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Swing and the Spirit

28 February 2020

Tim Boniface celebrates the relationship between jazz and Christianity


Mary Lou Williams (1910-28 May 1981), an American jazz pianist, arranger, and composer, whose liturgical works include Black Christ of the Andes, Anima Christi, and Praise the Lord. In 1975, she played her jazz spiritual Mary Lou’s Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York

Mary Lou Williams (1910-28 May 1981), an American jazz pianist, arranger, and composer, whose liturgical works include Black Christ of the Andes, Anim...

IN THE hybrid cultural, racial, and musical genealogy of jazz, there is a clear strand of Christianity. It is hard to pin down — not least because Chris­­tianity’s own hybrid nature gives jazz history more than a run for its money.

Nevertheless, given its early rela­tionship to spiritual slave songs, the psalmic lament and protest in­­herent in the blues, and the rhythm, har­mony, and patterns of vocal ex­­change in African-American church music (even if many in that tradition expressed deep discomfort with early jazz), accounts of the origins of jazz cannot ignore Christianity.

To this can be added examples such as the explicitly sacred, litur­gical music of Mary Lou Williams and Duke Ellington; the complex but im­­portant social and musical con­tribu­­tions of jazz to the civil-rights move­ment; and the pro­foundly spiritual works by musicians such as John Col­­trane. The Christian strand in jazz’s DNA remained potent as the music flourished.

The religious element of jazz is not exclusively Christian. Many be­­­bop pioneers were Muslims, often converts; Dizzy Gillespie embraced the Baha’i faith; Buddhism is incred­ibly important for the contemporary giants Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter; and musicians such as Albert Ayler moved beyond any particular religious profession while explicitly making music to reach for, and express love for, God. Never­theless, whichever way you look at it, jazz and the Christian Church both share a story.

That story continues today. A large portion of contemporary jazz still reflects its harmonic and rhyth­mic relationship with early gospel music. Playing in that style can still evoke something of worship — and also of preaching, with the cadences, dynamics, and rhythms bearing a resem­­­­­­blance to what one might hear from a pulpit.

This kind of observation belongs not just to insiders. In a recent re­­view of some of my own work in a jazz publication, the reviewer, with some apology, describes a “preach­ing tone on tenor sax”. He might not have described it like this had I not been ordained, but his comment is a reminder that jazz can still channel something of a culturally recognis­able sound of church. It is easier to hear than write about, I suspect.

THERE is a strong sense of spiritual and political quest among many jazz musicians today. This includes high-profile players, such as Joey Alexander and John Patitucci, who describe their music-making as an offering to the God known in and through Jesus Christ.

In the past two decades, there has been a significant increase in jazz in UK churches, and the use of jazz as source material for Western theology. These two aspects of the story are worthy of some attention — both to highlight and to celebrate what is happening, and to offer some critical reflection.

AS FAR as Church of England services go, it is common to hear main­­stream liturgical music that engages with the jazz tradition. Bob Chilcott’s Little Jazz Mass (2008) and Will Todd’s admirable expand­ing corpus of liturgical jazz, includ­ing Mass in Blue and Evensong in Blue (Arts, 22 March 2019; Interview, 19 March 2013) are perhaps the most widely known British fusions of jazz and traditional choral music, with works typically scored for choir, soloist, and jazz ensemble. The style is rich, energetic, and accessible.

In some performances, the choir, used to more traditional choral styles, can betray a lack of real swing — the X factor in jazz that simply cannot be written but must be felt — but I would encourage people to attend services at which these musical works are sung. They can deeply enrich worship.

Small-group liturgical jazz is also around and, perhaps, without the choir has a slightly easier task when it comes to authentic feel. I recall a wonderful evening in Hove, where, under the direction of the Revd Dr Tim Watson of the Chemin Neuf community, and alongside the great British jazz drummer the Revd Spike Wells, I played in a eucharistic set­­ting derived from Miles Davis’s seminal album Kind of Blue.

Chris TurnerTim Boniface (saxophone) and band in Rochester Cathedral last Passiontide


Tim had set the Gloria, for ex­­ample, to the album’s instantly re­­­cog­­­­­­­­­­nisable opener, “So What”. Basses sang “Glory be to God on high” to the famous double-bass riff, while the rest of the vocal ensemble sang the response line “Glory”. After this, a soloist sang the rest of the text as vocalese — a technique whereby words are sung to a previously recorded jazz instrumental solo, here, Miles’s legendary trumpet. Once the text had been sung, space was left for genuinely exploratory instrumental improvisation. Risky, expressive, swinging jazz spiralled around the altar like incense. It was intense and thrilling.

A healthy movement of jazz vespers has developed in the UK, after the success of the format in the United States, where it originated in the 1960s. The saxophonist Dan Forshaw (Interview, 13 January 2017) has been running jazz vespers since 2012. He leads a service of this type at the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, every quarter, and has recorded a Jazz Vespers album with many respected British jazz names. Wanstead Parish Church (Faith, 4 October 2019) and Christ Church, Highbury, are two churches where these services have become estab­lished.

Jazz Community Church, Bir­­ming­­­­­­ham, is another example — a community that regards improvised music as creating a space for people to encounter God and to discuss issues of life and faith. Jonathan Herring runs an evangelistic project, The Roots of Jazz, which offers a narrative of Christianity through the early history of jazz.

Since 2001, the British Kairos En­­semble have been exploring jazz rooted in Christian themes and ex­­pression. Some of my own work is a kind of improvised exegesis — inviting people to hear the scriptures in a new way as we improvise on themes composed to reflect a re­­­sponse to particular words. More broadly, the BlueChurch movement (www.bluechurch.ch) has built an international network of jazz musi­cians committed to supporting im­­pro­­vised music in churches, and exploring the relationship between jazz and Christianity. There is a lot going on.

SUCH initiatives can find inspira­tion in a rapidly expanding body of Chris­­tian writing on jazz. Appealing to a broad readership are works such as Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller; Finding the Groove: Composing a jazz-shaped faith, by Robert Gelinas; and David Ford’s explorations of jazz and Christian life through Michael O’Siadhail’s poetry in The Drama of Living (Books, 10 July 2015).

There are also works aimed mostly at an academic readership, such as God, Creation and All That Jazz, by Ann Pederson; Jazz and Christian Free­dom, by Bradley K. Broadhead; and God’s Mind in that Music: Theo­logical explorations through the music of John Coltrane, by Jamie Howison. The topic draws in more contributors year by year. Common across much of this work is the idea that jazz offers some pro­found analogies for Christian think­­ing, especially when it comes to improvisation.

Contrary to lazy jokes, jazz in­­­volves anything but simply playing random notes at will. Professional jazz improvisation requires a finely honed grasp of musical theory and instrumental technique, alongside an ability to think and react creatively in the moment, to express some­thing original.

It is similar to the way in which we speak — not repeating others, but nevertheless sticking close to the rules of grammar and syntax, some­times employing well-worn phrases; so that what we’re saying is recog­nisable to the listener, while being an original composition.

Many thinkers believe that impro­vi­­sation offers an inspiring model for a number of dimensions of Chris­­tian living, and it is not hard to see why.

ALAMYA jazz band depicted in stained glass at St Dionysius’s, Market Harborough, Leicestershire

Their argument goes broadly like this: just as jazz musicians improvise their own musical lines while staying within the harmonic and rhythmic framework of the piece, so Chris­tians are called to improvise their own response to the love of God. That response is enabled by the “constraints” of orthodoxy, which in turn enables our freedom, much like the way in which the harmonic structure of a piece offers a frame­work for the improvisation to be heard effectively.

There are similarities here to Bonhoeffer’s use of Renaissance coun­­terpoint as an analogy for the re­­­­­­­lation­­ship between God and hu­­man beings: the idea that God is like the cantus firmus around which our contrapuntal lives weave. But I think that one can reasonably sug­gest that jazz offers an even more effective, or at least more multi­faceted analogy, embracing the no­­tions of freedom, risk, and un­­predictability in Chris­tian life.

MANY writers take the analogy further. They argue that, just as jazz musi­cians seldom play in isolation but respond freely to their fellow instru­mentalists, or to their audi­ence, so Christians are called to the kind of openness that allows God to shape them through the lives of others.

Playing jazz freely while ensuring that what we play is intelligible to the players around can reflect the call to participate freely in the Christian life while allowing them­selves to be constrained by tradition, so that their lives are intelligibly ‘Christian’.”

Another fruitful suggestion is that jazz can offer an analogy for her­meneutics — communal musical improvisation bearing what Hans Frei might have called a family re­­semblance to the way in which Chris­tians read scriptures together: exploring and shaping one another’s response to the layers of the texts.

“There is also a political dimen­sion, not least in the essen­tially com­munitarian, co-operative nature of jazz, and the need to move beyond playing for individual gain. It doesn’t work if it’s just about me. In many ways, jazz can be a form of resistance to liberal capitalism and individualism.”

But, perhaps more urgently, any attempt to link jazz and Christianity has to reckon with race. Jazz is predominantly African-American music. In its early years, it was often viewed with outright racism, its rhythms and melodies interpreted as a reason for segregation, or proof of white superiority.

For a large portion of the 20th century it was simply the music of the oppressed. Perhaps it remains so. Jazz is often resistance music. Historically, notable musicians and producers fought segregation: black and white jazz musicians’ bucking the trend and booking one another as col­leagues, aware of the dis­ap­proval that this caused.

But there were also many black musicians — especially in the bop and post-bop eras — who expressed discomfort at the idea of jazz’s losing its racial distinctiveness. Indeed, the part that jazz played in the civil-rights movement depended to a degree on its irreducible blackness.

So, to draw analogies between jazz and Christian thought is to face important questions about theology and race. There is a danger of what Fred Moten called “fetishistic white hipsterism” from those who see jazz as a way to be theologically cool. But I remember discussing jazz and race with the black theologian J. Kameron Carter. When asked whether white people really “do” jazz, he exclaimed: “That is such a white question!”

It was a white question, he sug­gested, because it was about owner­ship: to whom does jazz belong? The praxis of jazz, he said, should force us — white theologians in particular — to think beyond themes of capital owner­­ship towards ideas of reciprocity, gift, and embrace.

Carter is an important voice in black theology, and certainly sees jazz as embodying a challenge to some tired Western theological tropes and angsts. Doing theology with jazz cannot avoid engaging with black theology as a movement. Jamie Howison (God’s Mind in That Music) is a good example of a white theologian taking this challenge seriously.

I HAVE to admit to being uncom­fortable when theologians speak of the Holy Trinity as a jazz trio. It is something that pops up in conver­sation and in writing.

It is too easy to think that, simply by playing or experiencing jazz we can comfortably perceive the inter­nal divine nature. Put a jazz record on, and all of a sudden you can enjoy knowing what it’s like to be God. If only it were that simple.

But I am also uncomfortable when jazz’s theological potential is limited to analogy only. If all we have is people saying “Jazz musi­cians do this, which helps us think about Christianity like this,” then we have failed.

Jazz, Robert Gelinas says, is “more than music”. It is a way of life in which improvisation, mutual re­­­spon­­­­­­­s­­­ive­­­­ness, and creative tension are central to the way in which we respond to the call of God. So, when he writes of “the original jazz trio”, perhaps we can look beyond the po­ten­­tial pitfalls of thinking about what it’s like to be God, and think about what it’s like to be us: seeing jazz as something that humans can do that allows them to participate in life as God intends — somehow giving a glimpse of the divine life. Jazz can be something, not simply help us think about something.”

BACK to the beginning, then. The Christian strand in jazz’s DNA is not simply a theoretical one but a prac­tical, lived one. Leaving discus­sions behind, perhaps jazz was simply theological all along. Jazz in church is so much more than introducing another style of music for people “who like that kind of thing”. Rather, practising this distinctive form of music can shape our discipleship — or can even be our discipleship — in fruitful ways.

For many jazz musicians who find a place in the broad spectrum of Christianity, improvising jazz is prayer, worship, mourning, reaching for God, and responding to the echoes of divine gift in the possib­ility of music.

Improvising jazz is authenticity and honesty before God, a way to voice oneself more deeply than words might allow.

Of course, just as language can never wholly speak of God, music can never wholly play of God, but maybe music doesn’t kid itself (in a way that language can do) about its ability to grasp that towards which it reaches. And, as Uwe Steinmetz, of BlueChurch, helps us realise, there is something about jazz improvisation which balances us on the edge of unknowing or doubt.

ALAMYRegarded as John Coltrane’s masterpiece, A Love Supreme (1964) followed his experience in 1957 of “the grace of God, a spiritual awakening, which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life”

“I consider doubts to be par­ticularly valuable when they lead to humility and silence,” he writes. “That is the basic requirement of improvisation. However, doubts that have the potential to be seeds of hope are even more valuable to me. Jazz leads me from necessary quiet uncertainty to a trusting, hopeful faith, entirely in the tradition of spir­it­uals and the Gospels.”

And when it comes to the practice of playing jazz, while I understand that the analogy of “improvisation within constraints” is meaningful, I’m not convinced it takes into ac­­count the way in which jazz musi­cians — especially the great ones — really push against musical and cultural constraints. Jazz is betrayed when narrated as a kind of com­pliant tinkering around within some universally accepted set of musical boundaries.

Broadhead, for example, does ac­­knowledge the history of boundary-pushing within avant-garde jazz, but sees that school of jazz as a little too transgressive, a bit too post-modern for being worthy of theological analogy, let alone theo­logical or ecclesial practice. But I wonder whether this is one of the things that jazz — perhaps more than other music — can display to theologians and churches. Very often, a genuine human cry to, or celebration of, divine love, stretches us into realms of expression which are strange or uncomfortable or dif­ficult. This is part of the prophetic; and, indeed, surely proximity to difficulty should not be an outland­ish suggestion for the community of the cross of Jesus.

Some jazz — especially that of the mystical kind — is difficult to listen to, and, when we think about it in church services, can be difficult to “manage” (how long is the trumpet solo going to be this time? She didn’t play it that way before!). It requires a shift in posture and a release of control. Add to this the fact that the unavoidable sensuality of jazz and blues is often perceived as difficult or problematic — and, indeed, was a ground for much distaste in the first half of last century, a distaste not independent from the racist element in anti-jazz feeling.

Yet jazz’s authenticity is often in its difficulty, sensuality, and its freedom. Its improvised departure from the way in which things have been voiced before is often jazz’s true prayer. And, in terms of the body, the unavoidable engagement with physical experience when play­ing jazz can say a great deal to a Western church culture that is still, in some ways, paralysed by anxiety about the sensual or sexual body.

Jamie Howison’s work does probe these areas — drawing, for example, on work by the seminal black theo­logian James Cone — but I would like to see more of this in emerging “jazz theology”, and especially the practice of jazz in church.

Church life can embrace the dif­ficult or challenging elements of jazz music, seeing that these elements are often forged out of a profound response to the paradoxes of faith. As clichéd as this may sound, I suspect that this kind of embrace of jazz can enable openness to the mystery of Jesus in our midst.

ONE final point. The idea of all that jazz can do for the Church is an exciting one to explore. But what about this question in reverse: What is the Church doing for jazz, or jazz musicians? It’s all very well talking about the communal elements of the jazz band, but this can easily become idealistic.

Many jazz musicians strug­­­­gle with a sense of identity, and wrestle with the woundedness inher­ent in the spir­­­­it­uality of their music, besides facing unrealistic accounts of in­­dustry success, or what it means simply to be good, while feeling that they have failed.

Being a jazz musician can be a deeply rewarding life, but also an unpleasant, lonely, or difficult one. The good news of a loving, gracious (improvising?) God who suffers for and with us is as important for jazz musicians as anyone. But witnessing to that gospel within an art form so deep spiritually and emotionally must be done with sensitivity, and with respect for people’s spiritual and artistic integrity.

Jazz musicians — like everyone else — do not take well to being patronised, especially by what they often perceive as a community less free, expressive, or diverse than theirs. Nevertheless, alongside the flourishing of jazz music in church, I hope that Christians can extend loving witness and caring respect
to the countless musicians probing their souls to add to this incredible and lively tradition.

The Revd Dr Tim Boniface is a jazz musician, a theologian, and Assistant Curate of St Nicholas’s, Chislehurst.

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