DSC07317.jpg{Almost halfway through Lent, and another mug appears. Number 18.}

Once upon a long time ago, Bill Carter, Presbyterian pastor and pianist of the jazz persuasion, asked me to help produce a two-hour video about the lively intersection of church and jazz. There’s the title and the logo, right on the mug. (It’s still available through www.presbybop.com, not the mug…the video.)

As I type this I am anticipating a local jazz jam at which the Rev. Mr. Carter and some of the Presbybop organization will be playing. The word “jam” may have the connotation of a free-for-all. It’s not quite that. There is some structure involved; one might even call it “ritual.” Generally a player comes out of the audience with his or her instrument and some sheets of music for the other musicians to play from. There are actual notes written on those pages, and, while I’m not a musician myself, I assume that the whole band begins with those printed notes. Then after the melody is established, one instrumentalist begins to improvise. And then another. Twelve measures? Thirty-two? Maybe the pianist, followed by a sax player, and then the bassist. And after these featured soloists, the band plays again as one and finishes the tune together. Usually.

What makes this a jam and not a polished concert is that no one really knows what music will be suggested/offered/played that night. No one knows who will show up to play (beyond the few hired for the rhythm section). There is certainly no rehearsal. And the improvised riffs are a surprise to the accompanying band members, the audience, and probably to the soloists themselves. “I never know what’s coming out of that horn,” a player admitted to me once. Did I say admitted? It may not have been so much a confession as a boast!

Now, I know nothing about chordal leaps and neighbor tones, nor about interval inversions or … all I know is improvisation frees the musician from the page and she can swing, fly, dance, play until there’s a landing place or resolution; you can’t improvise forever. But the good news is, you can improvise. That said, jazz musicians usually have to be taught to improvise; there are some basic rules. Beyond the teaching/learning process, young jazz musicians then have to be not merely allowed to fly, but encouraged, urged, even forced out of their comfort zone, and right there in front of classmates, right there in front of the audience. I’ll bet it’s scary at first. But eventually, liberating. As is creativity itself.

Jazz belongs in church. For one reason, churches, like most well-established institutions, get used to routine, rituals that become worn, patterns that lead to boredom. Keeping things safe, keeping things in check…the way they’ve always been…is the main idea for many organizations that have been around for more than a while. So, engaging the creativity of improvisation can be freeing for bogged down churches. Risk something new!It’s scary, but eventually liberating. And enlivening.

Jazz belongs in church also because a jazz composition is never played exactly the same way. With every jazz group (trio, quintet, big band), and with every individual interpretation of the printed notes, and every improvised motive, the original song becomes a new song. The Psalmist said (sang!) “O sing to the Lord a new song.” If anyone can model new directions, fresh approaches, creative mission for old churches, it’s the jazz musician. Jesus said, “Look! I make all things new!” Jazz can be the soundtrack.

Jazz belongs in church because its compositions involve recurring themes and countless variations. In church, consider the theme of grace. Look for its variations. Love, forgiveness, hope, reconciliation…recurring themes throughout scripture. And as we adopt those themes in our lives, daily circumstances demand our improvisations. Life happens, you know. So, improvise a new take on grace. Or home. Or justice. It might be scary, but will lead to liberation.

Jazz belongs in church because both share a rhythm. For the church, its time signature is the liturgical year. Advent. Christmas. Epiphany. Lent. And…wait. Lent. It’s time for the blues. Let it play in the colors of gray skies and violet bruises, of silver spikes and scarlet blood. A minor chord…or no chord at all…one note, a piano’s pounding hammer.

Lent: the rhythm is at once funereal, and then an irregular beat, maybe an unsteady pulse. Sounds more like Holy Week. We are getting ahead of ourselves.

I improvise as I write these reflections. That’s fairly obvious if you have read the whole lot. The mug in the cupboard is the given. Its design or logo is the motif. Then, I improvise during Lent and hope for some resolution by the time the last word is typed.

Like now, man. Like now.