During my undergraduate days I attended several concerts a year in support of a friend who was a music major. On one particular occasion when the friend was scheduled to play last a group of us spent the intermission talking about the performances we had heard to that point. There was one that none of us cared for but we were having trouble articulating why because the selection was good and the execution was nearly flawless. One friend finally spoke up and said, ‘you know, they played all of the notes right, but it was all technical with no life behind it. There wasn’t any passion in their playing. It just wasn’t musical.’
This particular performer apparently wasn’t in touch- or had lost touch- with something very important. You can make a pleasant enough sound by playing all of the correct notes and chords, but real music…real music is something that is born within the artist and is captured and expressed by notes and instruments.
To put it another way- as a very wise, if fictional jazz musician once said, “music is a fire in your belly that comes out of your mouth, so you better stick an instrument in front of it.”
You know, I suppose that you could say the same thing about life.
If our outward life springs effortlessly from what lives and grows inside of our heart and inside of our soul, then our lives will be musical. You probably know a person or if you’re lucky, maybe even several people like this. They seem to emanate a certain quality of joy and authenticity that is attractive and comforting, if not contagious. And everything around them seems to be in complete harmony.
And we probably also know someone or maybe several someones for whom the opposite is true. Let’s be honest, if the outward life we live is out of touch with what’s inside of us- whether because we are trying to fool others or because we’ve already fooled ourselves, it might be technically flawless, but it won’t be musical.
The mark of a truly musical life is when our hearts and souls are alive with that good and honest hunger for life and love, and are completely in harmony with our actions.
You could say the same thing about faith.
Of course the standard bearer for living life and love and faith with this kind of harmony is Jesus. I know that Jesus lived long before the time of Jazz music, but it seems to me that he embodies the soul of jazz even if he didn’t listen to Duke Ellington or know the jazz version of ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee.’ To me Jazz embodies the entire range of human experience and emotion, which Jesus experienced in his own life. Love. Sorrow. Joy. Happiness and even anger. And I am convinced that Jesus had a GREAT sense of humor and playfulness- even mischief, even if this is often lost to us now because of cultural context and the way we tend to read Scripture- broken into pieces, and in a sort of emotional monotone.
I think Jesus had a good ‘jazz attitude.’ His words and actions were completely in sync with his soul. He was bound not so much by the letter of the law- the notes on the page if you will- but by the movement of the spirit, he improvised when it was necessary and appropriate, and he sought out others to play with him, to carry that music forward into the world.
We would do well by embodying Jesus’ ‘jazz attitude.’ We would do well to be bound to the movement of the spirit, and not to the letter of the law.
Now what I don’t mean by that is that you should go around breaking the laws of the land. If you wind up in traffic court with a speeding ticket, don’t try and tell the judge that the priest at St. James’s told you to obey your spirit and drive fast. It’s not going to get you anywhere- except maybe a driver improvement course.
What I do mean is something closer to the example set by Martin Luther King or Ghandi, or for a more recent example, the peaceful protestors in Egypt. What they knew is that the law around them was unjust, founded on oppression. They protested because love and justice could no longer tolerate such a system. Their actions were grounded in that same sense of love and justice.
When love and justice are grounded in our souls, we will know the same spirit that guided Jesus’ life.
Jesus also improvised when he needed to. But in order to improvise at the appropriate times, you have to first know and be formed by the basics. Afterall, Jesus was formed by and instructed in the law before he began his public ministry and teaching. And even the best musicians had to start out playing scales and chords and Mary Had a Little Lamb. It’s the same for us, we need to be formed and instructed by the basics of faith, so that we can recognize the spirit’s guidance, so that we can improvise at the appropriate times.
A man named Joe Oliver, also known as King Oliver, is among the first to be recognized as a jazz musician. He started playing in New Orleans in 1908 and worked with several other famous musicians. In particular, Oliver was a mentor to Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was given his first cornet by Oliver when he was just a boy, and he also instructed Armstrong on how to play it.
We could all benefit from a teacher or a mentor- someone who can walk with us during the ups and downs of life. It can be hard to find one though- if you’re already out of school. Who is that person who embodies that harmony of life and love and faith for you, the person who you want to be when you grow up? They just might be your spiritual mentor.
And none of us can truly make it on our own. We all need an ensemble to play with, so to speak- a group that we can look to not only for support and encouragement, but for accountability, and a group for whom we can do the same in return.
Music in general and jazz in particular help the soul move in harmony with God. It may not add years to our life, but as most of us in this room could probably testify, it adds life to our years. Life needs a soundtrack in order to come alive.
Author and theologian Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
God needs people who have come alive. God needs people who have the music of love so deeply imbedded in their soul that they cannot help but express it through their life and carry it forward into the world.
Will you let the spirit of Jazz become music in your soul? Will you live that music out loud in the world? God needs that music to play loudly, so that all of God’s children can learn to move in harmony with his love and justice. God needs that music to play loudly, so that all of God’s children may have life, and have it abundantly.