This week in the religious world we have holidays and Holy days -- not just in one world religion but two. It is Holy week leading up to Easter for Christians, and this Friday begins Passover for those in the Jewish faith. So today I thought I would talk about jazz -- the sacredness of jazz, the movement of jazz, and how jazz can be a conduit for the person of faith.
Jazz, uniquely birthed in the United States, is a gift from the African American communities of New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, its roots in blues and ragtime. Jazz is seen by many as "America's classical music.” Since the 1920s jazz has become recognized as a major form of musical expression. Jazz characteristics are swing, blue notes, call and response, vocals, polyrhythms, and improvisation.
Jazz the musical genre is life giving, beautiful, and complicated; the jazz ensemble is a poetic metaphor for life.
In a jazz piece, as in life we know there is a beginning (Part I) and that there is an end death/or life’s transition, (the piece is finished). But wait, wait, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before you get to the end there is the middle, i.e. the bulk of the piece, where everything happens. And it is the middle where we probably struggle the most. It is where our most important decisions happen. We decide about our education, who we marry, if we marry. We experiment and decide our career, whether or not to be parents. It is the middle of life when we experience moves, conflict, resolution, reconciliation, death, and new life. It is in the middle where many of our most profound decisions and rituals happen. It is the middle that feeds us, nurtures us, and we play with it. It is glorious fun. We get a chance to fall in love with life over and over again because it is in this middle with all this life that we are living. We improvise and adjust as needed like the best artist we can be.
And the beautiful thing is none of us has to go it alone, we have got our ensembles.
Like the jazz artist we are part of an ensemble. In fact we are part of many an ensembles. There is the ensemble of family, the ensemble of friends, the ensemble of the work place, and the ensemble of the faith community. So when we are feeling blue we can reach out to our ensembles and play.
We get to improvise with our ensembles. We are always negotiating relationships and our place in those relationships, and because of that movement we can put into balance what needs to be put into balance. We just have to be willing to play and be an engaging participant.
Being engaged in life, with all of the many ensembles, works with a little soulful give and take. Know it is about the relationship not about always playing the perfect note. It can be easier and in fact honored when we can be great improvisers!
The best playing in jazz is knowing how and when to improvise. The most holy moments when I am watching live jazz is seeing the communication going on between the players. There is an intimacy and trust there. The piano player hearing the saxophonist play their part realizes something really good is happening that was not on the page, something so good that the piano player drops out even though the “dropping” out is not written on the page. The piano player being fully in the moment realizes the piano is not needed. The piano player just lets the song of the saxophonist’s voice be heard. And it is holy.
Well friends, we have come to the end of the piece. The musicians have put their instruments away and we have experienced what some may call a death. But for this thinker it is not over. Within our memories we will always have the imprint of the musicians playing so passionately for us. And every time we relive the ensemble playing the songs in our minds we experience a resurrection: life anew. The band does play on. Having this new information in our past, we are now well informed for our future, looking for and experiencing that perfect jazz playing moment.
And remember what makes it perfect is not that every note is right, but that everyone in the ensemble is playing together, understanding that they are all interconnected to one another at all times. And it is good.
Reverend Dr. Monica Corsaro is a United Methodist clergy from Galesburg.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.