Jazz and the Christian Life

For several years now Debbie and I have found ourselves going to sleep listening to relaxing music. Some studies say it is better than sleeping pills – and you don’t wind up going downstairs in your sleep, eating half of the food in the fridge and then taking a midnight stroll in your pajamas down to the Murfreesboro square. Last night we were nodding off listening to a recording of The Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker and as I was falling into sleep I found myself thinking back on my “relationship” with jazz.

In 1989 the family and I moved to Woodbridge, Virginia where I become pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church. Woodbridge is just south of D.C. so many in the congregation were associated with the military and several served with different bands in the various services. One of these men was an arranger for the Navy band and a huge jazz fan. In fact he did some arranging for some of the famous Big Bands of the 30s and 40s who were actually still touring the country under new band leaders but with the names of the founders (Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey, etc.).

One day we got together and turned out that this guy was a fairly new Christian and had never been discipled in the basic of daily walking with Jesus. I had always had an interest in music and had some curiosity about jazz so we made a deal. I would disciple him in Bible reading, prayer and the like and he would disciple me in jazz. It was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life and I am forever in the debt of the “jazz man”.

As we started meeting I told him that when it came to jazz I love Dixieland and Big Band but really did not like Dave Brubeck (my first college roommate loved to play ¬†Brubeck’s album Take 5, over and over and over again!) or any of that Bebop stuff. He told me to just wait and take it step by step. I laugh now as I think that I have a “boxed set” of Brubeck.

Well after a couple of years I grew to understand both the beauty and complexity of jazz. I came to greatly enjoy Brubeck and eventually was astounded by Dizzy Gillespie (how can you not love a man whose autobiography is entitled To Be or Not to Bop and was born in Cheraw, SC)

The man with the horn and the cheeks

Through the “mentoring” of my jazz guide I came to love the music of people like Bix Beiderbecke, Oscar Peterson, and Charlie Christian. The vocals of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald began to amaze me. Top drawer,however, became Miles Davis. My jazz favorite. Albums like Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue became regular companions on my individual tapes long before the day of Ipods and MP3s. But for me Sketches of Spain was a piece that amazed and continues to amaze me. In my opinion, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever recorded. Miles continues to be a giant for me in this world of jazz. As I listen to him I hear things that it seems impossible to come out of a trumpet.

The man, I mean The man with the horn

Much like listening to some of my favorite preachers and seeing how the Spirit uses them to point out things in God’s Word that I would never be able to see on my own.

So what does this have to do with the Christian life? Well the beauty of jazz, it seems to me, lies in two things: 1) the way all the musicians play together; 2) the way that individual solos crop up in most pieces.

As I think about the church in general and Christianity in particular I believe that the Christian life and the church are a lot like jazz. In I Corinthians Paul tells us that all of us have been given individual gifts for the good of the body, not for individual edification, but for the wonderful building up of the whole Church. In most jazz numbers a time come around for the piano solo, the trumpet solo or even the bass solo. By themselves most of these would be pretty boring but as the come together in one composition and end up pushing the listener to the point when all the instruments again come together they really serve their purpose of bringing unity out of diversity.

Of course the source of all the beauty and unity of the tune is the writer, the composer. So it is with the Church as the different parts play in unison and at times as each individual does a solo it is only because the Great Composer has not only put it all together but also gifted each “musician” to play in just the right way. The difference is that when Miles took the lead he wanted to make sure you knew that it was Miles (if you have read Miles: The Autobiography you know how true this is) who got the credit. In the Church, however, the great soloists not only do not care if you know they were the ones playing, they also prefer to play in unison and harmony with the other members of the band.

So tonight, as I go to sleep listening to, say Stan Getz, I will be enjoying Stan and his music

Stan Getz

but I will be thinking about “the music of the spheres” and the glorious tune of the gospel. A far more complex tune but much easier to understand and appreciate. But like many, many jazz tunes, with the gospel it is often easy to remember the music and forget the words. With the gospel, however, as beautiful as the music is, the words are far, far more beautiful. So as we listen to the music of the gospel let us ask our heavenly Father to remind us over and over and over again of the words of this glorious, life changing, reality changing song.

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