I HAVE recently returned from my annual pilgrimage to the Swanage Jazz Festival. Over the second weekend in July, more than 40 bands came to this pretty Dorset town on the eastern end of the Jurassic Coast, and shared their music, with jazz enthusiasts — “strollers” — hastening from one gig to the next.
The festival is a blend of many jazz styles, not just traditional and modern, but everything in between. The Revd Karen James, minister of the Methodist church in Swanage, highlighted this in her four-minute homily at the Festival’s Sunday Morning Gospel Service. Basing her thoughts on 1 Corinthians 12, she linked the “varieties of gifts but the same Spirit” to the diverse yet harmonious styles at the festival, and also to the uncanny ability of jazz musicians to listen to one another as they improvise and perform, blending sameness and difference.
Contemporary jazz thrives on innovation, as listeners to J to Z on Radio 3 already know. Many of the bands consisted of young, fresh-faced musicians who brought their own compositions to the festival to perform for receptive audiences. They included young, brilliant women such as Alina Bzhezhinska, creating a sublime soundscape on her harp (the instrument of heaven); or Rebecca Nash, reflecting, through her piano, on the immensity and mystery of the Stone Circle at Avebury, in Wiltshire.
JAZZ audiences are, above all, peaceful. They are attentive, appreciative, open-minded, and generous in their applause. Most of the bands, while acknowledging their debt to the New Orleans tradition, have gone far beyond it, developing it in new and exciting ways. African, Indian, and South American influences contribute increasingly to modern jazz, enriching it further.
Here was an atmosphere of creativity and joy, diversity and inclusion, innovation and welcome. Meanwhile, 300 miles away in York, a rather different atmosphere was being created. As I scrolled through the Church Times on my phone, during the rare treat of a cooked breakfast at the B&B, my hash browns, like my heart, grew cold as I learned of the discord at a large gathering of Christians there.
Apparently, even a modest innovation, the meagre fruit of decades of discussion, was being delayed and filibustered. Even simple prayers of blessing for married couples were being delayed. There seemed to be no innovation here, only fear of change. Archiepiscopal urgings to achieve a polite unity in conversation seemed only to ignore the depth of divisions.
JAZZ has its traditionalists, too. It is a music, after all, that needs to keep alive and celebrate the memory of its origins. But, while indebted to them, the living tradition of jazz does not merely repeat the old tunes (often accompanied by washboards, tubas, parades, and funny hats). Its very creativity is what keeps it alive.
Appreciative audiences heard human breath coursing through the reeds and mouthpieces of various instruments — making beautiful music, not exchanging querulous arguments. They saw and heard human fingers caressing strings and pressing valves — making harmony instead of pointing at others’ unworthiness. They marvelled at the astounding ability of the musicians, creating unity out of diversity, embracing difference.
There is even a genre of spiritual jazz. That is how Arun Ghosh introduced his set, based on his double CD, Seclused in Light. Ghosh is a British-Asian clarinettist who describes himself as “conceived in Calcutta, bred in Bolton, matured in Manchester (and now living in London)”. Seclused in Light is a spiritual jazz setting of St Francis of Assisi’s sublime and beautiful prayer “The Canticle of the Sun”.
GHOSH’s music does what we theologians find so difficult: he crosses cultures. As a reviewer of The Canticle wrote, “This is true musical fusion, not merely of styles but of entire cultures, building a seamless instrumental bridge between east and west, from rock to jazz to the sort of smoky slow burn clarinet blues last heard in a prohibition era speakeasy.” His joyful performance received a prolonged ovation from the audience. Here is evidence, I thought, of a deep spiritual need, and an appreciation — even if only temporary — of the meeting of that need well in the embrace that this “spiritual jazz” gave us.
I was reminded, at the Gospel Service, that, in the New Testament, the word for “spirit”, “breath”, and “wind” is the same; also, that it has no gender — even the Spirit’s pronouns are diverse. She blows where she chooses (John 3.8). That verse continues “you hear the sound of it [the wind], but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”
I do know that she was at Swanage. I do not know whether she was at York.
Adrian Thatcher is Editor of Modern Believing, and Hon. Professor of Theology at the University of Exeter. His new book, Vile Bodies: The body in Christian teaching, faith and practice, will be published by SCM Press later this year.