records, and Restless Records), and we continue to play 1 or 2 concerts per year.”
“Honk!” was just the spring board Buhler needed. He recorded with several California bands, and spent 4 years working with the jazz group “Storyville.” In 1979, he recorded and toured internationally with Ian Matthews. But it wasn’t until 1982 that he discovered God’s plan for his talent.
“I had attended Episcopalian grammar school,” he says. “I studied the Bible and sang in church choir throughout high school. But Christ touched my heart in ‘82 in a way that previous ‘head knowledge’ had only hinted at. Jesus gave me a direction and a purpose I had sought after my whole life. Since then, He has been teaching me about vision – that inner sense of His purpose for ones life and ministry.”
Peaks and Valleys
As with most artists turned Christian, Buhler went through a series of peaks and valleys in his career – some that shook the foundations of his faith. The valleys taught him. “For one thing, you learn trust,” he mentions of the lean times. “Those hard places have given me humility and fear of the Lord. Prayer has become a lifestyle, whether I’m on top or hovering just off the ground. Prayer is what a Christian does – it’s what his life is about. I used to be cocky – but God has a way of humbling one. An interesting paradox is that when God humbles a person, He does it not to tear down but to build character.”
And what if lean times plague him again? He shrugs. “The Bible says we must decrease if Christ is to increase. It also counsels us that if we seek God’s kingdom first, everything we need will be added to us. A full commitment to Him influences the way you react to trials and how you use them for the glory of God. Jesus said that in this life, we’ll have tribulation, but he also said not to fear, because He has overcome the world. What else could you possibly need?”
In keeping with his total dependence on God, Buhler recorded his first solo C.D., “Peace Like A River,” which gave a foretaste of his ministry side. With songs like “Abba Father,” he reached out to those who have lost their earthly fathers, telling of a Heavenly Father who loves us and wants to embrace us. And tunes like “Fixed On You” addressed discouragement, despair and depression with the promise that fixing our mind and eyes on God will see us through our calamities. The album, which was critically acclaimed, garnered lots of regional airplay, and gave Buhler the reputation of being not only an exceptional musician, but also a gifted arranger, producer, and songwriter.
“My initial motivation for writing songs was to help me memorize and immerse myself in God’s Word, so all the lyrics in those early songs came from Scripture.”
Ministry on the Road
“I led a 5-piece band which traveled to Washington State churches for 3 years, and it was a great experience. However, the band tended to isolate me from the local church family, and building lasting relationships is really central to this ministry. So now Molly [Craig’s wife] and I lodge with church members wherever we go, and I use the local worship team as my band. Hopefully, Molly and I can minister to them, and we are definitely blessed in the process.
“Our attitude is that we are guests in our hosts’ church home. Accordingly, we try to show respect for the customs and values which they value. As Christians, we are called on not to ‘argue about disputable matters,’ but to stick to the basics: the Lordship of Christ and the authority of His Word.”
Tools of the Trade
Among his arsenal of wind instruments are soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones, clarinet, harmonicas, and flute. Listeners take notice when Craig plays 2 saxes at once!
In addition to regional concerts, Craig travels with other Christian artists and has ministered at conferences in Germany, Canada, and throughout the U.S.
With the Clouds of Heaven
His second solo C.D., “Clouds of Heaven,” has received radio play on several stations. “The emphasis is on encouraging the discouraged. I also try to resist the trend toward isolation and alienation – promoting unity within the Church and a renewal of marriage vows and family commitments. ‘A cord of several strands is not easily broken’.”
The “Total Immersion” Worship Seminar
In addition to recordings, touring, and a commitment to his home church, he has developed a workshop for worship musicians. “I call the 2-day seminar ‘Total Immersion,’ because I believe that worship is too important for us merely to wade around in it. When a musician gives his life to Christ and decides to serve Him through music, he becomes hungry for more knowledge, direction, and a clear vision.”
The seminar focuses on the five major relational challenges faced by a worshipping musician – learning to listen to God, developing communication & teamwork skills, musical expertise, ministry, and capturing the spirit of a worship song.
Jazz For Youth
Recently, Craig has begun to bring jazz to school children. “Of course, we are not allowed to preach Jesus in the public schools. However, I seek to present the young people with a positive adult male role model, a thing which some of them have never experienced and which all children need.”
Teaching in Christian Schools
In September 1997, Craig dawned yet another hat, this time as a science and band teacher at local Christian schools. “I need to stay in touch with today’s young people. Hopefully, I can be a positive adult role model to them, while, at the same time, learning many important lessons from them.
“After a year in the classroom, I realized that the most effective way for me to reach young people is one-on-one. Accordingly, I am now teaching woodwinds privately, and I love it! Private instruction is the best vehicle for me to mentor and encourage aspiring musicians.”
Musician, singer, producer, writer, and teacher – Craig Buhler has been given the tools to build an enduring ministry. But he continually eschews the values of the world as his focus echoes the sentiments of celebrated hymn writer, Charles Wesley – “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise.”