spirituality and jazz: part two...

"Churches could learn much from reflecting on a jazz band," writes Willie James Jennings in the Duke Divinity School magazine of Fall 2011.  "Here are a group of people who work very hard at listening, yet give up nothing of themselves in the process, but in fact only gain a true sense of themselves in the common task of making music, producing sound that makes a central statement that exists only through the constitutive performances of each musician."

If starting small and learning to swing with the little blessings God has given you is the first insight for today, the second has to do with how jazz can help us hear scripture and better listen to one another for ministry. There are a lot of words in our churches - sermons, prayers, bulletins as well as chatter before, during and after worship - but how much careful listening takes place?

play the first chorus of "Birk's Works"

Like Psalm 37 this tune is instructive - albeit mostly ignored - for it tells us to :  Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way over those who carry out evil devices.

We are all in such a rush to get things done: to make a difference, to respond to this or that injustice or problem or even simply a perceived problem.  We rarely wait - and listen - or discern.  So the question begs asking: does all of our rushing and fretting deepen our intimacy with God or advance Christ's compassion? My experience - personally and professionally - is that the more we fret and fuss the more we become frantic, cranky and self-righteous.

Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.


Trust in the Lord, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.


Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way,
and he will exalt you to inherit the land;
you will look on the destruction of the wicked.


Jesus told his students much the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount when he reminded them:  do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,* or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

I have been convinced that the jazz masters can help us with learn how to listen - and I mean careful listening - listening and waiting with others in community so that what we can create something that has verve and meaning. In jazz as in faith many times we would be better served by recalling the ironic words posted outside a church office that said:  Don't just hurry up and do something: wait.  Be still.  Listen.

Because listening in jazz is so instructive. Brother Marsalis puts it like this:  When you are playing, the music and the way you are playing,

... reveals the authentic you. If you're impatient, it will show in your playing; you just won't wait. If you're slow, if you don't think quickly, everybody will hear it. If you're shy and it's hard for you to project your personality, you may have great ideas but they won't come out or you might overplay to compensate. If you're self-centered, you can't play with other people - they have to back you up or else lay out.  Of course, you can survive like that, but it's not fun to play with you.

Can you dig that?  Do you grasp the spiritual wisdom going down?  Not only can you learn about what's happening inside of you by listening during the song, you also show the world whether you're a drag or a groove to be with, too.

I think of Dizzie Birks Gillespie when it comes to listening: he is not only the master of rhythm, but the genius of surprise.  Along with Thelonius Monk and Charlie "Bird" Parker - two other essential jazz masters with the gift of incredible listening - Diz is known as one of the founders of bebop or modern jazz. 

He started playing piano at four years old and went on to make music with all of the great elders of American jazz from Cab Calloway and Earl Hines to Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane and Yuseff Lateef. In the 1950s he toured the world for the State Department showing how the true music of America - jazz - is all about freedom and creativity in pursuit of beauty.  And he was relentless in blending the sounds of the world into the fun of jazz.

Now here's the thing:  Diz was committed to listening.  He loved the sounds of surprise and expected his players to be ready to go at a moment's notice.  And that meant waiting and paying attention for the call to stand and deliver.  One critic put it like this:

The whole essence of a Gillespie solo was cliff-hanging suspense: the phrases and the angle of the approach were perpetually varied, breakneck runs were followed by pauses, by huge interval leaps, by long, immensely high notes, by slurs and smears and bluesy phrases; he always took listeners by surprise, always shocking them with a new thought. His lightning reflexes and superb ear meant his instrumental execution matched his thoughts in its power and speed. And he was concerned at all times with swing — even taking the most daring liberties with pulse or beat, his phrases never failed to swing.

And this is the paradox of spiritual and jazz waiting:  you can't be anxious - you just have to be ready - no fretting allowed on the bandstand or your prayer room.  There's no point.  How did the Wailin' Jennys put it?  Fretting and worrying is like praying for something you don't want to happen?

Man I still remember how tied up in knots I was the first time I played Dizzy's "Night in Tunisia."  There are bass runs all over the place, it starts with this funky chromatic riff and then shifts into swing time before jumping back to a few other challenging variations. (Play a quick selection of "Night in Tunisia.")  But all the worrying about the song didn't help me play it - or even know when to shift from the rift to the swing - no, only practice and listening did that.  No fretting allowed:  practice and wait - listen carefully - and the groove will happen.

Here's what I mean:  we're going to play a Dizzy Gillespie tune called "Birk's Works" - and we're going to give it all the time it needs by letting each player listen and respond as he or she feels called, ok?  Watch what happens - listen for the changes and what each person brings to the table - and then we'll see what it says to you.

+ For the musicians:  what was going on during that tune for you?  What were you thinking and experiencing?

+ For the congregation:  what did you make of all of that?

One jazz theologian has written than when the musicians are playing live, "They need to stand close to one another to hear what is really going on.  This is a choice that those in the Church might consider: we don't simply need each other, we need to be close to each other in order to truly hear the words we should be saying to the world and, equally important, to hear more clearly the voice of the world and what it is saying to us in the pain, the suffering and the longing."

Wait upon the Lord - do not fret - listen:  "Listen to a point of view that's not quite your own," the jazz masters say. "Listen with the same level of interest as when you speak; roll with the punches of the song; give at least as much as you take.  And then you'll be swinging and at deeper peace than before."

This is the second insight for today...

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