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  • Writer's pictureBrian Mountford

Jazz Theology

A few years back, the well-known baritone, Roddy Williams, composed a jazz evensong inspired by the sacred music of Duke Ellington. It was sung by Schola Cantorum in the University Church and broadcast on BBC Radio Three to much acclaim. Both Roddy and the BBC were worried it might upset both the cathedral music purists and the Christian faithful. Besides, wasn’t jazz the ‘Devil’s Music’?

When jazz first spread across America in the early twentieth century it drew wide criticism – from the carmaker Henry Ford to The Ladies Home Journal. It was liberating, sexy, improvisational, and anti-establishment. It spotlighted the black American experience, and therefore aroused both conscious and subliminal racist opposition. Interviewed by the Oxford Times, Williams said, ‘If anyone is offended by what I've done…I see that as a good thing, because it will force such a person to ask, why am I offended?’

Jazz is not intrinsically religious, but it does evolve from people with a very religious background, some of whom sang in church choirs in America’s deep South. Early jazz incorporated church hymns, slave songs, field chants, and cuban-style rhythm. The West African voice cried for Freedom and looked for liberation from slavery in a hope of heaven. That’s a major theme of Jewish/Christian scripture: the Exodus from Egypt and the journey to the Promised Land, and St Paul’s more philosophical ‘glorious liberty of the children of God’ in the Epistle to the Romans.

A problem with Roddy Williams Evensong setting was that every note was written down. The only true extemporisation was provided by a brilliant jazz quartet who played those interludes which the organ might normally cover, whereas, basically, jazz takes a theme and improvises on it, experiments with it, takes risks, and breaks the rules.

I’m pretty confident that Jesus himself would have made a very good jazz musician. He liked the atmosphere of the club, eating and drinking and talking. He liked playing with ideas, taking a theme and running with it, as we see in the parables: the Good Samaritan, where the religious outsider (Samaritan) reveals the true nature of Christian love, and the Prodigal Son, where a recklessly loving father forgives his wastrel son and is cool towards his orthodox, clean-living older son. This was experimental faith; not the undermining of faith, but the development of faith; trying to help people to a stronger faith in God, through creative theology. Jazz always looks for colours. We even use the word ‘chromatic’ to describe the kind of harmonies that jazz typically employs.

So, can you do the same with theology as musicians do with jazz? Can there be jazz theology? Many think you ought not to try: they are those who desperately want (or need) to stick to orthodoxy, the ‘truth’, not rocking the boat. They are those who feel so insecure about what they are trying to believe, that they daren’t deviate for fear of the whole house of faith tumbling down around them. But I think you can. The contemporary Church of England, it seems to me, needs to take a leaf out of this book and take a few more risks with how it tries to re-present the Christian story to a secular society.

And this doesn’t mean jazz is all protest. That’s really the tabloid view. Jazz provides exemplars for other good theological qualities. For example, cooperation, attentive listening, & players responding creatively to one another. In his novel, ‘Saturday’, Ian McEwen describing the thoughts of a father listening to his son’s band play blues in a London club.

‘There are these rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than they’ve ever found before in rehearsals or performance… when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves…’

I think what McEwen is describing is what many have experienced in the concert hall or in cathedrals when music seems to take them out of themselves onto another plane. The Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, wrote a book about Mozart and called in Traces of Transcendence (almost that Mozart was in touch with the divine).I don’t claim that this feeling of transcendence is always a religious experience, although I do regard it as of the very nature or essence of religious experience.

Personally I like piano jazz - Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock, or Dudley Moore (more famous as a comedian and film star, but a really first class jazz pianist). What we hear when they play is their inventiveness, but also their virtuosity. In one sense their music is value-neutral, but it can still move you. And in any case virtuosity is a much underestimated theological value – aiming for the highest standard.

The Scottish theologian, Richard Holloway, has applied the analogy of jazz improvisation to ethics. He said, ‘We need conservatives, just as we need brakes on a car; but we are made to motor, not sit in a lay-by’. As a matter of fact, moral change always comes from those who are out ahead of the institution, never from those who are in charge of it. This has been true in the emancipation of women and of LGBT rights. Change never comes from the top, though the top may respond to pressure from below and make adjustments. The jazz approach is to respond to the circumstances of the time without being too bound to any pre-assigned script?

Another aspect of the jazz approach is the jazz solo. In the jazz solo one player goes off on a sort of extravagant cadenza, experimenting with the possibilities of the theme with imagination and often with virtuosity and as they come to the end of the cadenza, so they come back into the rhythm of the group, like a heartbeat slowing down, and the subject of the piece is re-stated calmly. It’s been like a flare bursting out from the sun.

Perhaps we could have a theological solo. Let m

e try one out. Imagine the improvisation is on is St. Augustine’s famous riff about God: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

The solo goes: physics tells us there is no outside to space/time. Therefore God is intrinsic to the stuff or matter of space/time. When I yearn for God, I am tuning in to the creative energy of the universe. That energy is love – an emergent property of the stuff of the Big Bang. Thus we might exist in God rather than the other way round. Many human beings of various religions and none experience a yearning for oneness with universe, for a harmonisation with the meaning of all being. Then the band returns to the rhythm of “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Finally, (living in a bit of an Oxford bubble) I have often wondered what music outside the classical canon can inspire people to experience the sense of transcendence I have described. The hype of a pop festival can obviously do the trick. But I recognised it more clearly last summer in a BBC Prom tribute to Aretha Franklin, the American Soul and Gospel singer, with Aretha’s hits sung by Shelea. Aretha’s father was a Baptist minister and she learnt to sing in church and in her career often interpreted secular songs in a religious manner, as for example ‘There’s a place for us’ from ‘West Side Story’ , which she arranged with Quincy Jones.

There's a time for us, Someday a time for us

Time together and time to spare, Time to look, time to care

It has echoes of Ecclesiastes 3, ‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die’.



We'll find a new way of living

We'll find a way of forgiving


So three religious themes are brought out in a secular song: the Kingdom of God – a new way of living; forgiveness and harmony; and Heaven or the City of God – ‘There's a place for us, Somewhere a place for us, Peace and quiet and open air Wait for us somewhere’. The melodies are exquisite and the emotional hype stirred up by Shelea was deeply religious and moving – but more in the manner of the American South than the Church of England.

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