Improvisation as an act of faith | a jazz sermon

Improvisation as an act of faith | a jazz sermon

A note from Jamie Howison: This sermon was preached in the context of the annual jazz mass held at the Cathedral Church of St James, Toronto. Thanks to Mike Janzen for staying at the piano and acting as my co-preacher. To listen to some samples of the music from the liturgy, featuring the Mike Janzen Trio and the cathedral choir, simply click here.

T he great jazz drummer Art Blakey was fond of telling the young musicians he mentored that jazz was the only music that came from the Creator through the musicians directly to the audience. For Blakey, the art of creative improvisation was clearly more than a demonstration of musical inventiveness or technical ability, as it enacted something deeper and truer, offered in and through the One in whom “we live and move and have our being.” Similarly, reflecting on his work with the Wayne Shorter Quartet, the bass player John Patitucci observed, “I’d have to say that in all my life… that’s the closest I’ve ever felt to feeling the divine power of God.”

“We start from nothing and improvise music that is tonal, lyrical, and contrapuntal. And then anybody can cue one of Wayne’s pieces, and we go in. You’ll start from nothing and think ‘Wow, I don’t really have anything tonight,’ and somebody will do something and you’ll think, ‘wait a minute.’ And then it’s a big journey. I call it the ultimate microcosm of what Christian community would be if people would just be willing to take chances, and get out of the comfort zone and be that other-oriented.”

“[T]he ultimate microcosm of what Christian community would be” if we’d only take chances, move out of our comfort zones, and be other-oriented. That’s quite a claim, but I honestly think that John Patitucci is on to something here, and so this morning I’m going to speak about improvisation as an act of faith.

  • To listen to this sermon, simply click the arrow:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


Let me be clear that while it does have a deep tap-root in the spirituals of the African-American church, I’m not trying to claim jazz as being a specifically Christian music. Yes, John Patitucci is a Christian, yet Art Blakey was a Muslim, Wayne Shorter identifies as a Buddhist, and many jazz musicians would claim no religious belief at all. Rather I am picking up on the work of the theologian Jeremy Begbie, who claims that music has the potential to “enact theological wisdom” in a way that words alone cannot. And for Begbie, when it comes to improvisational music a good deal of that wisdom has to do with the creative tension between freedom and constraint.

Begbie suggests that, “Improvisation provides a powerful enactment of the truth that our freedom is enabled to flourish only by engaging with and negotiating constraints.” These constraints can be musical—in jazz, such things as metre and harmonic sequence—or occasional—the performance space, for instance, but also the presence and participation of an audience. In his view, the freedom to improvise, even in the most adventurous of ways, assumes a clear set of constraints or boundaries, including a starting point within the tradition. What Begbie is pointing to is the age-old distinction between freedom from and freedom for. A freedom for assumes a starting point and parameters, and while the boundaries might be stretched to the point of breaking, they never quite do. Instead there is a recapitulation of things known, in a way both utterly new and utterly liberating. Raw freedom from constraint, on the other hand, offers little more than an oftentimes-debilitating license that is ultimately no freedom at all.

One of the most dazzling images of improvisational jazz as being liberated through constraint—as being an expression of “freedom for”—was offered to me by the Canadian singer-songwriter Steve Bell. Steve was working alongside Mike Janzen, proofreading scored arrangements of a set of his songs that Mike had prepared. I’ve asked Mike to settle in at the piano, and give you a sample of a fairly straightforward arrangement of one of Steve’s songs.

(Here Mike played an excerpt of the song, “Dark Night of the Soul”)

But you know, having spent hours at their task, the two of them were getting bit giddy, and out of nowhere Mike broke into a kind of “lounge lizard” version of the song, leaving Steve in stitches.

(A sample of a very overwrought version of “Dark Night” was played)

And then it happened. Bell writes of how Janzen’s demeanor suddenly changed, and instead of merely playing around with the song he was suddenly playing it… Differently. Deeply.

“It was like a ball suddenly bounced in front of him and he was helpless but to chase it. I was mesmerized to hear my simple song flame out and become something almost entirely “other” but because I knew the song so intimately, no matter how “outside” the improvisation became, my ear never lost reference to the melody and structure Mike’s imagination was leaping off of.”

 (And here, Mike offered a truly adventurous improvisational version of the song)

“And that’s when I suddenly saw it,” Steve writes,

“[T]he burning bush of Moses in the Sinai desert; a desert vast, rugged and barren but for this curious sight. I could see the solitary Moses standing motionless, staggered completely by what he saw. I could see the glory of the blaze, ferociously surging skyward creating dizzying heat waves against the pale blue. Interior to the fire, obscured by flame but not lost to sight, was the bush itself with its sturdy centre stem, black branches like a menorah and green leaves fluttering furiously in the energy. It remained entirely intact and unconsumed yet absolutely on fire.”

Jazz as the burning bush, which sometimes flames so brightly that it is all but impossible to see the unconsumed melodic core that remains intact at its centre. It is an extraordinary image, in part because it pictures how the trunk and the parameters remain intact, allowing the improvisation to reach such a pitch that it seems to consume the centre. Yet somehow it doesn’t. And it isn’t just the melodic centre of a particular piece of music that remains intact; it is the rooted tradition itself, which is at once set alight and yet still somehow there.

Now, in this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we heard the words, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) Do not, in other words, forsake the true freedom given you by Christ for the sake of mere license. And so as the letter continues, Paul writes,

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14)

Paul here is working with a central Christian paradox: that being truly free can only be expressed in becoming, through love, slaves to one another; that true freedom in Christ is a freedom for; boundaried or—to use Begbie’s term—constrained, and worked out in the context of community and relationship. Though I might not get away with calling St. Paul a jazz man, at the moments when his prose is soaring and he’s positively rhapsodizing over the mystery of the cross, his improvisational edge allows him to bring the tradition forward in unexpected and startling new ways.

“The Incarnation is God’s great improvisational act,” claims the musician and theologian William Edgar, to which I’d add that I see the life and ministry of Jesus Christ as being shot through with improvisational brilliance. We had just a glimpse of that in today’s gospel, which is rightly read alongside of the text from 1st Kings. Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem”—which is another way of saying that he is willfully walking toward the crisis and culmination of his ministry—and he’s approached by three people looking to join his movement. To the first he issues that famous warning, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” and to the second those hard words, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” The third potential follower says, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home,” which seems a not unreasonable request. In fact, in that reading from 1st Kings we heard how Elisha had requested he be allowed to go home to “kiss my father and my mother” before following the prophet Elijah; a request readily granted by the prophet. Yet what was Jesus’ response to that same question? “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Seriously? Wouldn’t Jesus have known the story of Elijah and Elisha, and if so wouldn’t he have been moved to extend the same kindness? I am quite convinced Jesus did know that story, and that what he is doing here is an improvisational take on that tradition. Elisha was ploughing a field when Elijah called him, and his final act before leaving home was to slaughter his oxen, use the wooden yoke as fuel for a fire, and roast a great meal for the community he was about to leave. Jesus, meanwhile, takes the man’s request that he be allowed to go home to bid farewell to his family, and responds by drawing on the image of ploughing as a way of indicating that for all the significance of Elijah’s calling of Elisha—for all that it was a call made in a time of crisis—to follow Jesus to Jerusalem at this point in his ministry will be even more demanding. Elisha was given the time and space to close a chapter of his former life, symbolized by burning the yoke and roasting the ox meat. The one who wanted to follow Jesus was going to have to accept a new yoke, and needed to be clear that once accepted he could not look back; could not risk wavering in face of the impending crisis.

In the same way, Jesus takes the teachings of the tradition—“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement’”—and without in any way rejecting that tradition he intensifies its “sound”: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, (or insult them or call them a fool…) you will be liable to judgement.” (Mt. 5:21-22) When a lawyer asks what amounts to a technical question—“who is my neighbour?”—Jesus answers out of left field with story about a good Samaritan. When he comes under fire from the old guard for “welcoming sinners and eating with them,” he tells stories about a lost sheep, lost coins, and a lost son. He meets the questions of conventional religious practice by telling these parables; parables that actually enact the deep tradition of the law and the prophets, yet in fresh, new ways.

His greatest improvisational act, though, is one that we will remember and re-enact this morning. It was while observing the Passover meal with his followers—a meal in which the sharing of food and the telling of the key story of the tradition are woven together in a vivid way—that Jesus made this astonishing move. He took the Passover bread and wine, said the words of blessing, gave them to his followers to eat and drink, and as they did he spoke of the bread as being his body, the cup as his blood. He re-narrated those symbols, in other words, setting the imagery of Passover in a whole new light. The ancient story-meal becomes a new story-meal, yet rather than casting aside the ancient story it forever stands as the sub-text for the new one. As we move forward this morning to receive the bread and wine of Eucharist, we are located in the long and deep story of the tradition; remembering not only the last supper and Jesus’ presence to us through bread and wine, but also being claimed as God’s people, freed from bondage in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea, carried into the austerity of the Sinai desert and on into the land of promise. Jesus’ masterful improvisational take on Passover makes the story in its entirety our story.

Back for a minute to John Patitucci calling his experiences with the Wayne Shorter Quartet a taste of “what Christian community would be if people would just be willing to take chances, get out of the comfort zone and be other-oriented.” A big part of what Patitucci is pointing to is trust—“The most trust I’ve ever experienced” is how he described it in the same conversation—because to be that “other-oriented” and willing to risk requires a foundational level of trust. Trust is similarly foundational in the life of the Christian church; that we trust that we are numbered among the beloved of God, and are embraced as such in this Eucharistic feast; that we do have gifts and abilities to offer, and can risk not only sharing those but also receiving the gifts—and trust—of others; and that as an assembly of the one Body of Christ, we stand rooted in the great tradition, such that when the Spirit of God begins to burn in our midst, we are—like the One in whose image we are made—“entirely intact and unconsumed, yet absolutely on fire.”

*     *     *     *     *