In the beginning was the jazz

Following on from my last post ‘Rhythms of the Spirit?’ in which I raised the question of the apparent disinterest of much Christian thought for the spiritual implications of the phenomenon of rhythm, I have been trying to put theory into practice. This weekend brought back memories of my big band days many years ago, as I was pressed into active service with the arrival of Crescendo‘s ‘Jazz InSpirit’ initiative – up and running in Berlin, Copenhagen and shortly New York – in Paris. Last night I walked to the Lutheran Church of Les Billettes in the swinging Marais (doing my best not to be sidetracked on the way by the giant screen outside the Paris city hall showing the tennis from Roland Garros) in order to take up residence at the organ bench at a jazz-oriented worship service, in the company of the polyvalent saxophonist and composer Uwe Steinmetz, guitarist John Bechmann and pianist François Popineau. As well as an excerpt from Uwe’s large-scale recent Passion of the Apostles and a varied musical programme including selections by Steve Swallow, Wayne Shorter and up-tempo arrangements of some Reformation classic hymns by the talented and resourceful John Featherstone, my Psalm 96 had its first European airing in a predominantly instrumental version with a few French vocals and a contemporary European jazz feel (some audio will hopefully be posted in due course). The previous evening I was on theological duty at an evening event centred on the concept of freedom, with electric jazz by the excellent French GOUD trio (www.goud.free.fr ), poetry by Paul Eluard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as well as the following reflection.

______________________________________

‘In the beginning was the jazz’

‘In the beginning was the jazz’, writes contemporary Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail in his collection Our Double Time, inspired in large part by his love of improvised music’s balancing act : ‘Chaos in order, order at the heart of chaos’.[1] In these few minutes I would like briefly to relate these words to this evening’s governing concept of freedom in order to give some sense of why I and many thinkers in various intellectual domains are fascinated by jazz and see it as an embodiment of some fundamental aspects of our common humanity and indeed the nature of reality itself.

Firstly, O’Siadhail’s intuits that, in its interplay of structure and freedom, jazz is a microcosm of the world. On one hand, a performance such as we have just heard is unthinkable without a high degree of technical mastery on the part of the performers, resulting from the submission to hours of practice, physical training and mental discipline. ‘L’improvisation ne s’improvise pas’, my own teacher of organ improvisation used to say – otherwise it would have no form, no structure, no ability to communicate to the listener. And yet on the other hand, to paraphrase Stephen Hawking, there is ‘fire breathed into these equations’, in that all this discipline would be lifeless without the flame of creative intuition and spontaneity. Critics of contemporary jazz sometimes complain that the genre has become academic, with performers now doing little more than stringing together pre-learned patterns and ‘hot licks’, but with the best jazz musicians it is clear that acquiring technique is not an exercise in itself, but placed in the service of freedom. Technique a set of tools so that imagination can then take wing. The joy of jazz is that nobody here – including the performers – knows exactly what will emerge in the half-hour ahead of us.

With his words ‘in the beginning was the jazz’, O’Siadhail gives this dialectic of freedom and constraint a cosmic flavour. Modern science is increasingly seeing the play of spontaneity and structure found in jazz mirrored the heart of material reality (as was recently discussed in an issue of the French magazine Science & Vie announcing that ‘La Vie serait quantique’). Since the paradigm-shattering discoveries of quantum physics made by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the early twentieth century, science has been showing us that the world in which we live does not behave like clockwork, but has a certain unpredictability built into it at the most basic, sub-atomic level. The evolution of the universe since the Big Bang is the result of a delicate balance between regularity (without which there would be mere chaos) and freedom (without which genuinely nothing new could ever develop).[2]

Without these two elements our emergence as human beings endowed with creativity and decision-making ability would be impossible; our very structure combines a machine-like precision in our incredibly complex bodies with a seemingly infinite openness in that dimension of our existence we call ‘mind’, subjectivity, the part of us capable of creating art or nuclear weapons, able to love or to commit genocide. We are certainly conditioned by our genetic inheritance and the evolutionary history of our planet (having ten fingers with which to play a guitar rather than eight or twelve, for example), yet these factors do not ultimately dictate our actions in a closed fashion. Among other things, the existence of human artistic creativity, from the cave-paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux onwards, presupposes a freedom with respect to the world which other animals do not possess. The example of jazz, the ability to improvise, demonstrates that we are genuinely free creatures, for good or for ill. It is a powerful rejoinder to those who would contend that we are simply ‘machines controlled by our genes’ (Richard Dawkins), or that human culture can be reduced to sociobiology. The phenomenon of freedom confronts us with two crucial questions – what or Who is the source of that freedom,  and how we will use it ?

Secondly, there is a social dimension to the experience of freedom in the context of a jazz group which I believe deserves examination. Good jazz walks the fine line between two erroneous notions of freedom that have both had tragic results in the modern era. A first error is to equate ‘freedom’ with ‘individualism’, the idea (on which consumer materialism seems to be founded) that freedom is defined negatively as being free from all constraints, particularly any sense of obligation to others – in effect an exaltation of selfishness. By contrast, the jazz trio is a community of performers whose task is to find a common language which will make their collective result more than just the sum of its parts. Their approach is conversational, dialogical, as they share motifs and allow themselves to be inspired by one another. At the same time this common language cannot be imposed by force; jazz knows the dangers of the opposite error from that of ‘individualism’, that of ‘collectivism’. This was what the French poet Paul Eluard[2] tragically failed to realize in the years after writing his great ode to freedom La Liberté, which was of course written against the backdrop of the Nazi occupation and distributed to the maquis. While resisting one form of tyranny, he paradoxically allowed himself to be seduced by a different version of totalitarianism that proclaimed that freedom (the classless society of Marx and Engels) could be brought about by coercion, becoming an admirer of Stalin[3]. If the history of the twentieth century has proved anything, it is surely that repression is never a transitional stage on the road to liberty. Military bands do not evolve into jazz trios, for while the members of the former can function without any autonomy, the idea that a jazz trio can operate along such lines is a contradiction in terms. The musicians respect one another’s individual creative gifts, but offer them for the greater good of the whole. And in so doing they find the freedom that comes from self-giving, thereby discovering their true musical personalities, including dimensions that might never have surfaced had they simply practised in front of a mirror.

Writing two years later after Paul Eluard, another figure associated with the resistance to Hitler also produced a meditation on the nature of freedom. Arrested after his part in the failed attempt to assassinate the Führer, the Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) penned his ‘Stations on the Road to Freedom’ from a prison cell in Tegel, Berlin in 1944. Anticipating his execution in the very last days of World War II, the imprisoned Bonhoeffer glimpsed that true freedom could only be found in self-sacrifice, in imitation of the crucified Jewish rabbi from 2000 years ago for whose sake he chose to lay down his own life:

Come now, thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal;
death, cast aside all the burdensome chains, and demolish
the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our soul which is blinded,
so that at last we may gaze upon that which here is begrudged us.
Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action
and suffering;
dying, we know thee now in the visage of God.’’
[2]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1939

My third and final point follows from this. Jazz has always been associated with a search for musical ‘ecstasy’, a word that is somewhat hard to describe but which derives from the Greek term ‘ek-stasis’, being ‘outside oneself’, the ‘walls of our blinded souls’, to use Bonhoeffer’s words. For a musician this basically means the liberation that comes from being so absorbed in the present moment and the intensity of the music that one is temporarily taken out of the everyday and given a glimpse of something beyond it. Historically this can be explained by jazz’s African roots on two counts. Firstly, in African culture – as in most traditional societies – the boundary between the visible and the invisible is much more fluid than in the West, while secondly, the experience of slavery and discrimination naturally led the African-American community to view music in terms of liberty, an affirmation that life was about more than the whip of the overseer or the slums of Harlem. Naturally this search for ecstatic freedom was not without a tragic dimension, as countless jazz (and rock) musicians sought the ‘ecstasy’ of which I am speaking through the paradis artificiel of drug use, from Billie Holiday and Charlie Mingus through to Bill Evans, Chet Baker and Emily Remler. And yet to those of us involved in improvised music we can understand and sympathize with their artistic idealism. Even if they often misguidedly expressed it through dangerous means, they were seeking what at heart all true artists seek – the sense of freedom found in surrendering oneself to a stream of inspiration, a ‘trust unconscious and precise’, to quote O’Siadhail once more. There is a universal quality to their search which is shared by us all on some level, musicians or non-musicians – the desire to abandon ourselves to something greater than our personal egos, whether that search for meaning draws us towards art, humanitarian or ecological causes, romantic love, philosophy or religion.

 

For at least some of us here tonight, the quest for this type of ‘ecstasy’, a freedom from self which leads us to freedom for and with other people (which we see exemplified in the interaction of musicians in a jazz trio), is deeply linked to the spiritual component in the human being. Contrary to the message communicated by much modern Western culture, this part of us cannot realize itself through the pursuit of selfish goals, worldly success, sexual gratification or chemical stimuli. It will be forever unsatisfied until it finds, in the immortal phrase of John Coltrane, turning from heroin to religion, ‘A Love Supreme’.[3]

Many centuries earlier, one of the greatest minds in Western culture and a deep thinker on music, St Augustine of Hippo, said much the same in other words at the opening of his Confessions: ‘Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’.[5]

 

 

NOTES

[1] Micheal O’Siadhail, Our Double Time (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1998, 93.[2] One theologian to make memorable use of the metaphor of God as a jazz musician in order to illustrate her concept of Divine action is the Catholic feminist writer Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ. Noting that many contemporary theologians are drawing on improvisatory metaphors pointing to ‘the importance of responsible human action in cooperation with God’s providential purpose, she cites: ‘

God is like a master theatrical improvisor in live performance, amplifying and embroidering each theme as it presents itself; like a choreographer composing steps in tandem with the creative insights of the whole dance troupe; like a composer of a fugue, starting with a simple line of melody and weaving a complex structure by endlessly folding it back upon itself; like a jazz player, inspired by the spirit of the audience and the night to improvise riffs upon a basic melody‘ (Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, ‘Does God Play Dice? Divine Providence and Chance’ in Theological Studies, vol. 56 (1996), 3-18, reprinted on-line at http://www.aaas.org/spp/dser/03_Areas/evolution/perspectives/Johnson_1996.shtml

[2] The memorial plaque quotes the concluding lines from Eluard’s ‘Freedom’: ‘I was born to know you, to name you Freedom’.
[3] Eluard penned an Ode to Stalin in 1950 ( it should be said that he was not alone within the Western intelligensia, other homages to the Soviet leader being penned by Eugène Guillevic and Pablo Neruda ).
[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (London: SCM Press, 2001), 138-139.
[4] John Coltrane (left: icon in Byzantine style by Mark Dukes, photo: Danisabella) was declared a saint in 1982 by the African Orthodox Church, which traces its apostolic credentials to the Patriarch of Antioch. A church is dedicated to him in San Francisco. In his study of Pentecostalism entitled Fire from Heaven, Baptist theologian Harvey Cox provides some typically thoughtful comment on what at first might seem like an outlandish canonization:

‘At first the theology and liturgy of St. John’s may strain the equanimity, or the credulity, of even the most ecumenically oriented Christian. But to me it makes sense. […] Pope John Paul II has made more saints than his five predecessors put together. The recognition that exceptional holiness and spirituality continue to manifest themselves in our own time is also a central pentecostal conviction. But John Coltrane?
That also makes a kind of sense. There is hardly anyone who symbolizes the consanguinity of jazz and spirituality better than Coltrane’

‘many people still find Coltrane’s music harsh, cacophonous, and at times almost unbearable. But like the plaintive chaos and outcry of pentecostal worship, it also pierces the skin of convention and can touch the hearer at a vital core. No one embodies better than Coltrane that strange kinship between pentecostal incantation and the spiritual lineage of jazz. No wonder they finally named a church after him.’ (Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: the Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality And The Reshaping of Religion In The 21st Century’ (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 1995), 154, 156.
[5] Confessions, 1.1.1.

 

 

 

Come now, thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal;
death, cast aside all the burdensome chains, and demolish
the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our soul which is blinded,
so that at last we may gaze upon that which here is begrudged us.
Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action
and suffering;
dying, we know thee now in the visage of God.’
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