Sunday June 30 will find me in Toronto, preaching at the annual Jazz Mass at the Anglican Cathedral of St. James. For some years it has been the practice at the Cathedral to hold a Jazz liturgy in conjunction with the Toronto Jazz Festival, and I’m delighted that they’ve given me this opportunity to serve as their preacher. They’ve also invited me to give a presentation about my book following the 11am liturgy, which is also very generous on their part.
I’d have to say I’m doubly delighted that the music for the morning will be courtesy of the Mike Janzen Trio. I first heard Mike play as part of one of Steve Bell’s touring groups, and over the years our paths just keep crossing. This past year I finally got to hear him with his trio in concert in Winnipeg, and was blown away by their passion, creativity, playfulness, and sheer musical ability. It will be great to have them as part of this liturgy, and to hear them in that remarkable cathedral space.
If you want a taste, I’d recommend their great version of the old hymn “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” You can see a live video performance by clicking here.
Pass the word along to anyone you might know in the Toronto area…
Here’s the audio from a lecture delivered on May 2, 2013 at St Margaret’s Church in Winnipeg, which can be played as a stream by clicking the arrow. It can also be downloaded as an iTunes podcast, from the saint benedict’s table podcast page.
The lecture included two pieces of music – a four minute excerpt from “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost”, as well as “Psalm,” the fourth and final movement from A Love Supreme. Because of copyright, only very brief samples of those pieces are included in this podcast.
And just a word of warning: At the beginning of the lecture you’ll hear the banging of the hot water pipes in the old St Margaret’s heating system… it only lasts a minute or two!
A couple of months back I sat an interview with Mary Hynes for the national CBC radio program Tapestry. That interview has been given the predictably polished CBC radio treatment, resulting in a 50 minute podcast with the title “A Love Supreme: God in the Music of John Coltrane.” The podcast can now be accessed as a live stream online, or as a download through iTunes. A slightly longer version with a bit more music will also run on CBC Radio One this Sunday, May 12, at 2:05pm.
If you aren’t familiar with Tapestry, here’s how the program is described on their website:
Governments change, economies tumble and soar, and headlines trumpet the scandal of the day. All the while, Tapestry deals with the more subtle news of life — a thoughtful consideration of what it means to be human.
Tune in for an engaging, provocative and unexpected hour of radio: an hour in which rabbis and poets get equal time on the topic of faith, science-fiction writers and physicist-priests ponder the great creation myths, athletes explore the hero’s journey as a spiritual metaphor, and architects examine the idea of space for the soul.
For the past several years it has been my practice to listen to Coltrane’s Ascension album on the day the church calls “Ascension Day.” This year the Western Christian tradition marks the feast of the Ascension of the Lord on Thursday May 9, and so I thought it made sense to share the closing paragraphs from my chapter on Ascension.
[S]omething in the raw power of Ascension connects it with the story and related theological force of the ascension of Christ. Though the Ascension of the Lord is a major feast day in the liturgical calendar, it certainly doesn’t have near the profile of Christmas or Easter. At least in North America, the churches that do mark it as a liturgical feast day will likely draw only smallish congregations, and it will be all but invisible in the society outside of those church walls. That is partly because it always falls on a Thursday, which is not typically a day for going to church in our generally pluralistic and secularized society, but I suspect it also has something to do with our modest embarrassment around the story we tell that day. As recorded in The Acts of the Apostles, it is the fortieth day after Easter Day, and having promised his followers that they would soon receive the Holy Spirit, the resurrected Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9b). That works very well within a pre-modern cosmology, but now that we know that the earth is a spinning globe and that “up” is really only relative to the vastness of space, what do we do with such an image? This is precisely the objection of the modern liberal, classically voiced by John A.T. Robinson in his popular book from the mid-1960s, But That I Can’t Believe. While Robinson does get some things very right in his reflections on the deeper meaning of the doctrine of the Ascension, he gets there by way of what seems an attempt to almost embarrass the gathered church out of ever reading the story aloud.
[T]here would be many an intelligent Christian who would be shocked if you said that “he ascended into heaven” was not a literal statement. This only shows how lazy much of our thinking is. Indeed, I suspect many of us, if we were honest, try to have it both ways, and suppose that Jesus did literally go up in front of his disciples’ eyes but that directly he got out of sight it somehow ceased to be a physical event at all and the thing was called off!
I believe, however, that given his roots in the black church and his almost wildly poetic imagination, John Coltrane would have not had any difficulty reading the story. Not that he would have assumed the world-view of first century Judea. He was interested in the writings of Albert Einstein, as well as in both astronomy and astrology, and so would have harbored no “flat earth” delusions. But he also would not have shied away from what the narrative from the Acts of the Apostles was attempting to articulate, nor from the lessons he had learned in the church of his grandfather. At least at a poetic and intuitive level, he would have known that this belief in Christ’s ascension is not about a set of upward directions for getting to heaven, but rather it is about the presence of Christ with the Father in the Kingdom of Heaven… an entirely different matter. And to be fair, it is one more in keeping with what John Robinson suggests the doctrine of the Ascension is all about, when he refers to it as, “the assertion of the absolute sovereignty of Jesus Christ over every part of this universe, the crowning of the cross, the manifest triumph of his way of love over every other force in the world.” If in most of the gospel accounts the risen Christ was readily recognizable as the man, Jesus of Nazareth, in his ascension he is proclaimed as Christ the King; the “one seated on the throne” in the Revelation to John, who is worthy “to receive glory and honour and power” (Rev 4:11a). Like the One who speaks to Job from out of the whirlwind (Job 38:1), this ascended Christ is awe-inspiring and more than just a little overwhelming.
And so we hear from Coltrane and his assembled group something furious, powerful, and at times more than a little overwhelming. In my hearing of it, “Ascension” is an acoustical icon of the ascended and enthroned Christ. Even the section some three quarters of the way through where the intensity of the piece finally lessens, and the piano of McCoy Tyner followed by the duet by the two bassists, offer the defining voices fits with this iconic reading. In the story from the Acts of the Apostles, following the ascension the disciples return to Jerusalem to keep a kind of vigil, awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a breathing space in the narrative, much the same way that this section of “Ascension” is a breathing space in the midst of the intensity of the piece. Or maybe it is the “silence in heaven for about half an hour” that follows the opening of the seventh seal in the Revelation to John, which seems a somehow necessary respite before the whole of creation is carried through crisis toward its fulfillment.
Or maybe John Coltrane had neither of these images in view as he constructed his piece, and aside from wanting to say something about the glory of the ascended Christ, he just let it all unfold as it would. But of this I have little doubt: given all that he said about his own search for God through music, and given what he recorded during the months just before and after these sessions, his choice of the title for the piece was no accident. But we don’t stand a chance of hearing what Coltrane manages to say—intentionally or otherwise—unless we are open to a deep engagement with it. As Saliers observes,
The act of listening to music is crucial to the theological significance of music, with or without sacred texts. For ‘hearing’ music as the bearer of theological import requires not only a ‘musical ear,’ as we say, but also a sensibility for hearing music as revelatory. (Don Saliers, Music and Theology, 67)
I have just finished reading Scott Saul’s book Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t, published by Harvard University Press in 2003. Subtitled “Jazz and the Making of the Sixties,” the book is a very readable and highly engaging social history which includes two chapters focused on the life and work of John Coltrane. Here are a few samples, just to whet your appetite:
“With Coltrane, who was famous for his inability to stop practicing his instrument, his discipline had an inwardness, a quality of self-abnegation. His solos, taking their shape from his practice scales and exercises, operated on a similar timetable—which is to say, they had the devotional aspect of someone forever penitent.”
“Coltrane discovered and refined a style that he imprinted as his own, a style whose authority seemed purchased through the publicly performed anguish of his concerts and recordings. He pursued freedom not for the hell of it, but for the heaven of it – and he did so by creating settings of musical purgatory that forced him to confront his own limits. His classic quartet thrived by inventing and reinventing a thrashing drama of confusion and self-purification, errancy and ultimate reward.”
On “Acknowledgement” from A Love Supreme: “We are accustomed to hearing his voice through his instrument, and locked in extreme struggle with it, squawking, honking, screeching – doing everything, that is, except talking serenely. At least for this brief moment of chanting, he seems to have surpassed the resources of his instrument and found a new, calm voice. Ironically, he becomes God’s explicit vehicle by dropping his saxophone, the instrument that has brought him to this point of transcendence but now seems a mere accessory.”
In short, for the insights on Coltrane alone I’d recommend this book. Then add all that Saul has to say about Charles Mingus and Cannonball Adderley – to say nothing of Amiri Baraka, A.B. Spellman, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and a host of others – and it becomes indispensable for the jazz fan who loves to read about this music. You don’t have to agree with everything Saul has to say (and personally I think Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” has a far deeper spiritual “grip” than Saul seems to imagine…) to relish his insights.
And thanks to Adam Gussow, for putting this book in my path.
The Canadian arts organization Imago recently ran a brief piece on my book. Here’s the line that really stands out for me:
If you like jazz you will relish this work. If jazz is not in your repertoire this work might serve as an entry point for you to make some new musical as well as theological discoveries.
To read the full piece, simply click here.
A few weeks back I was interviewed by Kelly Belmonte for a really fine blog called “All Nine.” Here’s a couple of excerpts from that interview, which you can read in its entirety by clicking here.
Kelly Belmonte: What/Who/where are your consistent sources of inspiration? (i.e. What inspires you?)
Jamie Howison: Music is a great source of inspiration, and has been since I first discovered pop radio at the age of eleven. All through high school, university, and seminary some variation of rock music provided a soundtrack for my life. And I do mean a soundtrack, and not simply background music. My spiritual and theological views were deepened by people like Bruce Cockburn, my social consciousness raised by The Clash, and my world-view expanded by songwriters such as Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Patti Smith.
About fifteen years ago I began to really discover jazz, and it has become the soundtrack of my middle age. The “gateway drug” was Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, but it wasn’t long before I discovered John Coltrane; the jazz world’s theological musician par excellence. His music isn’t always easy to absorb, but nine times out of ten it is worth the effort. In fact Coltrane’s record A Love Supreme may rival Robert Farrar Capon’s books as being the most powerful proclamation of sheer grace.
KB: What current (still alive) artists (musicians, poets, painters, photographers, filmmakers, etc, etc…. of any kind) are you following/do you recommend?
JH: The research for my book took me deep into the work of several key writers, all of whom I can very confidently recommend. Two in particular spring to mind: Jeremy Begbie on music and theology, and Calvin Seerveld on the arts and Christian thought. I’ve also continued to explore the work of two significant African-American scholars, James Cone and Cornel West. Cone’s book The Spirituals and the Blues is such an important book, particularly for Christians who want to explore the social, religious, and political roots of popular music. And as for Cornel West, by turns his writing makes me laugh with delight and shudder with deep concern. The man writes (and speaks…) with all of the cadences of a great jazz player.
I’m also convinced that we shouldn’t neglect reading novels… “we” meaning people of faith in general, and clergy in particular. I’m a big fan of Ron Hansen, particularly of Mariette in Ecstasy, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and his most recent novel A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion. Hansen is a Christian (a Roman Catholic deacon, in fact), but his work is certainly not what one typically thinks of as being “Christian fiction.”
As for music, I find the improvisational genius of the Wayne Shorter Quartet simply exhilarating. Though Shorter self-identifies as a Buddhist, the other members of the quartet come with a Christian heritage, and the bass player John Patitucci is even a deacon in his Presbyterian church. Even though it sounds like a cliché, I’d have to say that while the quartet’s work is by no means “religious,” it is a very spiritual music. I’m also a big fan of the way in which The Vijay Iyer Trio, The Bad Plus, and E.S.T. have all taken the legacy of the pianist Bill Evans and his brilliant early 60s trio and moved it forward in fresh ways.