This Is My Father’s World: Jazz

Each week I plan to look at different aspects of culture from an appreciative and Christian lens. If all the world is God’s, and if much of human creation reflects the creative work of God, then I want to examine it all.

I was probably the only sophmore in my high school driving around town listening to B.B. King on cassette (yup I am that old). I am a music fanatic and I really love to try out all sorts of different sounds. But my main affinity is for those sounds that come from blues and jazz. My dad and I didn’t have much in common, but we could each enjoy sitting and listening to some old records of Thelonius Monk or Charlie Parker. For some people this is problematic because for them jazz music is evil.

Theologian and Jazz musician William Edgar has argued that sometimes those assumptions are rooted in racial prejudices. Sometimes the hatred of the music is actually more about guilt by association. Often in the 1920s the music was played in some seedy and deplorable places. But by the 40s it was a well recongized and beloved genre. Duke Ellington, jazz epitomized, was a celebrated star from his heyday up and until his death. And one biographer has noted that for Ellington ““his great passion and work sprang from an awareness of the presence of God in all of life.” There is something almost deeply spiritual and moving about the power of Jazz. Perhaps that’s why it moves me so much.

At the heart of Jazz music is really improvisation. Jazz works withing certain boundaries to create and build and then to transcend those boundaries. It’s about freedom and about feeling the music as much as it is about performing with some sort of techinical profeciency. The creativity of Jazz is a reminder of our great Jazz musician who created without any boundaries. Pure Jazz, so to speak, comes from the Divine Composer. In fact William Edgar goes even farther to connect the gospel itself to the concepts of Jazz. He wrote:

At its best, jazz narrates a general movement, a particular flow, from deep misery to deep joy. Jazz carries this aesthetic in its fabric. Sometimes the musicians consciously articulate the narrative of redemption.

May we dare suggest that the gospel itself is a kind of improvisation? For what is the good news, if not God’s wise, loving plan to redeem the human race by facing the daunting obstacles of sin and evil, and turning them upside down. It is God’s own willingness to be oppressed in order that He could re-emerge as Savior. By becoming man, and being humbled, Jesus Christ improvised. He took the givens, and worked with them, and made them work for Him. He “trumped” evil and caused death itself to die. Jazz music, at its best, is the expression of a people who know this truth. So you gotta love it.

So as you think about your musical selections this week might I recommend you try some Jazz. It might just direct you to consider the gospel, and the cosmic jazz of redemption.

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