Friday, February 20, 2009

Jazz Spirituality -- Reflections on a Theme


I love jazz! I'm listening to Coltrane and Monk as I write. It is an idiom that is dynamic and innovative. It takes from the past and reinvents it. Coltrane, Monk, Davis, Rollins, Brubeck, Desmond, just to name a few who have blessed us with music that is unforgettable and challenging.

This morning I spent time with my minister of music -- who is a master of the organ and the piano, and willing to go where the Spirit is leading us as a congregation -- and the representative of a company that builds and rebuilds pipe organs. Our organ, which dates back to 1928, though only the console and half the ranks of pipes remains from what was one of the grand church organs of Detroit. It is in need of something to be determined. Our hope (our minister of music and me) is that what emerges from this effort is an instrument that is versatile enough that it will support a truly modern or contemporary worship -- not contemporary in the sense of a praise band (though I'm not averse to having one) but a worship that is expansive enough that we can include and embrace the full spectrum of musical expression. One of those expressions I do hope to include is jazz -- in part because I love jazz, but also because it offers so much to us.

In a brief essay for the Transforming Theology blog, Thomas Reynolds of Emmanuel College, Toronto, reflects on jazz and spirituality. He explores the dimensions of jazz and the way in which it can enliven and enrich not only worship but the very theological efforts that we undertake together. He suggests three dimensions of jazz that can open up theology and transform it.

In the first place he suggests that jazz is "it is dynamic, restless and searching." Dynamism -- yes -- after all the word dynamism derives from the Greek for power. There is power in jazz, and its a power that allows us to break free of convention: "the musician deliberately seeks to break free from constraining mechanisms in order to pry open a passageway to something more, to new forms of variation and novelty."

Secondly, he suggests that jazz has a "relational content." Yes, the jazz soloist is an individual, but that individual needs the rest of the band to accomplish this effort.

While the improviser gives voice to his or her own unique interpretation of the music, this is only possible in the incubator of what drummer Art Taylor calls “the jazz brotherhood.”4 Like Christianity and other spiritual heritages, jazz has its tradition. A collective consciousness indwells the jazz musician.


Finally, jazz has a sense of "openness." It requires letting go, letting things happen as they will, even if that means making mistakes (and then integrating the mistakes).

Such letting go entails risk, and thus requires courage. For things could become undone; mistakes could be made. But the improviser moves forward nonetheless, perhaps even transforming mistakes into new possibilities. Space for error is required if space for creative advancement is also to exist.


Yes, there is need for decency and order in worship -- as Paul would have it -- but there is also a need for some rhythm and some blues and some joy and some syncopation. Yes, there is a place for jazz in our spirituality -- if only we're open to the journey!

2 comments:

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kimberly said...

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