A Spirituality of Jazz: Celebration in Context
The brilliant American singer-songwriter, Carrie Newcomer, recently wrote that, “some of us come into this world with a note safety pinned to our shirts saying, ‘This one belongs to the song.’ For us music is as necessary as air or water. We live it, breathe it, drink it, dream it and chase it all our lives. For us there are moments when the song feels like the closest thing we'll ever know in this world to true communion.” (www.carrienewcomer.com) Such is the case in my life whether the song starts in hardass rock and roll, gentle acoustic folk song, chant, string quartet, gospel or jazz: I was born to make music – and do not feel complete until “I’ve got the music in me.” (Bias Boshell, “I’ve Got the Music in Me,” 1973 performed by Kiki Dee.)
Knowing this, however, some have asked me over the past year, “Why are you so focused and concerned about jazz?” Specifically, what drives your current emphasis on a spirituality of jazz? The short answer is found in Ted Gioia’s stirring book, A History of Jazz, where he speaks of jazz as “an art music with the emotional pungency of a battle cry.” (p. 209) But such a brilliant quip only communicates with the cognoscenti – those who already know how to read between the lines of culture and spirit and do simultaneous translation – and I am not interested in a musical Gnosticism. Rather, I want to be clear to my friends and those who come to worship on a given Sunday.
So let me attempt to share with you the context for my celebration of a spirituality of jazz: why it matters to me and what it communicates in sound and feeling. Because like the impression-istic jazz pianist, Bill Evans, said, “It bugs me when people try to analyze jazz into an intellectual theorem. It’s not – it’s a feeling.” Then he adds:
My creed for art in general is that it should enrich the soul; it should teach spirituality by showing a person a portion of himself (sic) that he would not discover otherwise… a part of yourself you never knew existed. (http://jazz-quotes.com/artist/bill-evans/)
For me – as a person of faith who is also a musician – jazz is a uniquely American mix of many contexts that creatively link the world of art with the hustle of the street. It is simultaneously cerebral and sensual. And it is grounded in a life and death struggle to redeem suffering with beauty, spirit and imagination. It is “an art music with the emotional pungency of a battle cry.” Louis Armstrong said, “You blow who you is.” Art Blakey said, “Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.” And Dave Brubeck said, “There is a way of playing safe, there’s a way of using tricks and there’s the way I like to play which is dangerously, where you’re going to take a chance on making mistakes in order to create something you haven’t created before.”
In what follows I hope to articulate the challenge and context of a spirituality of jazz. For more than any other type of music, jazz is a place “where anything is possible – a refuge, a magical world where anyone can go, where all kinds of people can come together in safety – and anything can happen. We are only limited by our imaginations.” (Bill Frisell)