Jazz Theology

Way back when, when I were young, I used to play the piano and the trumpet. I learned  classical piano and trumpet, and was an orchestral player. Until my late teens, there wasn’t a lot of jazz music in my world, despite the best efforts of my father, who would occasionally appear with ‘Best Of… ’ collections of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. But for a year, when I was about fifteen, I had a piano teacher who was a jazz pianist, when he wasn’t being a flautist and music teacher. As a school music teacher he was relatively disasterous – he remains one of the very few people I’ve ever heard my mother be sarcastic about – but he did, besides preparing me for my Grade Six piano, teach me some basic jazz chords and encourage me to try improvisiation on both piano and trumpet.

I still don’t really play jazz myself (and neither piano or trumpet exactly go well in a life currently based out of a top floor flat in London, so I’ve taken up the ukulele, but that’s not really either here or there, for the present conversation) but I do have a rough grasp of the basics – of the rules – of jazz.  And since discovering Duke Ellington and Miles Davis in my early twenties (who are basically gateway drugs to jazz) I’ve been really grateful for that grounding because it’s given me a sense of what’s going on when I listen to jazz or when I read reviews of artists and albums I might be interested in listening to.  Jazz is one of those things where it can help to have an understanding of the musical background in order to get at a deeper apprecation of the music.  It’s hardly alone in that – I tend to be of the opinion that more knowledge and understanding makes any subject richer, from kids’ picture books to Bach’s cantatas – but it kinda feels more so, becase jazz – especially live jazz – can feel like a bit of an insider world that you learn from within the club and that only experts get to play in.   But… that says more about our insecurities than it does about jazz. In fact, the main thing, if you want to learn about jazz is to show up, be interested, and try something out.

“Those like Charlie Parker who went to hear Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins in Kansas City in the 1930s got a chance to blow with them at after-hours jam sessions later the next morning. Miles Davis and Max Roach served their apprenticeship first by listening to and then by sitting in with Parker at Minton’s and the Fifty-second Street clubs, learning as they went along. In their turn, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Jackie Maclean, and dozens of others who went on to school many of the leading players of the 1970s and 1980s learned their trade, as McLean put it, ”in the university of Miles Davis … Because jazz has continued evolving in this way, it has remained uniquely in touch with the animating force of its origins. From time to time in his solos a saxophonist may quote from other musicians, but every time he picks up his horn he cannot avoid commentating, automatically and implicitly, even if only through his own inadequacy, on the tradition that has laid this music at his feet.”
(Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful, p.185)

I may not be Charlie Parker or Herbie Hancock, but I can learn keys and cadences, chord sequences and beats, and I can bang out a tiny tune that imitates and builds on the tunes I’ve heard before.  I just have to want to try it out.  And if I did it more, I’d get better at it.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about jazz recently, as I’ve gone through the first six weeks of the first module of the first year of a theological college-vicar factory – which I’m auditing.  The course is called Introducing Theology: Forming a Missionary Church, and we’ve started off which six weeks looking at the sources that we draw on when we do theology.

The official module guide says the following:

This module therefore aims to enable students to:
* explore different models of theology in general, and of contextual, missional theology in particular.
* learn to connect theological themes with the practicalities of developing an approach to mission in the local church.
* consider the structures through which the Church has attempted to engage in mission, with particular reference to Christendom and post-Christendom mission paradigms.
* explain the consequences of modern-day socio-cultural changes for the mission and ministry of the Church.
* apply the implications of this approach to theology, church and mission to their own expectations of and preparation for public ministry and Christian leadership.

Which all sounds quite high-powered and a bit heavy. But actually, what it’s teaching us to do, is play jazz.  Christ-centred jazz.   And like jazz, really, all you have to do is show up and try it out.

Like jazz, Christianity has it’s own internal world. Lawrence Lessig, an American lawyer, describes it perfectly (though he’s talking about the internet), as an, “Architecture… that structures and constrains…  to the end of protecting fundamental values.” (Code 2.0, p.4).  We learn about this architecture by living within the community: in kid’s church and home group, through observing others, reading and listening, in the same way that we learn grammar in school, in reading, in having our homework corrected – or we learn to play jazz from music teachers, and playing in bands, or from lying on the floor listening to Miles Davis doing his thing.  The more time we spend living in this community, the more natural its world becomes and .  And we learn what can and should shift and stretch and be applied different in living out the bit of the story we’re living.  We learn to split infinitives and to boldly go. To break out of the same old riff and emerge playing So What (or at least, we can dream of ourselves doing it…).

But becoming aware of this architecture and how it comes together is helpful to being a disciple. Just like becoming aware of how chords work and go well in sequence is helpful if you want to play jazz.  It helps us make sense of where we are and where we should go or not go next.

“Our task is to discover, through the Spirit and prayer, the appropriate ways of improvising the script between the foundation events and the charter on the one hand and the complete coming of the kingdom on the other…”
(N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, p.93)

In our first week of the course, the Dean reflected on Mark 12:28–34: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul… and love your neighbour as yourself,” and the way that theology is an expression of that love – it is somehing that we do as we try and work out how to do that better.   As Jane Williams put it later that day: ’You’re already theologians.  You do theology because you pray, because you talk about God and read the scriptures, and are part of a worshipping community.  This is time to become more self-conscious of that, and more practiced users of all that God has given us – as part of learning how to do mission.”

At it’s most formal, which is what I’m doing in college, it’s about learning about the things that theologians categorise as scripture, revelation, tradition, experience, reason and culture – but honestly, it’s just about understanding the world we come and live in as Christians – about how to be in the Kingdom of God.

And yes, I may not be the next Bonhoeffer, or the next Charlie Parker, and you may never want to go to theological college, and I will certainly never ever be accepted to the Royal School of Music or play at Ronnie Scott’s.  But honestly if a bunch of fisherman and rebels with limited education from a place that was a backwater in its own province, let alone in the bigger world of the Roman Empire, could learn from a Rabbi about how to be people of faith who change a world, then so can you and I.

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