A Conversation Between Jazz and the Gospel
By Rev. Dr. Marcia Sietstra
I have to say how much I love having the Doc Walker Jazz Trio here to play for worship today! Jazz Sundays have always had a special energy in our worship services. A bit of trivia: our congregation had its first jazz service 19 years ago in Oct. 2000. It was the first jazz worship service ever played in Sioux Falls. It came about because I had attended a worship service in Atlanta, GA, led by a Presbyterian preacher named Bill Carter, who played jazz piano in the Presbybop Jazz Ensemble. So I need to give Bill Carter credit for introducing me to a conversation between jazz and the Gospel, and some of the ideas expressed here.
First, what is jazz, and what distinguishes it from other music? Doc, can you give me the quick answer to the question: what makes jazz different from other music?
- Jazz is music usually based on a framework or skeleton which the musician uses as a starting point for improvisation.
- Syncopation, rhythm and harmony changes (substitutions) are used to embellish original melodies based on the framework. The improv is hardly ever played the same way twice.
- Jazz started in the mid 1800’s with work songs and shouts (call and response) followed closely by spirituals. Also called gospel. Development began in New Orleans with marching bands and ragtime bands. Ragtime is based on the framework of the march. (John Phillips Sousa)
- Jazz has undergone many evolutional changes from ragtime to rhythm and blues, jazz rock fusion, bebop, model jazz, Latin, free jazz and modern jazz.
So, just to recap: Jazz often starts with an old song, which could be a sacred song or a ragtime or blues melody, and then you change it up by improvising on that song. The chords of the song guide which notes you can play, but not when or in what order. That means most of jazz is made up on the spot! It must take an enormous amount of practice and listening to the players around you to do it well.
I’ve learned to listen for a pattern you can hear in jazz, it’s the “call and response” pattern. It likely started in the old slave songs in which one person in the field would sing out something like, “I’m goin’ to heaven.” And then the other slaves would respond, “I’m goin’ with you.”
My husband’s nephew whose first name is Christian, is a jazz drummer. He’s actually studying to be an eye doctor but his real passion is jazz. Christian was explaining this “call and response” to me. He said, one musician might play a riff—an improvised series of notes. Then another player will recognize it and play it back, but might change it up a little. Then a third musician might pick it up and do something else with that first riff. It’s a musical conversation. And then Christian told me a story about something amazing that happened on an Augustana band trip a few years ago.
The band had stopped for the night in a Chinese town called Wuhan, and a small group of students took a walk to explore the area around their hotel. It was kind of a dreary town, not much happening—a few restaurants, a couple street venders, but not much else…until they discovered a tiny jazz bar. It had only a few tables and a small stage with a guitar, a bass, and a drum set. The owner didn’t speak English and the kids didn’t know Mandarin. But by using gestures, the students convinced him to let them play the instruments. Before the night was over, he invited them to come back the next night when his band would be playing.
The next night the gig started with the owner’s band playing a few tunes. Then it was the Augie students’ turn. After a couple of charts, the students motioned the Chinese band back on stage to all play together. In the middle of one of the tunes, Christian—playing drums—had an idea: he wanted to try something called “trading fours.” Trading fours is a jazz technique where the musicians trade four measure solos with the drummer. But Christian couldn’t speak Mandarin, so he simply raised four fingers into the air to see what would happen. He said, “The second I put my hand up, all the musician gave a reassuring nod and they all started to trade four measures of solos! It was one of the most exciting performances I’ve ever been part of!” he said.
Pretty amazing when you think about it, musicians unable to speak each other’s language but able to improvise on a variety of familiar tunes and make new music on the spot!
Analogy To Christian Living: Life as Improvisation
It seems to me that the Christian life has a lot in common with playing jazz. We too are improvising on old songs in a manner of speaking. Indeed, ethical living is improvisation on a text—this one! [holding up the Bible].
These are the old songs and stories our Sunday School teachers taught us. But they cannot be expected to function as a rulebook for every situation in life. So we build on the structure of moral values that come from the core of these stories. We look most of all to the teachings of Jesus in texts like the Sermon on the Mount that I read earlier.
In the gospel stories about Jesus, one finds the clear guiding values of mercy, justice and compassion. These provide our structure for life. But the task in every generation is to take those values across the bridge of time and apply them in our time and circumstances. I like the way Bill Carter explains it; he says: Each of us is, in a sense, composing our own life-song and story as we go—building on a foundation of inherited values, adding the particularities of our own life and offering the life we live to God.
Like jazz, Christian living is an informed risk, an act of faith. Let me give you an example.
Early in my career, I was asked to come to the hospital where a group of adult siblings had gathered around the bedside of their dying father, who had been on kidney dialysis for a long time. Other major organs were beginning to shut down. The adult children were trying to decide if they should ask the doctors to use all means of artificial life support. In a meeting with all the doctors treating him, the family asked important questions, including: What did dad want? Is there any chance of recovery? We talked together after the doctors left. Obviously the Bible doesn’t give us clear direction on using artificial life support, but it does give us a moral framework. Jesus taught us to value life, but also to do the most loving thing we can in our situation. In this case, the family decided that the most compassionate thing to do was not to continue artificial life support, but to let dad go.
Context matters. In another situation involving artificial life support a different decision might have been reached. But I was grateful that day that this family could use the deep moral values they learned growing up in this congregation, and that they could rely on that foundation to guide their decision, even though they were, in a sense, improvising because the Bible was written long before artificial life support existed. They were able to act creatively and confidently because they had been practicing those core religious values alongside many of you.
When it comes to music and religion a lot of people want something predictable and orderly and nailed down. Bill Carter says: They prefer God as a classical pianist who plays only the notes that are written down somewhere. Nothing improvised! God follows the script. “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”
And yet, the Bible is itself a record of people of faith reimagining in every generation how to live out the values of compassion and justice. In the Biblical record, the people’s perception of who God is, and what God wants, changed over time. I can’t stress this enough. The people’s perception of who God is, and what God wants, changed over time. It’s called progressive revelation. All these stories about characters leaving their home to follow God to a new place are metaphors for being called to follow God to new patterns for living!
I am reminded of a familiar phrase from Scripture, found all the way from the book of Isaiah to the book of Revelation. It is: “Sing to the Lord a new song.” Each time it appears, the people of God are being summoned to claim a new tune. Like them, we need to trust that the Holy Spirit is active in the world, calling us to love as creatively and responsibly as we can.
The Biblical characters didn’t always get it right; sometimes they got it wrong and had to start again. I’m told jazz musicians sometimes get it wrong too. In fact, Christian told me, “In rehearsal we get lost in the music all the time! I’ll suddenly realize, ‘Oh man, I’ve lost count of where we are!’ And then I’ll look around and realize everyone is lost! So one of us will lightly tap our head, which means ‘Right now–we’re all returning to the head of the count—that is, the beginning of the count—so we’ll get back in sync.’”
No matter how good the training in music theory and form, musicians take enormous risks when they improvise. And so do we. We make mistakes. And while we don’t always get “do over’s” in life, we do have the chance to begin again in the eyes of God: it’s called forgiveness. We believe that the God who loves us enough to create us, loves us enough to want to forgive us as long as we are sincerely trying to do our best.
That’s the Gospel of Grace. So although ethical living is always an informed risk, there is remarkable freedom in the safety net of forgiveness and grace that Jesus revealed to us.
I want to talk to you about one other aspect of jazz music—and music in general—that relates closely to a life of faith. And that is the sensory experience that excellent music can elicit in us. There’s a church in San Francisco called St. John’s African Orthodox Church. By St. John, they mean John Coltrane. It’s a bit surprising to find a church named after a jazz musician. Every Sunday, its members gather in the sanctuary to listen to Coltrane’s jazz. The call to worship might be swing music, and they may pray to the sounds of the blues, because its members believe that the music of jazz brings them into the presence of God.
There are times when music brings us into a sensory experience too big for words. For some, it happens listening to Beethoven or Bach; for others it’s choral music or the blues or some other kind of music. Music can bring us to the realm of mystery that lies beyond words, beyond the rational into the spiritual.
We would be wise to seek out those experiences of divine-human encounter and recognize them as the gifts that they are: moments when you catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life; moments of encounter with the Spirit.
Those are sacramental moments. A sacrament is when something ordinary becomes holy. When a baby is baptized, ordinary water becomes a holy blessing. That’s a sacramental moment.
Sacramental moments happen all over the place, not just in church. Watching a sunset can be a sacramental moment, when something ordinary is just so magnificent you can’t help but sense that God is the artist of that sunset. Walking along a beach can be a sacramental moment when it gives you a sense of being part of something vast and ancient and far more significant than ourselves. A sacramental moment may be at the bedside of a loved one who has just died. These are moments when the veil between the ordinary and the divine seems nearly transparent.
Frederick Buechner says, “If we weren’t blind as bats, we might see that life itself is sacramental. It is saturated with moments of encounter with the mystery we name God.” (published in Beyond Words).
I want to end with a story told to me by a former member of this congregation, a wonderful retired pastor named Lew. Many of you remember Lew; he died in 2007. Lew was highly intelligent, wise, and extremely thoughtful. After church one Sunday, when the jazz musicians had played an old song from the 40’s entitled “Sentimental Journey,” Lew approached me.
I had preached that day about the word “sacrament” and I suggested new words for this old song, turning it from “Sentimental Journey” into “Sacramental Journey” instead. Lew said, “I want to thank you for using Sentimental Journey. Can I tell you about the time I first heard that song?”
“Of course!” I said. Here is what Lew told me. He said…
I first heard that song on board a troop ship at the end of World War II. I was 23 years old and I’d been fighting in Europe for 3 years; I was finally going home. It was very late at night and I was laying on the ship’s deck because there were so many soldiers on board that we had to take turns sleeping down below deck in shifts. As I lay there in the dark, surrounded by tired soldiers, looking up at the dark sky filled with thousands of stars, I heard that song for the first time:
Gonna take a sentimental journey
Gonna set my heart at ease
Gonna take a sentimental journey
To renew old memories
Never thought my heart could be so yearny
Why did I decide to roam?
Gonna take a sentimental journey
Sentimental journey home
And then hearing that song this morning, he said, I was transported back to the deck of that skip and that star-filled sky. Lying there, in awe of the vastness of creation; in awe that I was actually going home.
I asked Lew for permission to share his story in the future, and I’m so glad he said I could. At Lew’s funeral I found out that it was Lew’s experiences in the war that made him change careers and enter seminary. I wish I would have talked to him more about what prompted him to go into ministry. Was it because he wanted to figure out where God was in the midst of that awful war? Was it because he felt God’s presence so vividly that night on the ship, or all those other nights when he looked at the stars from battlegrounds where he lay? I don’t know. I simply know he was called to “Sing to the Lord a new song.”
Perhaps you too, will be inspired to “Sing a new song” in your life. I hope you will be open to sacramental moments and recognize them for the gifts they hold. To that end, I want to suggest alternate words to the song our jazz musicians will play in just a few moments during the offering. They are printed in your bulletins and will be up on the screen during the offering:
Gonna take a sacramental journey,
look for God in all I see.
Gonna take a sacramental journey,
recognize sweet mystery.