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April 23, 2017 / robinswood

What the church can learn from jazz

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A note from Jamie Howison: Here’s the text of a sermon preached at Winnipeg’s Fort Garry Mennonite Fellowship on Sunday April 23, 2017. The congregation set the whole morning as a jazz liturgy, with all of the music led by a very fine quartet led by saxophonist Scott Kroeker. Also playing were Steve Hamilton on bass, Bryan Harder on piano, and Rob Siwik on drums. You can listen to the sermon audio – which includes samples of the music – by clicking here.

I’m sure that many of you would not say that you’re particularly big jazz fans, and in fact maybe some of you aren’t convinced that you much understand or even really like jazz music. What I’m hoping to do this morning is to give you three points of entry, through which you might find yourself at least appreciating the music and its traditions, even if you don’t immediately rush off to McNally’s this afternoon to scoop up a handful of recordings by John Coltrane. I’m framing these three points of entry in terms of what the church—the Body of Christ—could stand to learn from jazz; some things about collaborative trust, about mentoring, and about how music has the potential to enact theological wisdom—how it has the potential to help us say things or see things or pray things in ways that words alone cannot.

To be honest, the non-jazz people here are the easy sell… so to speak. It is the serious and committed jazz fans that make me vaguely uneasy, because we’re all terribly opinionated and tend to root those opinions in a real knowledge of the music and its history and traditions. I’ll be offering some examples and observations, fully aware that some jazz person will be thinking, “oh sure, but what about X or Y or Z?” What is it that line? Reprove with love. Emphasis on love, please… charitable and gracious and tolerant.

Jazz music is both improvisational and collaborative, with both being anchored in a basic trust of the other members of the ensemble. Each musician needs to be able to trust that all the others know the piece that is being played, whether a standard or an original composition. You have to be able to trust enough to let go and improvise, and to do that without a net, so to speak; without a fear that the others in the ensemble won’t be able to go where you need them to go.

In reflecting on his work with the Wayne Shorter Quartet, the bass player John Patitucci spoke to me of how an improvisational piece begins to build through risk-taking and a shared willingness to trust the other members of the band. “In the Wayne Shorter Quartet,” he said,

You’re dealing with people who are all composers and who are also, because of the way Wayne likes to do things, group-oriented as opposed to just individually driven. And we take chances, completely. We start from nothing and improvise music that is tonal, lyrical, and contrapuntal. And then anybody can cue one of Wayne’s pieces, and we go in. You’ll start from nothing and think “Wow, I don’t really have anything tonight,” and somebody will do something and you’ll think, “Wait a minute.” And then it’s a big journey. I call it the ultimate microcosm of what Christian community would be if people would just be willing to take chances, and get out of the comfort zone and be that other-oriented. I’m speaking of myself too. It is easy for me to do it on the bandstand somehow. Sometimes you’re playing and all these things are happening, and you’re like “Well, that’s God.”

Patitucci is essentially saying that intuitively the Wayne Shorter Quartet knows something that church communities could stand to learn. Such learning would require a willingness to risk moving out of individualistic self-orientation in order to be reoriented toward the other. And as he stresses, the “other” is not merely the other members of the band—the church community, so to speak—because in jazz this other-orientation also “spills right into the audience,” or into the neighborhood in which that church community is practicing its risky yet trustful life.

Similarly, the great jazz drummer Art Blakey was fond of telling his audiences that jazz was the only music that came directly “from the Creator, through us, to you.” One of the truly notable things about Art Blakey is that for decades his band—the Jazz Messengers—was comprised of young players, just beginning to really come into their own. When one moved on, they’d be replaced by another young musician, with Blakey serving as a mentor to young musicians serving a kind of apprenticeship. The Jazz Messengers were really a school; both a school of music, but also a school of life.

There’s something in that that is very important for church communities to remember. When we look at our children and young people and begin to ask questions of Christian education and formation, what we should do next is to look at the elders and leaders in our church, and ask “what will it take for this young person to be like that elder—that leader—in twenty years or forty years or sixty years?” How can we do for them what Art Blakey did for the likes of Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, and Terence Blanchard?

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 in Harlem, 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 of 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 Greene to New York City to sit in with his band at their 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. But that’s part of what it means to be mentored; to be shaped by someone who has experience, and who can teach something of what it means to risk, to trust, and ultimately to soar. Frankly, we need to learn from that.

And I believe we can stand to learn some things about how music—improvisational, collaborative jazz music for sure, but not only that—how music can help us to say things and see things that words alone cannot. There’s a saying attributed to St Augustine, that “the one who sings, prays twice,” and that’s certainly part of it. It is one thing to read off the words of a song or a hymn, but to really sing them? That’s something different, which comes as much from the heart and the body as it does from the head.

Now music doesn’t need to have lyrics to be able to speak, and that is certainly true of jazz. Instrumental music does have the capacity to speak; maybe something joyous, or something sorrowful, or something deeply grateful, or maybe even something angry. You hear it, you feel it, and at a level that can go much deeper than words alone. The theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie has spent years working to get the church to embrace what he calls “theology through the arts.” What can that painting, that dance piece, that musical composition say about God that theology—theo-logos, or “words about God”—might not quite be able to say?

This is something of which John Coltrane was profoundly aware, and we will have a taste of his unique approach when this morning’s quartet plays the piece “Psalm.” Coltrane had in front of him a written text—a poem/prayer called “A Love Supreme”—which he “spoke” on his saxophone. He did this on other pieces as well, though this is the only one for which he actually provided the written text. It is a prayer of deep gratitude for grace and mercy; it is an expression of the fullness of God’s presence, and of God’s relentless faithfulness to an often lost and straying humanity. It is the fourth and final movement in a recording called “A Love Supreme,” which chronicles, in music, John Coltrane’s own spiritual path. Recorded late in 1964, the suite looks back on Coltrane’s 1957 experience of kicking twin addictions to heroin and alcohol. Parts 1 and 2 of the suite—“Acknowledgement” and “Resolution”—speak to his acknowledgement of the grace he’d received to beat those addictions, and then to his resolution to live under grace and keep his life on track.

And so he wrote in the liner notes to the record:

During the year 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. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.

But then he continues,

As time and events moved on, a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered into a phase which was contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path; but thankfully, now and again through the unerring and merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of His OMNIPOTENCE, and of our need for, and dependence on Him.

Did you catch those phrases, about “a period of irresolution” and “a phase which was contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path?” That what the third part of the suite addresses; a piece called “Pursuance.” That’s not a reference to Coltrane pursuing God, but rather of God relentlessly pursuing Coltrane; chasing him down, waking him up, pressing him hard… and bringing him home.

At this time I would like to tell you that NO MATTER WHAT … IT IS WITH GOD. HE IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL. HIS WAY IS IN LOVE, THROUGH WHICH WE ALL ARE. IT IS TRULY – A LOVE SUPREME – .

And that is what the closing movement he calls “Psalm” is all about: God’s Love Supreme. And here’s the thing. The prose of the liner notes and the poetry of his prayer text are not particularly good or gripping writing. It can be a bit clunky, in fact, in spite of the truth in those words. But when he put that saxophone to his mouth and played his message? Well, clunky is about the last word you’d ever use.

And that’s the third thing the church can stand to learn from this musical tradition. Words aren’t the only way to express what is going on, and in fact prose alone can sometimes back us into corners in which we become overly rationalistic and without deeper imaginations. But with a saxophone or maybe a paintbrush? With the movement of dance or the rich imagery of poetry? Our imaginations can be freed again.

When you leave here today, you may not find yourself any more taken by jazz than you were when you arrived. And that’s fine. But I do hope you hold those three things—the place of collaborative trust, the richness of mentoring, and the potential of the arts to help us say things or see things or pray things with truth and imagination—and hold them as teachings and challenges and reminders for the life of the church community here. “NO MATTER WHAT … IT IS WITH GOD. IT IS TRULY – A LOVE SUPREME – .”

Jamie Howison

December 16, 2016 / robinswood

A Jazz Piano Christmas 2016

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From left to right, Bill Charlap, Willie Pickens, Renee Rosnes and Bethany Pickens

One of my favourite moments as Christmas approaches is to see that NPR has posted the audio from the year’s Jazz Piano Christmas concert. It is an annual event held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, and it just never fails to satisfy. This year’s concert took place on December 10, and featured twin piano sets by Willie Pickens and his daughter Bethany, and by husband and wife duo Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes. The twin piano approach added new textures to this year’s event, which really gets flying when all four musicians collaborate on their version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”!

I have to say, though, that the Pickens’ version of “O come, O come Emmanuel” is the one that will stay with me. I’m big on the season of Advent, and you just can’t do better than this lovely Advent carol.

To listen to the audio of the concert, just head for the NPR Jazz Piano Christmas post. Happy listening.

 

June 27, 2016 / robinswood

A little jazz with St Paul

A sermon preached by Jamie Howison on June 26, 2016 at saint benedict’s table in Winnipeg. The text for the sermon was Galatians 5:1, 13-25.

mimi1I spent two evenings this past week, listening to some great live jazz music. On Tuesday evening Rob Burton and I went to see Kamasi Washington, the rising star in the world of jazz. With an incredibly good and inventive band, Washington is filling theatres across the continent, and getting the kind of enthusiastic reception generally reserved for rock stars. Then last night Larry Campbell and I went to see the Tia Fuller Quartet at the West End Cultural Centre. They certainly took a more conventional approach to jazz than does Kamasi Washington’s band, but there was still lots to soak in. The young drummer was actually playing his first gig in the quartet, and he pretty much grinned from ear to ear the whole time. I particularly loved watching the bass player Mimi Jones, who all but danced with her upright bass, as if playing with the whole of her body.

Jazz is improvisational music, in which the musicians are freed to explore and create on the spot and in the moment. And yet as the theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie has argued, even improvisational music is not without “constraints.” There are musical constraints—things like meter and harmonic sequence—but also what he calls “occasional restraints;” things like the physical space in which the music is performed, the way the improvising participants play off of each other on that particular night, even the response of the audience itself. Improvisational music, in other words, doesn’t come out of nowhere. It has a context, a dynamic, a “container” as it were. It is the reason that great jazz improvisers need first to really learn the standards, work hard at scales, have a command of chord structures. Great improvisational musicians don’t presume to have a license to do anything they please, even if it can sometimes sound like it to people who don’t “get” jazz music. There’s tons of creative freedom in this music, but at its best it is not freedom from all the rules, but rather freedom for the creation of music in the moment. When Mimi Jones was dancing with that upright bass at last night’s concert it had much to do with how freed up she was in the creativity of the moment, but it also had to do with how anchored she was within the “constraints” those four musicians were all actively acknowledging.

I think this is part of what Paul is working at here, in this section of his letter to the Galatian churches. He’s very big on freedom in this passage; in fact it is one of the recurring themes in the epistle as a whole. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” he proclaims. “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,” he continues a bit further into the passage, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” Do you see what he’s done there? He’s begun by telling his readers that they have been set free, and so should not “submit again to a yoke of slavery,” but when he begins to work that out a bit more fully he tells them that at the heart of their freedom is a call “through love [to] become slaves to one another.” It is rather interesting that he uses slavery language, when a bit earlier in this same epistle he’d announced so clearly that in Christ there is no longer any distinction between slave and free; that on account of Jesus, the old dividing lines set so firmly in place by the dominant culture were null and void. Yet here he is, telling this graciously freed people to become slaves to one another, while in other letters he writes of being freed up to be a “slave of Christ” (1 Cor 7:22) and a “slave of righteousness.” (Rom 6:18)

This is because Paul knows that true freedom is not the same thing as raw license. True freedom is not freedom from, but rather freedom for. It isn’t freedom from all imaginable standards and constraints; it is a freedom for something deeper and more true. That’s where he begins to work his contrasting lists of what he calls “the works of the flesh” and “fruit of the Spirit.” “Live by the Spirit,” Paul writes, “and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” It might be easy to hear those words, and imagine that Paul is drawing some firm line between body and spirit; that he is suspicious of the physical body, and so is calling his community to live a sort of pure, spiritual life. “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh,” he continues, and so we might think that he wants people to deny all things connected to the physical body for the sake of being more “spiritual.” The shorthand might be “body bad / spirit good”… so tame all of that base and nasty stuff connected to your bodies, and turn all of your energy and attention to the pure stuff of spirit and soul.

But there are some deep problems in hearing Paul in this way. For one thing, his world-view is far too Jewish to be dualistic in that “body bad / spirit good” kind of way. In the Jewish way of seeing things, to be human—to be alive—is to be embodied. Spirit and body are inescapably intertwined as one. There is no pure spirit trapped in a base body as most of the Gnostic sects taught, because the body is not a trap… it is very much constitutive of who and what we are.

But even more important is his use of the word “flesh,” rather than “body.” The Greek word translated as flesh is sarx, and in Paul’s hands it tends to be a value-laden word. The Greek word for body, on the other hand, is soma, which is the word used in the gospels when Jesus takes bread, blesses it and gives it to his friends saying “this is my body—my soma—broken for you.” It is soma that is used when Jesus’ dead body is laid in the ground, and it is soma Paul uses when he begins to write of the Christian community being the “body of Christ.” Soma is the straightforward word for the created, physical human form.

Sarx/flesh is different, particularly in the meaning-laden way in which Paul is using it here. Some biblical translations actually try to get a hold of this, by opting for alternatives to the word “flesh”. The New English Bible goes with “lower nature”, the New International “sinful nature,” and the Jerusalem Bible opts for “self-indulgence.” You see the shading, right?

As Paul is using this word sarx or flesh, he’s talking about the ways that we can get distorted, diminished, and destructive; both self-destructive and destructive of others. He’s got quite a list of “works of the flesh,” which opens with that loaded word “fornication” and concludes with “drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” It sort of sounds like he’s got the stereotypical weekend in Las Vegas in view, doesn’t it? And maybe there’s a sense in which he does… You know that famous marketing slogan, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”? I think Paul would counsel that you can’t bracket off some part of yourself or your experience like that, and expect it to “stay” there, because what we do with our bodies or to our bodies actually is done to ourselves… and to other bodies and selves as well.

At the same time, he’s not just listing off a series of prohibited behaviors that Christians should avoid. No, instead he’s saying that if these are the things that are characterizing your life, you’ve got a problem. It is like the proverbial canary in the coal mine; if the canary dies, it means the oxygen is running out and it is time to get out of the mine and back to the surface. If you’re finding your life is dominated by the things in his list—which include not only the stereotypical Las Vegas kinds of muck, but also things like “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy,” then it is time to get up and get out into the air that the Spirit wants you to breathe. And what is in that air? “[L]ove, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These are what he calls the “fruits of the Spirit,” and he is clear: “There is no law against such things.” That’s freedom, you see, to break from raw license and to be constrained by a loving commitment to the welfare of others in the community.

I like to think that had St Paul come with Larry and me to that concert last night, and seen the great grin on the drummer’s face and watched as Mimi Jones danced with her bass, he’d have said, “that’s what I’m talking about.” There’s no sign of jealousy, anger, dissension or envy on that stage, just a whole lot of shared joy and generosity that is spilling out into the audience. That’s what I’m talking about, he might have said. Now go, and be free like that in your own lives.

Jamie Howison

 

December 13, 2015 / robinswood

A Jazz Piano Christmas 2015

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Once again, NPR has provided a rich and filling banquet of piano music for the season. This year’s version of A Jazz Piano Christmas features two of my favourites – Kenny Barron and Fred Hersch – along with two newer faces I’m now coming to appreciate. Of those newer faces, one is particularly new… 12 year old Joey Alexander, whose debut album My Favorite Things has recently been nominated for two Grammy Awards. By comparison, that makes 33 year old Carmen Staaf a veteran!

For me the standouts are Carmen Staaf’s version of “The Coventry Carol”, Fred Hersch’s take on Joni Mitchell’s “River”, and Kenny Barron’s thrilling rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” But don’t take my word on it… take an hour, and listen to the full radio broadcast. After that, you can get even more listening in by taking in the various songs that were recorded but not included in the NPR broadcast. The streaming audio is being made available for free courtesy of NPR, and can be accessed by clicking here.

And because this is an annual concert held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., there’s an amazing back-catalogue of concerts available online. One of my personal favourites is the 2011 edition, which you can read more about elsewhere on this blog.

 

 

November 18, 2015 / robinswood

Insight on “A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters”

Richard Brody’s piece in The New Yorker offers some keen insight on the newly released three-disc set, A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters, and on the legacy of Coltrane as a whole. Take the time to read this piece… and if, like me, you already own the two-disc edition of A Love Supreme issued by Impulse! in 2002, feel some relief in knowing that you probably won’t need to shell out for this new edition!

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October 20, 2015 / robinswood

Exploring the Blues

Lately I’ve been exploring the blues, which is not an entirely unexpected move for a jazz person to make. After all, blues music is one of the real taproots of jazz, which continues to shape and inform the jazz genre in so many ways.

Specifically my explorations have to do with the ways in which the blues tradition might help us to hear the biblical psalms in new and fresh ways. Though there are clear distinctions between the two, I am increasingly convinced that there are real ways in which they do connect. I’ve been reading, writing, listening, interviewing… and then reading and listening some more. Thanks to the generous hospitality of Brian Walsh and the CRC Campus Ministries/Empire Remixed, on November 2, 2015 I’ll be sharing some of those explorations at an event at Wycliffe College, Toronto. If you happen to be in the area, feel free to drop by. If not? Watch this site over the next month or so, for the audio of the lecture.

 

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September 16, 2015 / robinswood

Remembering Alabama

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In a article posted on AL.com, Mark Almond recalls the 1963  bombing Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church; the event that inspired Coltrane’s extraordinary jazz lament, “Alabama.” I highly recommend you read article and then make time to watch this rare live version of the Coltrane piece.