Many of the pictures I’ve chosen for this Lenten practice of mine, choosing photos from my collection and writing a few paragraphs inspired by the images, are comparatively recent. But this one goes back to my college days. Thus it is a print from fifty years ago.

Just before I took this photo of jazz pianist George Shearing, I had done my very first radio interview with him. Imagine that. My first ever interview was with Shearing. I carried a small cassette tape recorder into an intimate practice room in the school’s Conservatory of Music, and bungled my way through a conversation with the man who wrote “The Lullaby of Birdland.” No prep on my part. No idea how to proceed. So, the photo I took from backstage during the George Shearing Quartet concert turned out far better than the interview.

That said, Mr. Shearing was more than tolerant of my inept questioning during our time together. He projected grace, a generous spirit, and good humor, and I can still hear it in his voice over the hiss of the shearingfragile tape these five decades later.

Obviously, this image sings jazz to me. Piano, bass, drums, and vibes. When I started this blog many years ago, the title “Peace, Grace, and Jazz” came to me, almost something I could use as benedictory words. Peace…of course, as in “peace be with you.” Grace…as in that gift freely received and generously offered to others. And jazz? Just to be clever? No. Because I do wish you jazz.

Here’s what appeals to me about that genre of American music, now so internationally appreciated. Jazz is creative, rhythmic, and improvisational. I think a form of it was the first music I heard. At least, the first records played on the Kellam phonograph were 78 rpm big band era tunes from my parents’ WW2 days. That era was a couple of generations removed from the birth of the “jazz age,” and the musicians bowed to the public’s desire for danceable tunes and more tame lyrics, but some trumpets still wailed, basses got slammed, and drums kept syncopation alive, even if the “Blues in the Night” lyrics were not exactly  as achingly painful when sung by Dinah Shore.

Besides my own history, that is, growing up in the fading echoes of those jazz bands, I personally love the inventiveness of the music, especially when musicians leave the printed notes behind and let the spirit of jazz inform their improvisation, freely springing (or swinging) into wherever their souls want to fly.

I’m with those who remember that the roots of jazz are in the fields, where call and response and spirituals were the musical seeds of the blues. In thinking about the connection of jazz and church, I came across this un-attributed quotation from Stephen Longstreet’s The Real Jazz Old and New:

When the slave came to talk to God with a banjo he played what he heard by ear, or liked by ear. And when he got a piano he played it sinful or godlike. He played his music in clapboard churches, or for the purpose of the open-air evangelist, or he became the professor in a Storyville whorehouse, with ragtime or barrelhouse, in saloons or wherever music was wanted for a burial or a parade or a fish-fry.

Lament, Longstreet wrote, reached a high level of folk art. But I suppose, so did praise! I have written of “jazz vespers” in previous posts in this Peace, Grace, and Jazz journal, so I need not plagiarize myself here. And my friend Bill Carter and I produced a DVD called “Jazz Belongs in Church,” where our shared credo is expressed musically and theoretically. (www.presbybop.com is where you can find that resource.) It’s enough to add here that even Lent lends itself to jazz expression (or does jazz lend itself to Lent?).

Lent is blues, minor key or not. The tenor sax sings the psalm, the piano plays repentance and forgiveness, the drums and sticks and brushes and cymbals join the bass in the pulse beat of wandering in wilderness and lingering in garden and hanging on crosses.

The vibes of Lent? Like bells calling us to church.

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