I was delighted to receive an email message a few days ago from the theologian Brian J. Walsh, offering a bit of feedback on my book.
“I spent a number of enjoyable days this past summer listening to Coltrane and reading this book. It is a beautiful and profound piece of theological engagement with Coltrane’s art. Blew me away.” Brian J. Walsh
Brian Walsh is a Christian Reformed campus minister at the University of Toronto and Adjunct Professor of Theology of Culture at Wycliffe College, Toronto School of Theology. Among his many books is one of my all-time favourite treatments of St. Paul, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, which he co-wrote with his wife Sylvia Keesmaat. He’s also the author of Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination, a book which explores the theological “grip” of Cockburn’s song lyrics. You can get a bit of a taste of that book in a Huffington Post article, available by clicking here.
Here’s a video of a reflection I offered at the Centre for Christian Studies in Winnipeg on October 11, 2013, as part of their “Second Fridays” series. You can also read the text from which I working by clicking here… though I did improvise a bit as I went along!
Earlier this week I was linked to an post on the NPR music site called Wynton Marsalis Goes Back To Church For ‘Abyssinian Mass’, and I was immediately intrigued. In all honesty, I have to admit I’m a bit ambivalent about Wynton Marsalis. There’s no question that he’s a brilliant trumpet player, and I do really like some of his early recorded work – in particular Black Codes (From the Underground) and J Mood, both released in 1985. I’ve found myself less drawn to his sprawling major works – things like Citi Movement (1992) and the Pulitzer Prize winning three CD set Blood on the Fields - as they strike me as just a bit too earnest, and without any real grit. And the fact that Marsalis has indicated that he sees John Coltrane’s work after A Love Supreme as a waste of the man’s talent… well, I beg to differ.
This is not the first foray Marsalis has made into the music of the church. His 1993 double CD In This House, On This Morning was an attempt to express the shape and feel of an African-American worship service, though I’d have to say that to my ears much of it was too technical – almost academic – to really catch that worship ethos. It does, though, become pretty dynamic when Marsalis gets to the three-part “In the Sweet Embrace of Life”, which is intended to represent a black preacher’s sermon in all of its cadences and intensity.
In his article on the NPR music site, John Burnett writes that,
[The Abyssinian Mass] digs deeply into what Marsalis would call ‘the soil’ of the black church: its shouts, its dirges, its spirituals, its hymns of praise. With this work, he celebrates the seminal influence the church has had on the music of black Americans, and the continuing pull it exerts on his own artistic and spiritual life.
Marsalis used the joyful stylings of the African-American gospel tradition to deliver a musical message of universal humanity. He says he tried to put it all in there: God and Allah, exultation and the blues, Saturday night and Sunday morning.
That reference to the mass being “A musical message of universal humanity” is telling. Marsalis has not tended to make a whole lot of room for the faith of the church. For instance, his book, Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, is notably lacking in any substantial reference to the spiritual and theological traditions of the church, though it does acknowledge the deep power of the church’s music. When Marsalis suggested to John Burnett that he’d “tried to put it all in their: God and Allah, exultation and the blues, Saturday night and Sunday morning,” one begins to wonder if the main message is a general celebration of the human spirit and experience, simply laid on top of a bed of gospel-informed music and following the liturgical flow of a eucharistic liturgy. One wonders, in other words, if Marsalis very much likes the church’s musical tradition, but remains somewhat indifferent to its faith.
Still, I’m intrigued by this Abyssinian Mass project, and until I’ve had the chance to really hear it in its entirety, I’ll give Wynton Marsalis the benefit of the doubt. And kudos to Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church for commissioning a jazz man to write new music to mark their 200th anniversary as a congregation.
What follows is the audio and text from a presentation given at the “Second Fridays” series, presented by the Centre for Christian Studies in Winnipeg on October 11, 2013. The invitation was to offer a reflection on the arts and hospitality, with an eye on how that might inform the practices of church communities.
- To listen to the audio of the presentation, simply click the arrow:
In his essay “You Have to Be Invited,” Leonard L. Brown offers a picture of how musicians have traditionally been formed in African-American culture. Brown’s working thesis is that in this context musicians “have to be invited;” have to be drawn in, mentored, and shaped by others within the community. “There were no ‘jazz studies’ programs at this time,” Brown writes. “The musicians were the keepers of musical knowledge and controlled its dissemination.” (Brown, “You Have to Be Invited,” John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom)
Does this description of these musicians as “keepers of musical knowledge [who] controlled its dissemination” sound anything like hospitality to you? Or does it sound more like a case in which the established “insiders” get to set the terms for who is in and who is out? But let me give you a picture of how this actually played out… and continues to play out in our own time.
In the late 1940s when he was still in his teens, the saxophonist Jackie McLean was befriended by the great bebop pianist Bud Powell. McLean spent countless hours in Powell’s home, talking with him, listening to him practice, and even playing with him. It wasn’t long before Powell invited McLean to sit in with his band at the legendary Birdland, one of New York’s premiere jazz clubs. Powell also introduced the young sax player to Miles Davis, and at the age nineteen Jackie McLean appeared on the Davis album, Dig. “I think that my concept and my development accelerated fast,” McLean later reflected, “because I was in Bud’s company and I heard him play so much, and the music was going right into my mental computer—into my brain—and I think that helped me to develop very fast.”
Now, move ahead into the early 1990s, when a young sax player named Jimmy Greene was studying under Jackie McLean at the University of Hartford. “Once I met Jackie,” Greene commented, “it was full steam ahead! Every time I talk about the saxophone or talk about jazz music or play jazz, I always think of Jackie.” Recognizing some real talent in the young Jimmy Greene, McLean took him under his wing, and it wasn’t long before he was taking him to New York City to sit in with the band at his shows at the Village Vanguard.
Now move ahead to January 2012, to a Jimmy Greene concert at Winnipeg’s Park Theatre, in which this now very established musician and educator was showcasing some new material. Midway through the show, Greene invited two of his own students from the University of Manitoba Jazz Studies program (where he was then teaching) to join him on stage. Though these two were not nearly of the caliber of their teacher, he made room for them on the stage, giving to each extended solo time. We in the audience approved…
And of course they weren’t of his caliber; he’d not been up to Jackie McLean’s level when he was invited to sit in at the Vanguard, and McLean was not at Bud Powell’s level during that debut at Birdland. That’s what it means to be invited.
What might all of this have to say to the church? After all, are we not called to always be hospitable? Tom Bandy even goes so far as to suggest that our churches must learn to live with only three walls, the back wall being so open and fluid as to metaphorically not exist at all. Those who want to keep company with us and to try on for size our way of being must feel absolutely no resistance as they step into our midst. So real must be our hospitality that there should clearly be room for all.
And yet to draw on St Paul’s image of the one Body of Christ with its many members, the reality is that the members in any given congregation or community are not interchangeable bits. Not everyone should preach; not everyone should be entrusted with the formation of children; not everyone should lead music. For that matter, not everyone should bake pies for a community supper… I certainly shouldn’t, unless you want to use a steak knife to cut through my crust.
Yet when the preacher or educator or musician or pie baker keeps his or her eyes and ears open, what they begin to see is that there are others in the community who might need to be invited; who, because of their passion and interest and willingness to learn and grow and serve, could rightly be called out, mentored, and released into new life and service in the community. Far from being a sort of controlling gate-keeping, this kind of “being invited” actually releases people to exercise their gifts and abilities… gifts and abilities of which they might have only been vaguely aware.