Some Thoughts on the Sacred Side of Jazz
By Rev. Cliff Aerie, The Oîkos Ensemble
It is my belief that when jazz musicians play, we perform a sacred rite; we are at prayer. We are never more deeply in communion with the Holy than when we're improvising; fashioning spontaneous melodies, harmonies and rhythms as an act of giving—a holy offering to God and the worshipper in the pew. The evocative recording of A Love Supreme, by John Coltrane is an improvisational prayer lifting praises to the Creator. But the gospel of jazz also delves into the dark, painful side of life. Every time I hear Coltrane's composition, Alabama, I'm hit in the gut with a musical soundscape lamenting the racist tragedy of the Birmingham bombing that killed innocent children.
Jazz musicians fashion spontaneous musical motifs, but more than that we paint portraits, tell stories, reveal hidden, and not so hidden, truths. When I play I often feel as if I'm preaching more effectively (and passionately!) than I ever did in the pulpit. Violinist Stephane Grappelli once said, "Improvisation, it is a mystery . . . When I improvise and I'm in good form, I'm like somebody half sleeping. I even forget there are people in front of me. Great improvisers are like priests; they are thinking only of their God." Charlie Parker, the pioneering bebop saxophonist said it even more succinctly, "I am a devout musician."
Could it be that when the jazz ensemble offers their music and souls, the bandstand becomes a sacred space, an altar? And when we invite the jazz ensemble into our Sunday morning sanctuary we open ourselves to the improvisational inspiration of the Spirit. Perhaps the psalmist was really onto something when he (she?) sang – "Praise God with the trumpet sound, with string bass and stride piano; saxophone riffs, drums and cymbals; lots of loud crashing cymbals!" (Psalm 150, my humble interpretation). And let's not forget the human voice – "O come, let us sing to our Creator, let us joyfully scat our songs; even our blues, to the rock of our salvation! (Psalm 95 revisited). I like to think that our churches today could learn from Paul's letter encouraging folks at the Church in Ephesus to "pick up your horns and jam, prayerfully improvise your hymns and spiritual songs into new melodies with all your heart and soulfulness." (Ephesians 5: 20 anew). Now, that would be some "swinging" church service!
If our worship is to be an offering to God, let's make it the most soulful, creative, inspiring gathering possible. And who better to lead the congregation then the jazz ensemble. When it comes to worshipping God, we jazz musicians are, as Stephane Grapelli noted, like priests— priests following in the footsteps of one our greatest saints: Louis Armstrong, who proclaimed, "My whole life, my whole soul, my whole spirit is to blow that horn . . . What we play is life."
Links for Further Resources
Bill Carter and The Presbybop Quartet
The Oîkos Ensemble
Christian Jazz Artist Network
God's Love Supreme: The Arrival of Jazz as Christian Worship Music
The Atlantic, by Marc Hopkins
Understanding Faith Through Jazz
Rev. Otis Moss III
Jazz in the Church