Thursday, July 2, 2009

All That Jazz

Life is meant to be jazz.

Jazz is more than music. In his thoughtful book Finding the Groove (see Books Worth Checking below), Robert Gelinas says jazz is a way of living life. It is an invitation to freedom through syncopation, improvisation and response. I couldn’t agree more.

Take a piece of Classical (or other genre of) music. Simply put, the musician’s goal is to make music by doing their best to play what’s on the page. Every note has been carefully selected and arranged (predetermined) by the composer. It is the code. The pursuit is the same whether performed alone or before a packed concert hall. It can be beautiful. We know a musician is good by how well they play the music. This is especially important when performing with others. Symphonies get ugly when one person veers from the notes, key, timing or melody on the page. I proved this many times playing trombone in school bands as a kid.

Jazz is different. It calls for new assumptions and an alternate worldview. With jazz, the written music provides shape to the song. It is a boundary that gives definition but allows freedom and endless options to create within. The melody is there, but the musician has the freedom to improvise with the timing, syncopation and notes. They have the freedom to respond to the prompting of their own imagination, other musicians and the audience. It is a shared dynamic experience of relationships and community. In the end, you know what song you just heard, but will never hear it exactly the same again. It’s the difference between the predetermined outcome of painting a picture by the numbers and the endless options of coloring in and around the lines. In jazz, a good musician isn’t only the one who plays the music, but the one who allows the music to play them.

All of this is fine for music, but what about life? Jazz is far more than music. Robert Gelinas says “Jazz is a way of thinking and way of viewing the world. It is about freedom within community. It is a culture, a set of values and norms by which we can experience life … Jazz knowing is a knowledge born out of experience” (Finding the Groove, 202). Jazz is all about freedom because it was birthed out of slavery and rooted in the Gospel.

Jesus jazzed the world by calling lives to dynamic freedom. Anyone who thinks Jesus was about religious score-keeping is in the wrong concert hall (see Romans 8:2). It would be like mistaking Beethoven for Louis Armstrong or Bach for Miles Davis. Jesus came for freedom (Luke 4:18). His greatest resistance came from the static note-keeping religious types of His day. Jesus perfected the code so we are no longer constrained by it. Instead he kept syncopating (paying attention to the off-beats) and inviting others to do the same. He kept improvising in response to those around Him and invited others to give it a shot. People finally heard the song and saw the life they always dreamed of. Their toes tapped; their bodies moved.

Rather than striving for pre-determined outcomes and conformity, what if life was more about the freedom of syncopation, improvisation and response? What if that jazz-enthusiast pirate Captain Barbossa was on to something when he said “the code is more what you'd call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules” (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl). The invitation of jazz isn't about static rule-keeping; it is about authentic life-living.

The code is important. Without a score, all we have is aimless chaotic noise (a growing genre attempted in our day). The code engages a melody and beat that inspire imagination. It is alive and active (Hebrews 4:12). The Composer gives life to the music and lives His life among it (John 1:1, 4, 14). It moves us with purpose and meaning. We recognize lives lived in this kind of freedom, but will never see it lived exactly the same in each person. Somewhere down deep we know we were made for this.

Jesus said “then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free…So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:32, 36). Legendary jazz trumpeter and singer Louie Armstrong once said “Jazz is played from the heart. You can even live by it” (quoted in Finding the Groove, 201).

What if the triune God was the original jazz trio? What if living in this kind of freedom is part of what it means to be made in the image of God? The Master Composer invites us to jam with Him in syncopating improvising freedom within His code of life. It is a shared, dynamic, soulful experience of relationships and community following His redemptive lead. It is Jesus jazz.

Life is meant to be all that jazz.
What do you think? Please click "Comments" 6 to leave yours.