Jazz and the Greater Glory of God

I read Todd’s post on “Jazz” with interest. He expressed his disagreement – a disagreement with which I share – with the opinion that jazz is, “generally speaking, a music of despair, of trying to draw late-night, dark-lit pleasure out of the blues, instead of just letting the blues be the blues.” I don’t know as much about jazz as I should, but I would like to quote from a sermon preached in Durham Cathedral on Saturday, October 6, 1990 by the Anglican priest Peter Baelz, dean of the cathedral and former Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford. It’s excerpted from the collection, Preaching from the Cathedrals.The Very Rev. Peter Baelz, who passed away in 2000, spoke about Duke Ellington (if you don’t have much time, just read the last paragraph). Much more can be said, of course, but this is a start:

An ancient name by which Christians of the early Church in the West were known was ‘Offerentes’, or Offerers. The bread and wine, which in the Eucharist they offered to God that it might become for them bread of life and cup of salvation, symbolized both the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands, original gift of the Creator and responsive gift of the creature. The offering of Christ himself, the one perfect offering, grounded eternally in God’s free grace, was itself a mutual giving, from God to humankind and from humankind to God.

There is something deep within the human spirit which wants to offer, to give of its utmost and best, not so much to celebrate human achievement – ‘do not reject that the spirits submit to you‘ – as to signify the presenece of ultimate mystery – ‘but that your names are enrolled in heaven‘. Colloquially, and with a nice sense of inverted reverence, we can speak of doing something, for example, making music, ‘for the sheer hell of it’ – or, more appropriately, whether for this occasion or for truth itself, ‘for the greater glory of God‘.

Among his most significant offerings, Duke Ellington numbered those which he composed for his Sacred Concerts. In a foreword to the first of these concerts, given in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, in 1965, he wrote:

I believe that no matter how skilled a drummer or saxophonist might be, that if this is the thing he does best, and he offers it sincerely from the heart in – or as an accompaniment to – his worship, he will not be unacceptable because of lack of skill or of the instrument upon which he makes his demonstration, be it pipe or tomtom.

And more than once he made reference to the story of God’s juggler who, having no skills in music or in song, offered the only skill he had, and in the silence of an empty church stood before the high altar and juggled to the greater glory of God – as well as to the astonishment of a chance observer.

The music of Bach, I suppose, is the official music of heaven because it combines an almost timeless mathematical order with a spontaneity of improvisation. The music of Mozart, however, [Karl] Barth maintains, is more appropriate to our condition here on earth, where hope struggles with despair, joy with sorrow, good with evil. Mozart lived and composed at a time following upon the Lisbon earthquake, when the goodness of God was subjected to widespread attack, and (in Barth’s own words) ‘theologians and other well-meaning folk were hard put to defend him’. In the face of this challenge to God, the music of Mozart (again in Barth’s words)

had the peace of God which far transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves … He had heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even to-day, what we shall not see until the end of time – the whole context of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway.

Mozart contains the light and darkness of the created order in a celebration of faith and hope. What of Ellington?

In a nutshell – for I do not want to outstay my welcome – Ellington’s music is rooted in a human story, the story of his people. It is a music of memory and hope – just as the community of Christian faith is a community of memroy and hope. It looks back to its origins in the history of black America, and it looks forward to its fulfilment in a community of free women and men. Ellington himself said: ‘The memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician. Things like the old folks singing in the moonlight in the backyard on a hot night, or something someone said long ago’. And again: ‘Then I try to go forward a thousand years. I seek to express the future when, emancipated and transformed, the Negro takes his place, a free being, among the peoples of the world’. Ellington’s music is earthed in the bodies and souls of his people and in their history; but it holds within itself the hope and promise of transformation, of a new heaven and a new earth. Finding its own place at a particular time and in a particular culture, it nevertheless speaks universally to the human condition. And, so speaking, it takes its proper place in a universal sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, as it does today, here and now, for you and me.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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