(photo: Leo Mazzeo)
Last night we accomplished one of my deepest dreams as we shared our interpretation of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" in a Good Friday setting. There were three hopes for this event - and they all came to pass - for which I am grateful.
+ First, artistically and theologically, I wanted to share Coltrane's music in church in such a way that its beauty, paradox and promise were experienced on Good Friday. This is not a simple composition to accept: it is musically complex, melodically challenging and wildly passionate in rhythm and vibe. As sax man, Charlie Tokarz, said after the presentation: "This is not just jazz (by which we both knew he meant easy listening, Kenny G-type music). No this is JAZZ in all of its intricate creativity." Wynton Marsalis sometimes speaks of jazz as North American classical music born in an African American context. And it is certainly that - and probably more, too. Just as Good Friday is theologically paradoxical - a liturgy saturated in the reality of human suffering and hope - so too "A Love Supreme." When the idea came to me while on sabbatical in Montreal this past summer, and I shared it with my colleague and collaborator Carlton Maaia II, we both thought: "YES, how totally excellent" and simultaneously, "OMG this is completely crazy to be even contemplating!" Both/and which was my clue that it was the right next step. And as Carlton said at the close of the evening, "We did it... we carried it from concept to completion like you imagined from the beginning. Incredible!"
+ Second, I yearned to play this jazz suite with the three other jazz musicians in our area with whom I share a deep respect, love and sense of camaraderie: Carlton Maaia II, Charlie Tokarz and Jon Haddad. I have been working with Carlton for five years at church. We have done a number of rock and soul shows together as well as weekly jazz meditations for Sunday worship. Things went deeper as we explored, planned and implemented a shared clergy/congregational sabbatical last year - and we've continued to build on that connection. Through the graciousness of another local musician, Andy Kelly, I met Charlie and Jon: we played together in Andy's ensemble and even travelled to Istanbul, Turkey together on a music and peace-making mission six years ago. Since then, I've had the chance to work with these two masters in other settings - including some Christmas Eve and Easter events - that have allowed us to take some time and musically explore the spirituality of this holy days. We've done some big concerts, too. So, professionally and aesthetically, it was vital for me to find a way to keep the creativity moving. Investigating the meaning of "A Love Supreme" for us both personally and as an ensemble was fascinating: we took the time to rehearse, we each practiced vigorously on our own and we built in time for conversation and questions about what the music was communicating to each of us. Those conversations cracked open more meaning for me about the blessings of this composition. And it drew me closer to these three men in ways I will cherish forever. What a privilege to share beauty with these guys!
+ And third, I ached to incorporate our folk/rock musicians from church into the fabric of this tapestry, too. They were never an after-thought but always integral to "A Love Supreme" in three key was: a) Our four vocalists - and two guitarists - are strong, solid musicians in their own right who can carry a song without leaning too heavy on the accompanists. Let's just say that this is not always the case with other vocalists. So knowing their gifts and abilities, I wanted to see what would happen if they were empowered to improvise with their voices the way Coltrane encouraged his instrumentalists on "A Love Supreme." What they collectively created was stunning and exciting - especially on William Billings' "When Jesus Wept" and Ann Heaton's "Prayer of St. Francis." b) Each vocalist knows how to blend and support his/her mates - we've been working together in one form or another for 7+ years - so I wanted them to show the gathered congregation what trust looked and sounded like. They were an embodied sermon in song whether they realized it or not. Like jazz instrumentalists who have played with one another long enough to read their band mates minds and anticipate beyond comprehension how to support them, so too these sings. Eva Peri, Elizabeth McCarty, Dianne De Mott and Jon Grenoble not only have musical reading skills, finely honed instincts about blending together but they also have a deep affection for one another - and in this season of political fear-mongering the more we can do to advance the cause of love the better. Add to this mix the guitar/vocal work of Dave McDermott and Brian Staubach, brilliant players in their own right, and the whole becomes greater than the individual parts. And c) I sensed that for a congregation made up of people of faith, jazz heads, people of no faith as well as all types of curious souls in between, this presentation needed what I thought of as "oasis of beauty and form in the midst of an extended jazz improvisation." The singers and guitarists were essential in helping the congregation find their place - and they did it with subtly and grace.
One of the band said to me afterwards, "You know that you made this selection much more
accessible for people than just an encounter with listening to it on a CD allows, right? It wasn't dumbed down in any way, but the way it was presented brought people into its heart rather than perplexed them." And for that, kudos go to our musical director, Carlton Maaia II, who told me something like this after one rehearsal: "Because "A Love Supreme" is so nuanced and elaborate as music, we must do two things consistently to help the gathered crowd "get" it. First, we must play the "head" - the opening melody" a few times at both the start of each movement and the close so that people have a reference point. Not everyone is able to bring closure to a song, so we have to help them by giving them musical landmarks. And second, when we are improvising within the body of each song, playing a set of notes twice - repeating them right new to one another - also helps the listeners find some grounding." What he was saying speaks about the tender relationship between improvisation, personal creativity, respect for each individual and the spirituality of compassion we want to share in our music. A barrage of sounds might be fun for the player, but it is rarely of any value for most listeners. Same goes for rehearsal: just showing up and throwing a bunch of notes together may be fun for the one making the noise, but it rarely edifies an audience - and never strengthens a congregation.
I personally learned so much about how compassion must consciously be built into my music through this encounter - and I suspect it was felt and confirmed by the over 100 folk who gathered. At least half the crowd had not formal relationship with First Church. And as I spoke with some afterwards, they told me they had driven 50+ miles to experience "A Love Supreme" in a church on Good Friday. I heard this over and again from people I had never met. And, they expressed thanks to me. My hunch back in our Montreal summer sabbatical was right: there is a group of people aching for a place to nurture their hopes and dreams and music helps them come together in ways most of us cannot articulate - yet most of us know is true, too.
NOTE: Some have emailed me that they would like to reread my remarks from last night, so here we go... Thanks be to God we raised $1000 for Syrian refugee relief, too.)
Good evening and welcome. Tonight we will be sharing our interpretation of both John Coltrane’s masterwork and the essence of this sacred day in the Christian tradition. It is my contention that “A Love Supreme” and Good Friday are exquisitely nuanced meditations upon the blessings of the blues in our everyday lives.
For those who appreciate jazz, you know that the very essence of this art form is constructed upon the blues tradition: experimenting, improvising, honoring as well as pushing the limits of the blues evokes simultaneously mourning and celebration. Wynton Marsalis, director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, once observed that: Everything in jazz comes out of blues music: joy, pain and struggle for the blues is affirmation with absolute elegance. It's about a lovers and the human condition. So the pain and the struggle in the blues is that universal pain that comes from having your heart broken.
Throughout “A Love Supreme” I hear the artist, John Coltrane – and our musicians – reverently beginning with a blues form and a blues soul, but never resting upon either in a static way. For this is not a recital – a recreation of a 50 year old composition – but rather a living, breathing, melodic pilgrimage in prayer that invites you to rejoice in your inner journey even as you recognize your wounds. Guided by the musicians, this is a time to listen carefully to whatever your journey is saying to you and follow wherever it may lead.
That is why we have set this encounter within the wisdom of Good Friday: of all the holy days in the Christian liturgical calendar, this is the most paradoxical. There is fear present as we consider the suffering of the Cross, but trust as well: sorrow alongside of song, darkness as well as illumination, despair, betrayal and bleak emptiness in addition to human solidarity and divine hope born from above. Because when the Cross is embraced in its essence, it is not about punishment, penitence or even judgment as we normally imagine. No, the Cross rightly conceived points to the place where the holy intersects our humanity. The Cross graphically that there is NO place exempt from God’s grace: not addiction, not abuse, not war, exploitation or even death. The mystical truth of creation that Coltrane tapped into – and Good Friday honors – is that the Holy mercifully meets us in all our human experiences – including shame, abandonment and our experiences with hell – in order to set us free.
You may know that Coltrane himself was once a heroin addict, yes? The junk got him fired from the Miles Davis band back in the day and was about to devour his life. But after nearly 10 years of shooting smack and drinking to excess, ‘Trane had an inner spiritual awakening that empowered him to get clean. An apocryphal story says that while playing his saxophone wildly and beyond all traditional sounds and scales, Coltrane was given a gift of love in sound that so nourished his core with beauty that he was liberated from his cravings. The story goes on to say that in response to this grace he gave the rest of his life to sharing beauty with the world in the hope that his music would inspire healing in other wounded souls. No longer a junkie, the artist himself said:
In 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.
Coltrane never named his spirituality as Buddhist or Christian, Muslim, Jewish or earth-centered; he just played and shared the sounds of love born of the blues. We know from his biography that both of his grand-fathers were Baptist preachers – and that his soul was saturated in the old gospel hymns of the South – but ‘Trane’s message cut deeper than any denomination. One of the wisest spiritual teachers of the Western world, Richard Rohr, once wrote:
All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not. Only when you can get little enough and naked enough and poor enough will you find that the little place where who you really are is ironically more than enough and all that you need. At that place, you will have nothing to prove to anybody and nothing to protect. That place is called freedom. It’s the freedom of the children of God and such people can connect with everybody… because they don’t feel the need to eliminate anybody . . .
Part of what we’re exploring with you tonight is precisely how the liberating power of love is often revealed to us through our wounds. The power to break down barriers – to trust that when we’re fortified by grace we can challenge tyrants and bullies, embrace those who have been excluded and feast together with former enemies in hope rather than fear – all of this has its origins in owning our own pain. That’s where the blues becomes sacred prayer: until we’re honest with ourselves and feel our own need for a love greater than ourselves, we’re just play acting – and nothing changes. But when we’ve been touched within by love – and start to trust it by living into its freedom – then our humanity is allied with the holy.
And as St. Jerry Lee Lewis noted, “Then we gotta whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on” because now we’re spirit-fed. Now we trust that God’s love looks beyond what the obvious, beyond the comfortable, beyond even what is even comprehensible. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred for his opposition to Nazi hatred in Germany, said:
Discipleship is never limited to what you can comprehend – it must transcend all comprehension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own comprehension and God will help you to comprehend… for bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. In this holy comprehension transcends (anything we can imagine.)
So because so many of us are usually so busy, so worried, so anxious, so distracted, soconflicted and so confused, we have set aside about an hour of musical meditation mixed with the wisdom and ambiguity of poetry for you – this is your time to let the Divine speak to from within the finely tuned vocal harmonies and extended silences – so that you might know, from the inside out, that blessings can be born from your blues. Coltrane testifies to the efficacy of the blues throughout “A Love Supreme” albeit in ways that those who aren’t familiar with jazz may not realize. And the more we have played this sacred composition in four movements the more I believe it to be a testimony of the blessings God aches to share with us if only we would learn the wisdom of our wounds so that we could sing the blues with conviction and verve. We don’t need more Fox News or CNBC spin control - and we don’t need more cable/satellite/direct TV schlock to clog our hearts and minds either – how did Springsteen put it: 57 channels and nothings on… No, sisters and brothers, what we need is more blues people who have learned the wisdom of their wounds.
That’s why Good Friday is ideal for considering Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” Like the old rabbi Saul of Tarsus told us: All things work for good when we love and trust the Lord. Not all things ARE good, mind you, but they can be used for good if we are open and nourished by love. Coltrane tells us this in four musical movements.
Acknowledgment suggests the wonder of discovering that we are God’s beloved even in the midst of pain: it starts with a fanfare announcing that something important is about to happen in the key of E – the quintessential guitar blues key. Then it moves to a blues riff on the bass in F to remind us that this journey of faith is about the marriage of the human and the holy, a song of hope and love even in hard times. And dig this: with 3 notes, Coltrane provides us with a penetrating, audible historical overview of Black history. The bass note riff that grounds “Acknowledgement” references a time-tested blues riff made popular by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf (play: I’m a Man.) And the Chicago blues giants are referencing the folk and Creole music they heard in both New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta – and that music harkens back to the Caribbean slave trade and then to the grooves of West Africa. All in three notes! But the lesson doesn’t end there as there is a recurring theme that ‘Trane opens this movement with that returns later over and over again, but now in every different key possible. He wants to show us through music that God’s love not only transcends every key, race and religion, but that it works in every situation. And just so that we don’t fail to miss his message, he closes the first movement by chanting: a love supreme.
Resolution, the second movement, reminds us that holy love is all about compassion. When our wounds have been touched, when our broken hearts have been honored, when the violence and fear of the world is challenged, blessing does not take place through brute force but… through compassion. All true mystics know that the sacred is a lover not a judge – and Coltrane is among them. He communicates this with an aching melody that he lets his band improvise on however their hearts feel inspired. This shared freedom, you see, is all about listening carefully to one another, helping one another take the music to a new place in real time, respecting one another in love and celebrating the joy of being creative in community.
Pursuance, movement three, is about dancing to a love that is greater than our imagination. Its form is pure blues but Coltrane sets it to such a wild be-bop beat that unless you saw the chord changes in front of you, you wouldn’t know it was the blues: it feels too joyful. But that’s part of the mystery: even in disaster there is love and hope and tenderness. To me this sounds like the old preacher saying: Hold on, it may be Friday but Easter Sunday is coming!
The closing movement, Psalm, is a saxophone mediation based on a love poem/ prayer: ‘Trane wrote this prayer to return thanks to the Lord; and we will actually say it and pray it out loud at the close of this liturgy. It is both a celebration of a love supreme as well as the start of a new pilgrimage in faith, too.
The other music we are sharing tonight, the vocal selections, have been chosen to give you a firm foundation in the beauty and diversity of the blues. They are an oasis on this jazz pilgrimage that lift up the paradox of sacred tenderness in a world of pain in more traditional styles. We opened with a tune from the early American composer, William Billings, who born in Boston and raised in the Congregational tradition. It is a traditional Good Friday theme that I’ve come to think of as a blues song born of colonial Boston; because Billings was not only a man who knew physical pain – he was born with a deformed leg and only one working eye – but he fought a lifetime addiction to snuff. Nevertheless, the love of God raised him from his working class roots to become the father of American Choral Music.
The second vocal offering comes from the incomparable American indie artist, Ann Heaton, who lived for years in Cambridge, MA. Her reworking of the Prayer of St. Francis is a love lament if ever one existed – and at the close of this song our singers do what Coltrane did as they improvise and see where the spirit leads them. We close with George Harrison’s stinging song of sorrow: While My Guitar Gently Weeps. For me this is rock and roll blues saturated with sacred sadness – and the electric guitar that wails and weeps takes on the voice of the holy crying over the pain and brokenness we have created.
It is, perhaps, a fitting conclusion in the aftermath of yet another wave of terrorist bombings in Ankara, Brussels and Istanbul. Just 6 years ago, some of the musicians on our stage were in Istanbul bringing a message of peace- making through music. I remain steadfast in that commitment – as do all the performer’s here tonight – trusting that beauty can save the world even as the forces of hatred spew violence and death. More than ever we need to nourish the promise of a love supreme.
That’s why in addition to the music and poetry and prayers, we will take up an offering to assist our sisters and brothers fleeing the violence and terror of Syria. When you come forward to light a candle of hope, if you are able to make a donation, it will all go to Syrian refugees who are now in Turkey or Jordan awaiting relocation. We are using the interfaith organization, Church World Service, to make certain that more than 95 cents of every dollar goes to direct services. So, please share what you can and strengthen the spirit of a Love Supreme.
And now let me encourage you to enter the music, poems and silence as a pilgrimage of prayer. You don’t have to be Christian to take this journey – you just have to be honest with yourself – and let the blues connect you to all that is sacred in the human experience…