Seeing God in Jazz
I am a great lover of jazz. It entered my soul around the same time gospel music and sacred hymns began to give shape to the contours of my feelings and dreams. My parents, like most of the church folks who raised me, upheld a strict separation between sacred and secular sounds. I never really heard the difference the way they heard it. All the music of my youth, both in and out of church, was blues-drenched, jazz-laden, and jazz-gesturing -- or should I say gospel-drenched, gospel-laden, and gospel-gesturing.
Like so many other theologians brought up in the church, I cannot imagine things theological apart from things artistic. It was not only listening to the music but also the visual experience of watching people playing, singing, and dancing that helped introduce me to God. If I listened carefully and looked intently I could catch glimpses of something not definable, certainly not quantifiable, but nonetheless actually present. It might be called the work of the Holy Spirit, the operations of grace on the human creature.
I prefer to think of it as being seen more than seeing, that is, being in the presence of a God who sees us and allows us to give voice through our bodies to the depths of the human life that God has created. The “gift of expression” is probably too small a phrase to capture what I see as musicians give flight to their art. The human creature is a profound mystery, especially in its visibility. Christian theology has always been plagued with the danger of a terrible one-sidedness in which we place mystery on the divine side of things and forget the mystery of creaturely life itself. The incarnate life of God shown to us in Jesus Christ challenges that one-sidedness.
In Jesus, God did not remove the complexity of the divine life but became a companion for us, inviting us to live freely in the absolute unfathomable depths of grace and divine love. The Son of God’s life introduced us to the awesome complexity of the human creature itself. We are much more than we can grasp, understand, or certainly control, each of us and all of us together. What I have learned by listening to and watching so many musicians, especially jazz musicians, is what it means to give witness to that complexity.
Certainly jazz musicians are not the only musicians that might be singled out. I could add a whole host of other types of musicians from a wide variety of cultures and artistic traditions. But I think of jazz musicians because they have found their way to the front of the camera and the canvas of so many visual artists who have captured beautiful angles into their lives and art. But what they have also done in ways quite astounding has been to capture glimpses into the depths of human existence in the presence of God. I especially appreciate both photographs and paintings of musicians in artistic flight.
I love this picture of Billie Holiday, which is part of the legendary collections of photos done by William P. Gottlieb. The expression on her face reminds me of so many other singers I have watched sing and make productive use of their anguish and pain. Holiday had the perfect voice for jazz, not overly powerful, not a pure sound, but one that was deeply human. Her life story was majestically complex, and her music expresses the density of a life composed of twists and turns. This photo conveys an imperial mournfulness focused by the demands placed on a body to find the right note. Her extended neck, closed eyes, and wide-open mouth all reflect the hard work of singing something right. This photo always reminds me of the many church women I grew up hearing and watching as they contorted their faces reaching for the notes their minds could hear and expressing the emotions their hearts were determined to set free. There is something so biblical, indeed godly, about the face of a woman singing out of anguish, even if the anguish is a distant memory leaving only its imprint in the expressive work of singing. I always see that imprint when I look at this photo of Billie Holiday.
Another favorite of mine is the classic photo of a young John Coltrane (below far right) . This face-on photo of Coltrane as he is in a meditative posture suggests the powerful future that will unfold for this young black man.