Saturday, August 06, 2005

Jazz and The Christian Life

blogging to: Mary Lou's Mass, Mary Lou Williams

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the connections between jazz and gospel, and exploring the idea of jazz as a way of thinking, living and viewing one's life with Christ.

A couple of years ago, at a reading/signing of his book, This Far By Faith, Juan Williams described the way African-American Christians express their faith as "jazz-like," and that made perfect sense to me (My friend and colleague Ed Gilbreath discusses this idea with Williams in this interview.). It was one of those moments where things just clicked. And when I kind of wished that I'd thought of that Grand Idea first, but I was also glad it's out there to explore.

Since then, that idea has been simmering in my mind. I know I've got some thoughts developing along these lines, and I'm trying to be patient as they cohere. John Coltrane said it this way: "When there's something you don't understand, you have to go humbly to it. You don't go to school and sit down and say, 'I know what you're getting ready to teach me.' You sit down there and you learn. You open your mind. You absorb. But you have to be quiet, you have to be still, to do all this.' (quoted in Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church)

I can't be that still, though. So I'm doing some reading in the meantime--most of the time, that's as close as I get to stillness. Here are some of the interesting things I'm discovering along the way:

Musician and Presbyterian Minister Bill Carter on joining theology and jazz:

"I've always been concerned about integrating the various pieces of my life, especially since I was called to ministry. The Reformed tradition speaks strongly to the head, the intellectual part of who I am. It's very text-oriented. But when we smashed our statues and took the arts out of our churches during the Reformation, we lost something. Theoretical truth must also be embodied. . .Jazz and other new, non-traditional forms of liturgical music join the text of the Scripture and the church's historic confessions with the tune of human experience."

In this article, Carter goes on to compare the process of learning jazz from the greats to studying under great preachers who combine the historic confessions with human experience. He also talks about understanding spriritual gifts, using jazz in worship, and his desire to "talk together about the whole business fo integration between tradition and innovation, between Scripture and experience, between text and tune . . .for me, jazz is a model of how to do that. I thought for so long that there was a clear line between the secular and the sacred; but now I believe that if the whole earth is really the Lord's, no experience is outside the sacred."

Here, Carter describes additional parallels between jazz, life and faith:

"The act of playing jazz, like daily life, is an informed risk," Carter says. "Improvisation happens through nimble fingers, serious training in music theory and form, and a willingness to jump into uncharted territory. It takes disciplined, technical preparation to play this music, and it also requires the freedom to take enormous risks. You work hard to lift the music from the page and release it into the air."

"Yet there is always a safety net of grace," he adds. "If a musician hits a sour note or flubs a rhythm, it cannot be replayed, only forgiven. There will be another opportunity to play better notes on another day. These basic characteristics of jazz make it particularly congenial to the life of Christian faith."

What a feast for thought!

Nelson Boschman elaborates on the idea of a theology of jazz in Christian worship in this paper. You'll need Acrobat to read it, and you can download that here. The paper itself is a lovely work, and the bibliography is a great list of resources to study and digest for yourself.

More Information/Other Resources:

Swing a New Song to the Lord: Resources for Jazz Worship. This well-titled jazz hymnal is a great starting place for music ministers who want to integrate jazz music into their worship services.

Here's a link to Bill Carter's blog.

St. Peter's Church in NYC is known for its jazz ministry, which includes jazz vespers every Sunday at 5 p.m. Here's an article about the history of the church's jazz ministry, and it mentions October's Jazz and the Church Conference.

Ann Pederson's God, Creation, and All That Jazz: A Process of Composition and Improvisation explores some of the ideas we're talking about here.

Dr. Kirk Jones teaches a course at Andover Newton Theological School that explores "the jazz of preaching." Last year, he published a book by that title, and you can hear him read an excerpt of it here.

Rejoicensemble, an acappella group, explores the idea of Sacred Jazz on the group's website and on a recent CD, Strong and Graceful Oaks.

1 comment:

Bruce said...

Thank you, Gospel Gal. This is helpful.

I've never attended, but Harvard Square has a church that has a jazz service, so says the sign in their front yard.