jazz


 

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Grand Teton National Park

{Lent 2018 has provided me with time to let my photographs prompt some writing. The days dwindle down to a precious few, as the old song says.}

As I age I grow aware of my limitations. This is the time of our lives when we just have to admit that some things we had hoped to do, or dreamed of doing one day, or even things we had once enjoyed — well, those things are no longer possible.

This is not to say that advancing age means we are now invalids, or in-valid as persons. It simply means that we know we must learn to deal with some limitations. While retirement has brought awesome (I rarely use that word unless I mean it) opportunities for travel, our sight-seeing reminds us that our trails are shorter, our hikes less intense, our energy levels not what they were when we were 35. No kidding, huh? You too?

There we were in Grand Teton National Park. We had hiked, and thoroughly enjoyed the journey over some fairly easy trails. But looking into the distance at that grand panorama, it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be climbing any of those peaks. Just gazing at them from afar would have to do.

 

There was a time, however, that I climbed, and with a heavy backpack weighing

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The Writer Back When…

me down. I’m not a veteran climber of the most challenging high peaks, handling ropes, harnesses, rappel devices, grip savers, etc. I liked the smaller challenges of Virginia sections of the Appalachian Trail, or hiking up Montreat’s Lookout Mountain in western North Carolina. I had the legs back then, and the energy, and the will. Today, I still have the will, but less energy, and a bad knee. So my climbs are more modest. I know my limits.

 

That expanse of water in the photo above prompts another limitation of mine. After three local attempts at swimming lessons when I was a kid, and even after a couple of years of weekly classes in college, I am not a swimmer. I never got over my fear of high water. I guess I could do the back stroke, but why would I want to? So, swimming in that lake, or canoeing or kayaking? No, thanks. It’s been a lifetime limitation; not one related to aging. What is related to my growing more elderly is the realization that at my age, I do not hold out much hope that I will ever learn to swim. Please…I know it’s possible. But, I’ve gotten along just fine, so far. I like boat rides, from my friend Matt Matthews’ speed boat ride through Hampton Roads, to transatlantic cruises on huge ships.

A recent episode in deep water brought back my water-related phobia. We were in the Caribbean and a boat ride was to take us to an island for lunch. When the boat’s pilot learned I wasn’t a swimmer, he rather casually noted, “Hmmm, that might be a problem. There’s no dock I can get to there. We usually anchor a ways out and swim in for lunch. But I’ll try to get as close as I can. If the tide is right, you can probably wade in.” Probably. I left the boat and the water was chest high. All I could think of was stepping into some hole and… Or, what if the tide rose a bit and water that was chest high would be over my head? Turns out, the wading thing worked, and I am here to write this.

Living with limitations is something we all have to adjust to. And aging does mean the limitations grow. But, for every sign of slowing down, there is an opportunity to compensate. I won’t be learning to swim and enjoy water sports. So what? I won’t miss it. But, look, I’ve learned to over-write about it! (Freshman composition professor Dr. Bleasby would not be pleased.) I have other skills I can continue to develop. I may not be able to climb Mt. Ranier’s peak, but I can take a lesser trail there and pull out my camera. I may not follow my cousin Danny around the track at Watkins Glen at 100 mph, but I’m content to put miles and miles on my RAV4 between here and there.

One more limitation I’ve learned to live with. I can’t play an instrument. I go to jazz jams and wonder what it would be like to just get up there and play…play anything! Piano. Guitar. Trombone. But as I near the end of my third quarter of a century, I’m realistic. If I didn’t have the self-discipline to practice back then, what makes me think I would be able to “take lessons” now, and how much time would it take to actually play well? (The estimate, I’ve heard, is 10,000 hours. OK then.) So, while I can’t blow into a mouthpiece, strum strings, or beat a drum, I am a big fan of those who can. I am a music appreciation junkie. And, thanks to an invitation a few months ago, I am writing a monthly column about jazz artists in our community.

I live with one limitation after another, but adjust, adapt, compensate, and continue to bloom where I’m planted. Like a weed.

One more limitation: my understanding of God. The older I get, the more the Mystery deepens. One would think that after some sixty-plus years of Christian education and nurture, my aging would bring my theology into clearer focus. Maybe I have a theological cataract that’s come with age. I certainly hold to my faith, but my system of belief is blurrier. Maybe that’s not really a limitation after all. Maybe it’s a liberation. I am free to be me, and God is free to be God.

And perhaps — just maybe — that is indeed the wideness in God’s mercy!DSC06037

 

 

 

 

 

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{Lent, forty days of meditative preparation for the Easter celebration…and these written reflections inspired (if one can say that) by mugs I see each day in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. Crazy, I know.}

Look… this mug is dated: 1989. I was hosting the “B-103 Jazz Brunch,” oDSC07385n Sunday mornings in Richmond, Virginia. Somehow this mug, promoting a jazz album by sax player Kirk Whalum found its way to me, along with the CD “The Promise.” The contemporary sound fit right into my format, so it got a lot of play, and Whalum, only into his third recording at that time, was becoming a well-known sideman and “smooth jazz” artist.  To be signed by Columbia was a big deal, of course, and to have a mug! Well.

Now, here I was a minister competing with myself, with one of me leading worship in a Richmond church and one of me on the radio at the same time, playing jazz. One Sunday, a parishioner who had just been listening to the Jazz Brunch in the car on the way to church asked me how I could be two places at once, I explained that in church I was on tape. Maybe one of the tunes I had played that morning was “The Promise.” It would have fit right in, theologically speaking. Because one of the primary influences on Kirk Whalum as he grew up in Memphis was “gospel.”

In the liner notes of that CD, Whalum wrote:

“The Promise”: If you will choose Me, I have already chosen you. Receive my love and I won’t reject you. It’s that simple. (see Ephesians 1:3-12 for more details)

Another cut on the album is entitled “I Receive Your Love.” In the context of the cited scripture text, the tune isn’t about a romantic relationship, but about accepting the unconditional love of God. And a third tune on the CD is called “Ma Foi c’est Ma Vie.” Translated, “My faith is my life.” While the Jazz Brunch wasn’t a religious show at all, Whalum’s music surely added a sacred element to the weekly proceedings.

All these years later, Whalum has played with the greats, recorded some classics (it’s his sax we hear on Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”), won Grammy Awards, and recorded four collections called “The Gospel According to Jazz,” featuring jazz interpretations of traditional and contemporary gospel tunes.

I titled this reflection “Promise,” based on the Whalum CD and the mug, but the word is full of meaning in the Christian faith. Whalum connected the word to that passage from Ephesians, but “promise” is a theme that has roots going back to the rainbow covenant that followed the Flood in the book of Genesis. Covenant (agreement), assurance, prediction…while the word “promise” isn’t specifically cited in the Hebrew Scriptures, the meaning is there. Offspring to Abraham and Sarah, a land to Israel, a world to God’s liking as seen by the Prophets…promises kept.

In the New Testament, there is assurance that the ancient promises are both fulfilled and being fulfilled, and the word promise is present both as noun and verb.

We all grew up hearing and making promises. “Promise me you won’t run into the street again!” “Promise that you won’t ever smoke,” a parent says to the child. “Promise me you’ll quit smoking!” the child says. Some of us said the Scout oath. Some made wedding vows. And some have made a loyalty oath or baptism promises. If someone swears, it is either promise or profanity, isn’t it? And breaking a solemn promise is profane.

Early in his career, someone must have told Kirk Whalum that he had great promise, meaning that his talents would lead, most certainly, to success as a musician and as a person. Each life has certain predictors, for better or worse. One promise we might make to our children, to our communities, to ourselves, is to encourage and empower the best use of talents and abilities in service to others. Lent would be a good time to reflect on how to live up to our promises to one another. Especially if we have accepted the love of God as described in Whalum’s tune “The Promise.”

One more note about that promotional mug, maybe irony, or just a smile. Here is a CD with some religious sensibility, some theological notes in the music aDSC07386nd the printed insert. But on the reverse side of the mug, is this: “Sax in the Morning.” OK. It’s the clever side that will appeal to the jazz deejays who have the mug on their desks for staff to joke about. It’ll grab attention, and maybe draw eyes to the other side that shows the album info.

Sax in the morning? On my Jazz Brunch? Perfect. But we all know that sax is great anytime! The promise is sure.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

{Another mug for another day in Lent 2017. If you’ve landed here without knoDSC07382wing the rationale for this odd series of reflections, you are on your own.}

When I contributed a modest financial gift to the performance space created in an old firehouse, I got this mug as a thank you. The Schorr Family contributed a huge gift and got the place named after them. I’m happy with the mug.

I wind up at the Firehouse Stage a couple of times a month on average. There are jazz jams, comedy and magic shows, concerts, and plays, all in a fairly intimate space, with the audience at tables where wine and cheese, coffee and Cokes, and popcorn keep stomachs from growling during the shows.

Across the parking lot from the old firehouse is the hulking Goodwill Theatre building, a long-dark auditorium built in 1920 by a generous local shoe magnate George F. Johnson. His thousands of shoe workers enjoyed George F.’s parks, carousels, health services, even a golf course, as well as the massive Goodwill Theatre with its vaudeville acts and concerts. Through its years, the venue became a commercially-owned movie house renamed the Enjoy Theatre (1932), at first promising family-friendly films, but in its final days relying on X-rated movies to sell tickets. Closed now for decades, the building is slated for renewal, not the urban kind that tears down, but the artistic kind that restores or renovates for new purposes. Until that happens, the Firehouse Stage serves as a sign of both promise and commitment.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that these Lenten reflections on coffee mugs are lodged in my blog entitled “Peace, Grace, and Jazz.” As a fan of all three, I do write about jazz now and then, and rarely miss the jams that bring together local (and sometimes regional) jazz musicians. Most of these performers are professionals, some local instrumental music teachers in schools, others having toured with big bands or well-known jazz artists. A piano-bass-drums trio might play a ballad, and then be joined by a vocalist and sax player, and then just about every musician in the house might join in a spontaneous big band blast. I love it all. And I fantasize. I admit it. I think, what a kick it would be to sing with that band!

But I am not a singer. I’m not a musician. My only contribution to these jams is buying a $10 ticket, nursing a Coke, tapping my feet, and applauding the performers. It’s way too late in my life for regrets, but I do lament not sticking with those junior high trombone lessons. I didn’t try very hard to master the instrument back then. I have been plagued with a serious malady since childhood: a lack of self-discipline. Maybe it would have worked out better if I had some musical aptitude to begin with. Apparently it’s not genetic. My Dad was a drummer in high school, and my Mom played sax. Mom’s mother played piano. Me? Not one of my gifts.

I’ve sung in choirs, and had a rather decent, at least passable, bass voice. But it was best that I blend in and not stand out. Probably appropriate for an introvert anyway, right? Performance is just not my thing. At Firehouse jazz jams or anywhere else. I can wish it were otherwise, but as they say, “If wishes were horses…”

Still, as a pastor-preacher certainly I was a performer of sorts. I played a part, enacted a role, each Sunday there in the pulpit. “Preaching” is not natural, you know. The script we follow is, one would hope, a well-written sermon,* and in seminary we learned to “deliver” that message with some degree of drama, some flare, emotion, sensitivity to the text, and empathy with our listeners. Droning on as if we were reading the now-proverbial phonebook would be unfaithful to the call to effectively articulate the power of the Gospel. If this is Good News we preach, and we whole-heartedly believe it is, then the use of voice, gesture, facial expression, and even that dramatic “beat” (pause) contribute to the next step in the Sunday morning play: moving the congregation to become performers!

The strength of the church’s mission is in the performance of those who act out the love they proclaim with their lips, the compassion they hold in their hearts. There is no guarantee that anyone will applaud their actions, or otherwise reward them. But if we treat love as the verb it is, and if we act with grace, and if the music of our lives is set to the rhythm of God’s heart, certainly the performing of acts of peace and justice will make the world’s stage a better venue for our life together.

Many years ago, somewhere in a Pennsylvania city, I happened on a troupe of actors and musicians who were performing in a small park connected with a shopping mall. There they were, probably scheduled but unannounced, doing an extended skit about how time rules our lives. The production was obviously well-rehearsed, and designed for an open public space, where passersby might stop by and watch for awhile. Some folks stayed for the duration, while others, perhaps more ruled by time, took notice but hurried on. I was impressed by the singing voices and the acting chops of these thespians, as well as their willingness to engage their audience in conversation after the last applause had died down.

Perhaps these days we would call what that troupe did a “flash mob.” I prefer “street theater.” It may sound new, but it’s old hat for the Church. In the Middle Ages, this was known as vernacular drama. Villagers saw miracle plays, morality plays, and mystery plays. That Pennsylvania cast was part of a very long, though interrupted, tradition: teachable moments or inspiring stories acted out on whatever public stage is available. It grabs peoples’ attention. They then tell someone else about the experience, and the word spreads. Maybe it even becomes a “thing” going viral in the Internet. And what fun for a church’s youth group. Or, an intergenerational troupe. As long as they’re not introverts. Maybe they’d be the writers.

I’d better end this now. I have to brush up on the lyrics to “Bim Bam Baby,” in case they call me up to sing at the next Firehouse Stage Jazz Jam.


*I wrote that line recognizing that not every sermon is written out, word for word. I’m a better communicator when the Spirit moves me to write rather than leaving me to ad lib.

[This is a conclusion to the entry from yesterday, an excerpt from my radio script for “The Spirit of Jazz” radio program.]

It was Gandhi who said, “There is an indefinable, mysterious power that pervades everything. I feel it though I do not see it. It is this Unseen Power which makes itself felt and yet defies all proof because it is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses.”

As we consider the gift of mystery on this Spirit of Jazz program, maybe a listener or two, well… both of you…. are thinking, Hey, just turn to the Bible and the mystery is solved. The mystery of the one the creeds call “truly God, truly human,” or the mystery of the cross, or the empty grave, or the mystery of amazing grace… Oh, to be sure, the holy scriptures are filled with many questions and many answers and many more  questions…but there is still lots of room for wondering, puzzling, being mystified if you will.  The philosopher of Ecclesiastes, for example, put it this way: No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.

And the Apostle Paul, who seemed to have an opinion on everything under the sun, wrote “…for now we see as in a mirror dimly…” or as a recent translation says, “Now all we can see of God is like a cloudy picture in a mirror…” Still another way to say it comes from Eugene Peterson’s The Message: We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist.

So Paul says, in essence, “Look, since there is still in this life this mystery, we are left with three things: faith, hope, and love. And you probably know the rest: the greatest of these is … love. God’s for us, ours for God, and for each other. Maybe there’s nothing more mysterious than unconditional love!

More “mystery music” now from Miles Davis….this is simply called “Mystery.” [from the CD entitled “Doo-bop.”]

CLOSE (over Davis’ tune): That’s aptly entitled “Mystery” from the often mysterious Miles Davis, on “The Spirit of Jazz.” It’s no mystery that “The Spirit of Jazz” is produced by the Presbytery of Geneva for Geneva Community Radio. This is Jeff Kellam, inviting you in the coming week to embrace every mystery, every question mark, that comes your way, always being gentle with people, and with yourself.

 

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[One of my favorite programs in the “Spirit of Jazz” half-hour radio series centered on “Mystery.” The series originally aired in the early 1990s, syndicated to a handful of stations in larger markets by the Presbyterian Media Mission of Pittsburgh. I added a few new programs when the older shows played on an internet station in 2011-12. This script was one of the last among the newer programs.]

This week on “The Spirit of Jazz” we consider a sense of mystery.

Not the kind of mystery that we’d call a “who-done-it?” or a crime that Jethro Gibbs and his NCIS team would be involved in solving. No, let’s go deeper… like the mystery of life itself…not in order to come to any solution or ultimate understanding, nor to draw even a preliminary conclusion…but just to admit that there IS mystery, and that it’s perfectly OK to confess that we possess no key to unlock its secrets. That which we do not, will not, cannot understand – let us merely name it, embrace it, be grateful for it, and draw power from it.

As we begin, here is the jazz classic from Thelonius Monk: “Mysterioso.”

[music plays] and then…

I’ve been thinking about the mystery of it all recently. And I suppose the older I get, and I am getting pretty old, the more comfortable I am with the whole idea of “not knowing.” Maybe all of us who are well along in years are becoming more like children in that way. To the very young, isn’t almost everything a bit of a mystery?  Why is the sky blue? Where did I come from? Most of us who have raised children remember that constant question: why? At some point we ourselves may have stopped asking, but never, I hope, stopped wondering  — questioning, searching, puzzling —  why are things the way they are? Isn’t the brain a mysterious thing? What will death be like? How does reiki work?  Or, does it?Why did my friend Mark get cancer? Why…well, why a lot of things!

Now, admittedly, some folks are not amused by this “mystery” stuff. They don’t like encountering things they don’t understand, can’t explain, or fully quantify.  We live in a world of black and white, with not much room for gray, and rarely a tint of color. But mystery is so cloudy, and so colorful, and so full of gifts that keep us wondering and in awe of possibilities, and thankful, if we have the imagination to consider it, for all we do not know and may yet grow into. You want all the answers? No way is God going to let that happen!

What is the question you are dealing with right now? What’s the mystery you are confronting as this minute passes into the next? Here’s some mystery music to use as your soundtrack to wonder with: Pianist Marcus Roberts, and “Mysterious Interlude.”

[Music plays] and then…

That does sound mysterious, doesn’t it? From his CD called Deep in the Shed, Marcus Roberts and “Mysterious Interlude.”  On the Spirit of Jazz, we’re considering the meaning of mystery.

The rabbi and author Lawrence Kushner once wrote: The first mystery is simply that there is a mystery. A mystery that can never be explained or understood. Only encountered from time to time. Nothing is obvious. Everything conceals something else….Spiritual awareness is born of encounters with the mystery.

Fred Brussat liked how a French writer put it: There is nothing beautiful or sweet or great in life that is not mysterious. And Brussat adds, “The erotic touch that stirs our desire, the majesty of a rainbow from horizon to horizon, the feelings of power in a sacred place, the voice of a deceased ancestor in our ears, the unconditional love of a pet… all mystery.

That mention of the rainbow is interesting. It’s not really the mystery it used to be, because science has explained it all to us, and if we didn’t learn the science of it in school, there’s always Wikipedia. And yet, who doesn’t stop to look at the wonder of the rainbow. Its beauty can’t be explained.

While the Higgs boson may not be the mystery it used to be, won’t it continue to mystify and defy our human understanding for a very long time to come? Will wonders never cease? No. And that’s why mystery is such a gift.

Some more thoughts after this jazz from  our Spirit of Jazz “house band,” Bill Carter and the Presbybop Quartet, from the 2-CD set “Psalms without Words”  — “Deep Calls unto Deep,” from the 42nd psalm that expresses deep thirst for the face of God.

[music plays] and then…

“Deep Calls Unto Deep”… with composer Bill Carter on Piano, and Al Hamme on sax.

One of my favorite authors and theologians is the Presbyterian Frederick Buechner. In one of his older books called Wishful Thinking he writes,

“There are mysteries which you can solve by taking thought. For instance a murder-mystery whose mysteriousness must be dispelled in order for the truth to be known.

There are other mysteries which do not conceal a truth to think your way to, but whose truth is itself the mystery. The mystery of yourself, for example. The more you try to fathom it, the more fathomless it is revealed to be. No matter how much of your self you are able to objectify, and examine, the quintessential, living part of yourself will always elude you, i.e., the part that is conducting the examination. Thus, you do not solve the mystery, you live the mystery. And you do that by not fully knowing yourself but by fully being yourself.

To say that God is a mystery is to say that your can never nail [God] down. Even on Christ the nails proved ultimately ineffective.” So wrote Fred Buechner.

Now, here’s music from the Yellow Jackets: this is entitled “Enigma.”

[music plays] and then… to be continued tomorrow.

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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