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Seeing God in Jazz

The music of jazz and the art it inspires points to the incarnation of God.

The photographer captured Coltrane at that particular place of translation when his thoughts were posed to extend themselves through his instrument. This posture seems to be implicit in all of his music: thoughtful, penetrating, profound, reaching deep within himself, yet reaching out for more than he can quickly grasp. It echoes for me so much of the process of serious theological reflection. This photo of Coltrane with his horn is like unto a theologian at work or a preacher preparing to preach: soon thought must be given flight in voice, word, and action. The small space between his mouth and his horn mirrors the tight space between imagination and proclamation.

Louis Armstrong, William Gottlieb collectionsAlong this same line is the beautiful photo of Louis Armstrong. I love this photo because it shows us Armstrong at work. The visual instruction here is breathtaking. This is an older Armstrong, his age marked by both his face and hands. Yet I cannot look at this photo without immediately seeing a host of preachers with white shirt and white handkerchief, royal sweat rolling down their faces as they preached long and hard, bringing a congregation to its feet. Armstrong preaches through his horn, his face alive and sure, seeing the near but looking beyond the present to new possibilities for life.

I also appreciate the way some visual artists are able to capture sound in sight through their renditions of jazz musicians at play. Romare Bearden was a master of the musical visual. When I began teaching, the first piece of art I hung on the wall of my office was the Bearden piece below on the left. Bearden’s genius begins with his colors. When I look at the colors he uses, I hear the music. Beyond color, this master of collage perfectly depicts musicians. Art copyright Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY: www.vagarights.comThe guitar player, centrally positioned, is in musical flight as he leans toward the band, pressing to hear each player. He is no solo act. The sax and piano players lean toward each other, also gesturing the important work of listening. Behind them is the trumpeter reaching over all to be heard. The drummer and bass player look as though they are joined to their instruments and each other. This is indeed the truth of an effective rhythm section. They are the time keepers, the foundation on which all others build. They must be as one. Bearden’s work here (and other pieces) invites us to hear the music.

Churches could learn much from reflecting on a jazz band. Here are a group of people who work very hard at listening, yet give up nothing of themselves in that process, but in fact only gain a true sense of themselves in the common task of making music, producing sound that makes a central statement that exists only through the constitutive performances of each musician. The Bearden pieces I love all share this exquisite quality of showing the many driving toward the one -- the one sound, and the one ecstasy of playing well. I love the way he places musicians in very tight spaces reflecting the real world of most jazz club stages with their small spaces fit for big sounds. Musicians live and play in tight quarters, which is not only a matter of the given but also a matter of choice. They need closeness to hear. Would that Christians could grasp this basic truth of our witness: We don’t simply need each other, we need to be close together in order to truly hear the words we should be saying to the world and, equally important, to hear more clearly the voice of the world, in its pain, suffering, and longing.

Stanley Patrick, Courtesy of Willie JenningsJazz musicians in the midst of playing often gesture toward new possibilities, making visible the reality of hope. It is a moment of transfiguration. As we watch them play it is as though an in-breaking has occurred and who we thought they were and we were gives way to a new revealing. My dear wife had an uncle, Stanley Patrick, who was a school teacher and also a serious jazz pianist. Uncle Stanley grew up in the church at the time of the strict separation of music, gospel on the kingdom of light side and jazz belonging to another less honorable realm. Yet he defied that segregation and became one of Montreal’s most well-known jazzmen.

I keep this photo of him in my office because of the sheer serenity he exudes. As I look at it I can hear the piano