What the church can learn from jazz

What the church can learn from jazz

A note from Jamie Howison: Here’s the text of a sermon preached at Winnipeg’s Fort Garry Mennonite Fellowship on Sunday April 23, 2017. The congregation set the whole morning as a jazz liturgy, with all of the music led by a very fine quartet led by saxophonist Scott Kroeker. Also playing were Steve Hamilton on bass, Bryan Harder on piano, and Rob Siwik on drums. 

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I’m sure that many of you would not say that you’re particularly big jazz fans, and in fact maybe some of you aren’t convinced that you much understand or even really like jazz music. What I’m hoping to do this morning is to give you three points of entry, through which you might find yourself at least appreciating the music and its traditions, even if you don’t immediately rush off to McNally’s this afternoon to scoop up a handful of recordings by John Coltrane. I’m framing these three points of entry in terms of what the church—the Body of Christ—could stand to learn from jazz; some things about collaborative trust, about mentoring, and about how music has the potential to enact theological wisdom—how it has the potential to help us say things or see things or pray things in ways that words alone cannot.

To be honest, the non-jazz people here are the easy sell… so to speak. It is the serious and committed jazz fans that make me vaguely uneasy, because we’re all terribly opinionated and tend to root those opinions in a real knowledge of the music and its history and traditions. I’ll be offering some examples and observations, fully aware that some jazz person will be thinking, “oh sure, but what about X or Y or Z?” What is it that line? Reprove with love. Emphasis on love, please… charitable and gracious and tolerant.

Jazz music is both improvisational and collaborative, with both being anchored in a basic trust of the other members of the ensemble. Each musician needs to be able to trust that all the others know the piece that is being played, whether a standard or an original composition. You have to be able to trust enough to let go and improvise, and to do that without a net, so to speak; without a fear that the others in the ensemble won’t be able to go where you need them to go.

In reflecting on his work with the Wayne Shorter Quartet, the bass player John Patitucci spoke to me of how an improvisational piece begins to build through risk-taking and a shared willingness to trust the other members of the band. “In the Wayne Shorter Quartet,” he said,

You’re dealing with people who are all composers and who are also, because of the way Wayne likes to do things, group-oriented as opposed to just individually driven. And we take chances, completely. 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. I’m speaking of myself too. It is easy for me to do it on the bandstand somehow. Sometimes you’re playing and all these things are happening, and you’re like “Well, that’s God.”

Patitucci is essentially saying that intuitively the Wayne Shorter Quartet knows something that church communities could stand to learn. Such learning would require a willingness to risk moving out of individualistic self-orientation in order to be reoriented toward the other. And as he stresses, the “other” is not merely the other members of the band—the church community, so to speak—because in jazz this other-orientation also “spills right into the audience,” or into the neighborhood in which that church community is practicing its risky yet trustful life.

Similarly, the great jazz drummer Art Blakey was fond of telling his audiences that jazz was the only music that came directly “from the Creator, through us, to you.” One of the truly notable things about Art Blakey is that for decades his band—the Jazz Messengers—was comprised of young players, just beginning to really come into their own. When one moved on, they’d be replaced by another young musician, with Blakey serving as a mentor to young musicians serving a kind of apprenticeship. The Jazz Messengers were really a school; both a school of music, but also a school of life.

There’s something in that that is very important for church communities to remember. When we look at our children and young people and begin to ask questions of Christian education and formation, what we should do next is to look at the elders and leaders in our church, and ask “what will it take for this young person to be like that elder—that leader—in twenty years or forty years or sixty years?” How can we do for them what Art Blakey did for the likes of Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, and Terence Blanchard?

In the late 1940s when he was still in his teens, the saxophonist Jackie McLean was befriended by the great bebop pianist Bud Powell. McLean spent countless hours in Powell’s home in Harlem, talking with him, listening to him practice, and even playing with him. It wasn’t long before Powell invited McLean to sit in with his band at the legendary Birdland, one of New York’s premiere jazz clubs. Powell also introduced the young sax player to Miles Davis, and at the age of nineteen Jackie McLean appeared on the Davis album, Dig. “I think that my concept and my development accelerated fast,” McLean later reflected, “because I was in Bud’s company and I heard him play so much, and the music was going right into my mental computer—into my brain—and I think that helped me to develop very fast.”

Now, move ahead into the early 1990s, when a young sax player named Jimmy Greene was studying under Jackie McLean at the University of Hartford. “Once I met Jackie,” Greene commented, “it was full steam ahead! Every time I talk about the saxophone or talk about jazz music or play jazz, I always think of Jackie.” Recognizing some real talent in the young Jimmy Greene, McLean took him under his wing, and it wasn’t long before he was taking Greene to New York City to sit in with his band at their shows at the Village Vanguard.

Now move ahead to January 2012, to a Jimmy Greene concert at Winnipeg’s Park Theatre, in which this now very established musician and educator was showcasing some new material. Midway through the show, Greene invited two of his own students from the University of Manitoba Jazz Studies program (where he was then teaching) to join him on stage. Though these two were not nearly of the caliber of their teacher, he made room for them on the stage, giving to each extended solo time. We in the audience approved…

And of course they weren’t of his caliber; he’d not been up to Jackie McLean’s level when he was invited to sit in at the Vanguard, and McLean was not at Bud Powell’s level during that debut at Birdland. But that’s part of what it means to be mentored; to be shaped by someone who has experience, and who can teach something of what it means to risk, to trust, and ultimately to soar. Frankly, we need to learn from that.

And I believe we can stand to learn some things about how music—improvisational, collaborative jazz music for sure, but not only that—how music can help us to say things and see things that words alone cannot. There’s a saying attributed to St Augustine, that “the one who sings, prays twice,” and that’s certainly part of it. It is one thing to read off the words of a song or a hymn, but to really sing them? That’s something different, which comes as much from the heart and the body as it does from the head.

Now music doesn’t need to have lyrics to be able to speak, and that is certainly true of jazz. Instrumental music does have the capacity to speak; maybe something joyous, or something sorrowful, or something deeply grateful, or maybe even something angry. You hear it, you feel it, and at a level that can go much deeper than words alone. The theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie has spent years working to get the church to embrace what he calls “theology through the arts.” What can that painting, that dance piece, that musical composition say about God that theology—theo-logos, or “words about God”—might not quite be able to say?

This is something of which John Coltrane was profoundly aware, and we will have a taste of his unique approach when this morning’s quartet plays the piece “Psalm.” Coltrane had in front of him a written text—a poem/prayer called “A Love Supreme”—which he “spoke” on his saxophone. He did this on other pieces as well, though this is the only one for which he actually provided the written text. It is a prayer of deep gratitude for grace and mercy; it is an expression of the fullness of God’s presence, and of God’s relentless faithfulness to an often lost and straying humanity. It is the fourth and final movement in a recording called “A Love Supreme,” which chronicles, in music, John Coltrane’s own spiritual path. Recorded late in 1964, the suite looks back on Coltrane’s 1957 experience of kicking twin addictions to heroin and alcohol. Parts 1 and 2 of the suite—“Acknowledgement” and “Resolution”—speak to his acknowledgement of the grace he’d received to beat those addictions, and then to his resolution to live under grace and keep his life on track.

And so he wrote in the liner notes to the record:

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.

But then he continues,

As time and events moved on, a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered into a phase which was contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path; but thankfully, now and again through the unerring and merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of His OMNIPOTENCE, and of our need for, and dependence on Him.

Did you catch those phrases, about “a period of irresolution” and “a phase which was contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path?” That what the third part of the suite addresses; a piece called “Pursuance.” That’s not a reference to Coltrane pursuing God, but rather of God relentlessly pursuing Coltrane; chasing him down, waking him up, pressing him hard… and bringing him home.

At this time I would like to tell you that NO MATTER WHAT … IT IS WITH GOD. HE IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL. HIS WAY IS IN LOVE, THROUGH WHICH WE ALL ARE. IT IS TRULY – A LOVE SUPREME – .

And that is what the closing movement he calls “Psalm” is all about: God’s Love Supreme. And here’s the thing. The prose of the liner notes and the poetry of his prayer text are not particularly good or gripping writing. It can be a bit clunky, in fact, in spite of the truth in those words. But when he put that saxophone to his mouth and played his message? Well, clunky is about the last word you’d ever use.

And that’s the third thing the church can stand to learn from this musical tradition. Words aren’t the only way to express what is going on, and in fact prose alone can sometimes back us into corners in which we become overly rationalistic and without deeper imaginations. But with a saxophone or maybe a paintbrush? With the movement of dance or the rich imagery of poetry? Our imaginations can be freed again.

When you leave here today, you may not find yourself any more taken by jazz than you were when you arrived. And that’s fine. But I do hope you hold those three things—the place of collaborative trust, the richness of mentoring, and the potential of the arts to help us say things or see things or pray things with truth and imagination—and hold them as teachings and challenges and reminders for the life of the church community here. “NO MATTER WHAT … IT IS WITH GOD. IT IS TRULY – A LOVE SUPREME – .”

Jamie Howison

One Response to What the church can learn from jazz

  1. Maureen says:

    Thank for this message and insight. I just came home from my Renaissance Voices choir rehearsal and relate to the collaborative trust idea in building up our community and touching deeper communication with Spirit.
    Loved listening to Coltrane’s ‘Psalm’ never heard it before – thank you.

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