By Brian Nixon
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS) — As a music history minor, I remember sitting in my jazz history courses in college listening to the amazing recordings of various musicians. I was captivated by the sounds of pure energy. And though I appreciated jazz before college, it was during college that I became a jazz fan, taking in concerts and seeking out the best records.
And to this day when people ask me to name my top jazz artists (which just happened this past week), I always reply with the same names: Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Miles Davis, and Dave Brubeck. Why I choose these five, I’m not totally sure. It was probably a particular tune they wrote or the way they handled their respected instruments that caught my attention. And 20 plus years after college, I’m still a huge fan of all five.
All this came back to me as I sat and watched the kick-off of the New Mexico Jazz Festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Though the day was hot, I listened in rapt attention as the Django Festival All-Stars performed. These Frenchman kicked up a storm. And though all the musicians were amazing (two guitarist, violin, bass, and accordion), it was the accordionist, Ludovic Beier, which caught my attention. He was a master on the instrument.
As the Django Festival All-Stars played in unison, then independently, then took improvisational solos (if you know jazz, you know what I’m talking about), it came to my attention that jazz is a lot like prayer, a give and take between God and a person.
In prayer, there are moments when we’re talking to God individually, a one-way conversation, letting Him know of our concerns, dreams, and desires. This would be likened to a solo in jazz — an independent instrument saying something the best it can.
Then there’s God talking back (largely through Scripture), leading us according to His will. Again, this is like a solo break in a jazz number. God is speaking melody into our life.
Then there’s the moment when there’s a give and take in prayer, a combination of being in sync and accord with the Lord, of listening and speaking, of groaning and pondering, of hearing and saying. And like any good jazz performance, you’ll see the blending of sound — an improvisation of wills — working in harmony, sequence, rests, and silences, as a means of bringing together the whole composition, a conversation between the Player and the instrument. And when you add in the prayers of the people, congregational praying, you have the “band” playing in unison, in synchronization.
Writer, Bob Hostetler, writes concerning the similarity between jazz and prayer as follows:
“I often ‘pray like jazz.’
“For example, I regularly pray the Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes, I pray it just as it appears in the Bible. Other times, however, I pray like jazz.
“I might begin, “Our Father in heaven, may Your name be kept holy, may It be honored in my family, in my church, in my community. May my conduct today be a credit to Your Holy Name. May everything I do and say reflect Your Holiness rather than my frailty.” And so on.
“In my daily confession, I often begin with the familiar words, “Almighty God, my Father, I confess that I have sinned against You through my own fault, in thought, word, and deed.”
“And then I usually have plenty of cause to do some free-styling by specifying things like, “In my thoughts, I have hated and cussed and lusted; with my words I have lied and deflected and exaggerated; in deed I have been a lazy and careless and a lawbreaker.” And so on.
“Or I might sing or say a hymn in my evening prayers, such as, “I Need Thee,” and after the first few words (‘I need Thee every hour, most gracious Lord; No tender voice like Thine can peace afford’), I might improvise, “I need Your healing touch, to comfort and renew, and give me back the joy that comes only from You.”
“Or I may depart entirely from the meter and rhyme scheme and sing or speak whatever my heart longs to express in that moment.
“Praying like jazz gives me the blessing of praying scripture and liturgy and other writers’ prayers without limiting my expression or blunting my intimacy with God” .
I like Hostetler’s analogy.
Likewise, theologian, James McClendon, likens jazz to the Christian life, summarizing the similarities as “participation,” “cooperation,” “recognition,” and “inclusion .”
In prayer there is participation, two or more people talking together. There’s cooperation, a convergence of communication. There’s also recognition: the person recognizing God, and God recognizing the person. And of course, inclusion: all people can pray, all people are welcome in a conversation with God.
No wonder writer, K. Shakelford, said that jazz has a “spiritually anodynic or healing power”.
Like prayer, jazz can sooth and settle, challenge or contour our presence, call out or cuddle us in mediation. And though music is not exactly the same as prayer, it may be the closest thing we have to it. For in the end, it’s as John Coltrane states, “Music is the spiritual expression of what I am – my faith, my knowledge, my being … When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang-ups … I want to speak to their souls.”