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Loren Schoenberg -- Reviews

LET THERE BE JAZZ - AND LIBERAL RELIGION, TOO
Richard S. Gilbert - Ithaca, NY - 9/19/04

"On the 13th day of creation, God made the heavens and earth. And after God had rested and after the world had worked for a week and came to that first real weekend, God said, 'Let there be Jazz!!' And there was Jazz, and God saw that Jazz was very good.

God saw that Jazz could lift hearts and gladden souls. God saw that Jazz caused people to clap their hands and shout for joy. And it was well pleasing in his sight!

Then God said, 'Let there be saxophones and banjos and trumpets and drums.

Let there be clarinets and guitars, let there be trombones and big bass viols.

And let there be voices to sing lyrics and scat.

Let them jam together night after night, so that they might learn and experiment and change.

Let there be those with hands and hearts and breath and souls to play the music within them.

Let there be those who listen and respond from deep in their beings.

Let them come from the east and the west and north and south, and let them play and dance and shout and make festival.'

And God said, 'Let the people feel the joy of the earth and the sky and the hills and the trees.

Let the whole creation clap its hands together to the beat of a song.

Let them be together and feel the goodness of life together.'

And God said, 'Let it happen again and again, year after year.

And let them music play from the time the sun has risen in the sky until it goes down.

And let the music be around all of the night.

Let there be rest and sleep some other day.

For this is the time of Song.'

And God said, 'This is the time for it to happen.

Let it happen now!! - - Let there be jazz!'"[i]

"Let there be jazz," and liberal religion too. Jazz and faith have a long and intertwined history. Jazz emerged in the African-American community of New Orleans early in the 20th century. It had its real beginnings in the church. And while I am no jazz aficionado, I do enjoy it, and the more I come to enjoy it the more I note how much jazz and Unitarian Universalism have in common. Let me elaborate.

Explaining how he composed his music, Duke Ellington said that since his trumpet player could reach certain notes beautifully, but not other notes, and the same with his trombonist, he had to write his music within those limits. "It's good to have limits," he remarked.

We live within limits. Unitarian Universalism is at its heart a humble faith - and humility is in very short supply these days - culturally, politically, religiously. We dare to say we do not have the ultimate answers to religious questions: Why are we here? Where are we going? What is the meaning of it all? As a tradition rejecting creeds which claim to proclaim final religious truth, we pursue the answers to those questions with the same freedom within limits as does the jazz musician.

We live with the kind of curiosity which marks jazz players. There are times when they do not really know where they are going when they start a riff; they are curious as to where it will go. They discover that not only are they players, they are also composers - "the solos . . . require the same discipline as the written works of a composer."[ii]

That is why I have made one of the cornerstones of my ministry the contention that each and every Unitarian Universalist is a kind of composer - in this case, a theologian. That is why I have developed the Building Your Own Theology adult education series - to harness our curiosity about ultimate questions and from that curiosity and our own experience create our own religious faith. As has been said, Unitarian Universalists "have open minds and big ears."[iii]

"Jazz in an art form that depends on questioning, on challenging prevailing assumptions."[iv] Jazz was not easily accepted in the conventional musical world, any more than liberal religion was accepted in the theological world. Any endeavor which encourages so much freedom of expression was suspect among those who believed they had a monopoly on the truth - musical or theological.

Furthermore, like jazz musicians, we are engaged in a "supremely collaborative effort."[v] While it is tempting for contemporary spiritual seekers to have a "go it alone" mentality, we are wise enough to realize the need to be in community with other seekers. Otherwise, we will confidently gaze down into the well by ourselves, see our own image reflected there, and call it God.

"Jazz players all know the tune beforehand and the responsibilities of their chosen instruments. . . . Even when they are not soloing, members of a Jazz band have to be intimately attuned to the music at all times, because you never know what direction it might take. If you don't, you may, as John Coltrane once put it, feel as though you stepped into an empty elevator shaft."[vi]

In like manner there are not many of us who are so adept at life that we can go out there and do it all alone. We are not only individuals, we are members, members of a community, members of a religious community in which we each play our parts and play them better for enjoying the theological music with others. We play off each other, much as do jazz musicians. No one of us has a handle on the final life questions; no one of us knows it all, no one of us can make it alone. Like jazz, liberal religion is a collaborate effort.

There is in jazz an openness, a tolerance, a freedom that has its counterparts in our liberal faith. But there is in both a fundamental discipline, without which the freedom leads to anarchy. One musician compared free jazz to playing tennis without a net. That has been the charge against liberal religion - that in our freedom we have gone too far and there is no structure in what we do.

I am reminded of an article written many years ago by then-Director of the Eastman School of Music, composer Howard Hanson. He was bemoaning the huge salaries heaped upon pop and rock musicians whom he felt had only a modicum of musical knowledge and talent. These he compared with serious Eastman students who would play for a pittance in some orchestra or work as an underpaid music teacher. Then he suggested that popular jazz musician Chuck Mangione provided a useful model. Mangione, an Eastman school graduate, could explore jazz freely and creatively because he knew the fundamental principles of music. That grounding made his freedom in music meaningful and gave rise to his creativity.

Likewise, I believe Unitarian Universalists need to be grounded in fundamental religious knowledge and experience. We need to know our Bible, the history of religions, the basic issues, the core questions. Equipped with this knowledge, we are free to create our own faith. There are those religious fundamentalists who believe the Bible to be the word of God - absolute and unassailable. Then there are those among us who reject this surety - one who opined that he would believe anything so long as it was not in the Bible. Both are wrong-headed.

Unitarian Universalists are heretics - meaning those who have chosen their faith. We rebelled against Calvinism with its theological theories of trinitarianism and pre-destination. We contend that Jesus was man, not God. We hold that no sensible and compassionate God would condemn at birth some to heaven and others to hell. But we rebelled against Calvin for many reasons, not the least of which is musical. John "Calvin tied music to the sinful culture and restricted its use in worship to a unison line without polyphony or instruments."[vii]

But Martin Luther, another redoubtable reformer, said:

"A person who does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs." I'm Lutheran here.

Music is a magnificent expression of who we are. This morning we have modeled our theological and musical diversity. We sang our own contemporary words to the tune of Old Hundreth, the doxology from the 1551 Genevan Psalter, recognizing our religious roots. Then we sang "Now Let Us Sing" by an anonymous writer to a tune named in honor of singer Paul Robeson. Both the text and tune of our Hymn of Healing, "Voice Still and Small," were composed by my friend and colleague John Corrado. And what we shall sing for our Hymn of Dedication, "We're Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table," is a traditional tune which calls for spirited participation. And, of course, we have heard or will hear jazz from John Coltrane and Billie Holiday, among others, and will listen to Bach at Postlude time. An eclectic mix, but lively and interesting and indicative of the openness of our musical and spiritual taste.

Truth comes not only in propositions of logic and science, not only in words of prose and poetry. Truth can also be conveyed in stirring sound which cannot be put into words. The great jazz artist Louis Armstrong was once asked about the meaning of his music, to which Satchmo replied: "Lady, if I could say it, I wouldn't have to blow it." Sometimes we express our faith by words, sometimes it is simply too powerful for words and we need to sing and play it.

One intriguing form of jazz is the blues. Jazz evolved out of the daily experience of African Americans whose legacy was the brutality of slavery. Blues were created as a "medium of transcendence - one plays or sings the blues to vanquish them."[viii] In the same way each Sunday we share both our joys and our sorrows in public - in this religious community - not that we can vanquish them by merely expressing them, but we can transcend them by sharing our burdens with others.

There is this rich sense of participation in jazz - certainly among performers, but also among auditors who have a hard time sitting still. Liberal religion, like jazz, is participatory.

Relaxing between sets in a 52nd Street bar, the blind jazz pianist Art Tatum sat at a table, drinking beer from a bottle. A missionary wandered in from the street and came over to talk to him.

She said, "Joining the flock is your only salvation." Without answering, Tatum took another swig of beer.

"If you don't join the flock, you'll be a lost child of God," she insisted. Art went on sipping his beer.

When the musician decided that the evangelist had pestered him long enough, he shrugged and answered softly:

"All God's children are lost, but only a few can play the piano."

"All God's children are lost - but only a few can play the Piano." I agree all God's children are lost in the sense we are all spiritual seekers. But I have also read that "If you grow up in African culture, you have no concept of anyone not being a musician. Music is just joyful sound-making, celebration-like movement, and dance. It's part of a ritual honoring life, honoring our parents, honoring the community. Every human being has the potential to be a musician."[ix]

Translated into liberal religion it means that each of us is a celebrant - a theologian. In a church where the minister's task is not handing out a theology to be regurgitated, but helping people build their own theology, everyone has primary responsibility. Just as everyone is responsible for singing hymns, everyone is responsible for their own faith.

Jazz critic Loren Schoenberg, whose NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Jazz has informed this sermon, said "Jazz swings . . . jazz is fun . . . (a) juggling act between the planned and the spontaneous."[x] So it is with liberal religion. Despite the fact some say the Unitarian Universalist emotional range runs the gamut from A to B, "free from the taint of enthusiasm," the "bland leading the bland," a sense of "ordered inertia,"[xi] we are a feeling as well as a thinking people. We laugh in church! While we carefully plan the structure of the service, we are never quite sure exactly what will happen - what joys and sorrows will be spoken - what feelings will be evoked in response to spoken word or music.

Now, it is true that our hymns should not go through the eye and out the mouth without passing through the brain - and I should add - the soul. Of course, it has been said that our singing is weak because we are always reading ahead in the text to see if we agree with the words. However, one of my learnings about our faith is that there is nothing irrational or intellectually compromising about deep emotions and celebratory feelings. Religion is both of the head and of the heart. When we are at our best, we can also sing! We shall see - and hear.

Our religious premise is not a foreboding one, complete with "sinners in the hands of an angry God," or replete with doomsday scenarios of Armageddon. We are an upbeat bunch who call worship a celebration of life; who believe meaning is created in this life, not deferred to an improbable future; who believe life is to be enjoyed to its fullest; who believe that one of our obligations is to extend that possibility of joy to all people no matter their religious orientation.

We are something like Duke Ellington who spoke of jazz and the terpsichorean urge, after Terpsichore, in mythology the muse for dancing and choral song. The Duke recognized that the urge to dance in life is fundamental, whether it be with the body or the mind and spirit. And, of course, the psalmist reminds us to celebrate with timbrel and dance.

These are tough times and many are discouraged and tempted to give up with the religious and political cacophony surrounding us. I think of the scene at the premier of one of 20th century composer George Antheil's early avant garde pieces. His Ballet Mechanique, scored for automobile horns, airplane propeller, fire siren, ten grand pianos, and other instruments scored quite a sensation. When it was performed at Carnegie hall in 1924, a concertgoer near the orchestra could stand no more than a few minutes of the racket. Tying his handkerchief to his cane, he raised the white flag.

There are times we are tempted to raise the white flag ourselves - for life is too much with us. It is then that the soaring song of the spirit can be heard, out of the chaos, out of the cacophony, out of the irregular rhythms of life, transcending the dissonances, reminding us that life matters, we matter in the great celestial chorus of humanity.

 

And so I conclude that Jazz is a musical form especially suited to Unitarian Universalism. Within that disciplined musical structure jazz musicians are free to transcend it - to give the spirit play. Likewise Unitarian Universalists, within the rich structure of humanity's faith traditions, are likewise free to transcend - to give the spirit play.

And so, "Let the people feel the joy of the earth and the sky and the hills and the trees.

Let the whole creation clap its hands together to the beat of a song.

Let them be together and feel the goodness of life together.

Let it happen again and again, year after year.

And let the music play from the time the sun has risen in the sky until it goes down.

And let the music be around all of the night.

Let there be rest and sleep some other day.

For this is the time of Song"

This is the time for it to happen.

Let it happen now!!

Let there be jazz!"

 

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[i] Anonymous.

[ii] Loren Schoenberg, The NPR Curious Listener's guide to Jazz. New York: A Perigee Book, 2002, p. 80.

[iii] Tom Hampson, City News, April 1984.

[iv] Ibid., Schoenberg, p. x.

[v] Ibid., p. vii.

[vi] Ibid., Schoenberg, p. 79.

[vii] Paul Westermeyer, "Grace in the Music of Bach," The Christian Century, March 20-27, 1985, 293.

[viii] Ibid., Schoenberg, p. xv.

[ix] Unknown source.

[x] Op. cit., Schoenberg, p. xiii.

[xi] Peter Gomes, Harvard University Chaplain (see music notes)

 

 

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