Saturday, March 3, 2012

Reflections on the jazz and liturgy conference...

We just returned from Nashville and participation in the Scarritt-Bennett conference:  "Creating Jazz Litrugy." (check them out @  My music director,Carlton Maaia II, spent the past year working with the Center to develop and implement their Sunday night ,contemporary-contemplative Jazz Vespers worship experience. And he currently serves as the Center's musical arranger - sending charts and arrangements for weekly Vespers by the grace of God and the blessings of email - from his home in the Berkshires.

When members of our church's band and choir found out that he was going to be a workshop leader, six of us made the commitment to journey to Music City to see what we might learn together - and it was a blessed and rich time.  Not only did the workshop give us practical tools to use in our own unfolding worship celebrations, it also gave us time to wander, talk, think and hoist a few pints in the spirit of love and commitment to Christ's church.  These are GREAT musical and worship colleagues - each unique and gifted - and it did my heart good to grow closer to them all.

From my perspective as pastor and musician - with a keen interest in theology - this conference gave us space to ask ourselves important questions about jazz and liturgy and why they matter to us in our part of the world.  We had the opportunity to both experience a variety of jazz liturgies in context and explore the how and why of each discrete order of worship.  We listened carefully to those who have been doing this type of emerging worship over the past two years and found a need to go even deeper into the theological roots for this style of celebration. And we realized how much we have already achieved doing creative and liberating worship in our little Berkshire congregation - and started to taste the possibilities of even greater sweetness and depth in the days to come.

Here is an overview of both the events we shared and some of the thoughts evoked by our time together.

+ We flew out of Hartford, CT and started to grow closer once we got to the airport.  We have been working together on music and worship from the very start of the ministry almost 5 years ago.  But there is something unique that happens when you are on a pilgrimage with colleagues, yes?  By the time we hit Nashville there was a palpable sense of excitement - so we checked in and headed out for pizza and beer!

+ Some of us used Monday morning to catch up on our rest while others prowled the environs of the Vanderbilt campus.  We met for lunch at a Tex-Mex hot spot and spent the rest of the day wandering around Vanderbilt.  We found used book shops and music stores, lots of sun and even an import tea shop (that's me with the Tea Swami of Nashville.)

+ The conference began after supper with a presentation by Kwasi Kena that was a perfect way to begin:  he spoke of jazz as a way of being rather than simply a style of music - and shared a host of worship resources we might use to break open our Sunday mornings. At the heart of his presentation was the notion that jazz is a disciplined and creative encounter with improvisation.  "The purpose of discipline," he reminded us "is... freedom."  In the context of worship, I took this to mean: 

     a) The discipline of worship involves prayer, study and a deep knowledge of worship forms.  As poets have said, you can't really do free poetry until you master traditional forms - and this applies to jazz liturgy and music in spades.  You can't improvise in music without practicing scales and modes and you can't improvise in worship without knowing history and worship structure.  Otherwise, you will create a disjointed collection of segments that may work and stand alone but do not move God's people anywhere together because they are not unified in theme or purpose. 

Bob Dylan sang, "I will know my song well before I start singing." And I thought, "You want a suite like the close of the Beatles' "Abbey Road" rather than most of what Sun Ra recorded!"  Brother Kwasi shared some excellent resources and tools with the group to help ground us in both effective liturgical insights from the past and how they can be liberated with care and craft.

     b) The use of improvisation within a form gives boundaries and a way to embrace the realities of the moment.  Take what John Coltrane does with the standard "Favorite Things." He starts with something familiar - a tune from "The Sound of Music" - it is sweet and structured.  So after stating and restating the melody a few times, Coltrane gives his rhythm section permission to start playing with the groove - the way the song feels - because he knows he needs a foundation to work against. Once these cats get comfortable with their new creation - and ONLY then - does he let himself start to play with the sounds and silences in his imagination. 

Sometimes he is WAAY outside the box while at other times he plays in a more accessible style; always, however, he gives himself the freedom to explore the moment with creativity.  The events of the world have something to say to what we do in worship, but only if we have created a safe and trusted context and a groove that we can all return to as worship moves towards the "sending out to love and serve the Lord in peace."

     c) The blessings of jazz freedom invite us to be sensual in worship so that we acknowledge a liturgy for the eye as well as the ear, heart, mind and soul.  As we in the once mainstream and now side-line denominations know, we LOVE words.  We're not too good, however, when it comes to movement or sight or smell or taste.  So why not practice what the first blues singers in the Hebrew Psalms suggested?  TASTE and SEE the goodness of the Lord?  There was some creative and very effective visual and participatory examples of jazz freedom in this keynote - and our whole group was on fire at the close. 

So much so that we had to head out for drinks and a few hours of conversation about the first day. The first day came to a close with a jazz vespers liturgy the Center had used in the past that was beautiful.

+ Tuesday was a full day of workshops - and one of the tensions of the conference popped up in our opening session as we talked about the "mission statement" and "theological" grounding for jazz worship.  I suspect that this is an area that will continue to need more clarity and evaluation for the Center.  Because while they are clearly committed to creating a contemporary, contemplative worship experience that invites participants to "encounter the Sacred," it was hard for some to grasp the intuitive theological foundation behind this jazz spirituality. 

Theology is the study of God's relation with the world while spirituality is a way of encountering the sacred.  One is a clear description of how God connects to creation, the other is a method - and sometimes this distinction was blurred.  My sense, however, is that the theology of jazz worship might be stated like this (paraphrased from Belden Lane's valuable book, Ravished by Beauty, p. 5))

     1) Human beings respond with awe to their encounter with a grand and powerful God.  Often this encounter happens in nature - sea or sky - but also in beauty as well as in the transformed lives of those whose stories are recounted in Scripture.

     2) At the same time, in addition to awe, we also experience amazement for not only is God powerful and also grace-filled and loving; this evokes gratitude and even adoration.

     3) Having experienced both awe and amazement - power and grace - we organically try to understand the intellectual mysteries of faith, always knowing that our words are always incomplete and limited.

     4) Individually and as a community, we seek to live into the blessings of power and grace we have known by sharing God's presence with others through culture and social justice.

     5) The church - the body of Christ - is often the vessel that unites diverse people of faith in acts of worship and mission. 

These theological convictions drive the creators of the Jazz Vespers.  I could be wrong - and would like to hear more from them about how they understand and articulate God's relationship with creation.  Perhaps, in time, I will have a chance to deepen this conversation. Because I clearly value what they are doing in what I would call a "spirituality of jazz." (NOTE:  I have written about a spirituality of rock that is different but not in opposition to jazz. It would be fun - and maybe even helpful to someone - to see where these two spiritualities meet.)

+ The remainder of Tuesday morning was spent articulating the ways jazz music terms intersect with worship.  This was an insightful way of talking about how improvisation, wood shedding and train wreck have a place in the planning and implementation of public worship.  We also used the afternoon to focus on "how to create" a jazz worship planning team -- and then we evaluated some of the Nashville team's previous liturgies to see what worked and what might be changed.

+ Tuesday night was an open conversation that concluded with some of the participants sharing some of their favorite tunes and improvisation.  It was HOT - with some wonderful black and white jazz pianists playing for the workshop.  Carlton and our team got to share some down and dirty tunes, too.

Then it was off for more conversation and food and drinks before bringing the day to a close well after midnight. Wednesday was centered on evaluation and one more time of jazz worship in the chapel with Carlton leading the music.  Check it out...

After a long nap - and a monster rain storm - we headed out to eat some ribs and hear some hot, hot, hot country music downtown.  What a great conclusion to a deep and moving time of study, prayer, conversation, questioning and planning.  As one of the closing liturgies put it:

Loving God,
Help us to be Christ to all those whose lives touch ours.
May we see others as Jesus did - with eyes of compassion.
May we listen as Jesus did - to the cries of broken hearts and a broken world.
May we reach out to others as Jesus did - with healing and hope.
May we serve others as Jesus did - with no strings attached.
May we break bread with others as Jesus did - that the hungry may be fed.
May we celebrate with others as Jesus did - sharing your abundant provisions.

Loving God, help us to be Christ to all those whose lives touch ours. Amen.

1 comment:

Black Pete said...

Wonderful meditation, James. I've often used a semi-parallel dictum about religion and spirituality: spirituality is our relationship with god, while religion is how that is realized on our material plane. It is imperfect.

thanks be to god...

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