Monday, October 19, 2009

About Jazz, About Jesus, About Ten Minutes

I spent a great evening yesterday at Rugby School (it's a bit of a modern institution... you'll remember I went to the quincentenerary of my own school earlier in the year; these guys have half a century to go yet before reaching that milestone!) preaching in chapel at the invitation of the chaplain, Richard Horner. The music was provided by the school's jazz orchestra, and Richard had googled "jazz vicar" in order to find an appropriate preacher for the occasion... alas, all he could find was me!

It was, for me, a real privilege. I came to faith at school aged 12 or 13, and part of that journey was our equivalent of the kind of event I spoke at last night. I remember the headmaster speaking once, and the chaplain on a different occasion, saying things that hit my heart and opened me up to God. My prayer as I went to Rugby yesterday was that there might even be one person in that building for whom one thing I said might have the same effect. I will never know; but they will, and that is enough.

The band was excellent - and clearly the whole school enjoyed the final song (Shine Jesus Shine) in particular. Props to the lad who filled in on drums right at the last minute, even if he had to play with a stick & a recorder cos that was all he could find! I find it so encouraging to see this kind of music being enthused about in school; I had to run my own jazz band at my school! I must add that the choir was also lovely, and their arrangement of "The Day Thou Gavest" was the kind of beautiful thing that probably gets taken for granted there - and anywhere else would be rightly regarded as stunning.

Given that I was asked to speak for a short period of time, I actually did that very unusual thing of having a full text. If you are interested - Here it is:

About Jazz, About Jesus, About Ten Minutes

I’ve been asked to speak today about jazz, about Jesus & about ten minutes. Let’s see if I make all three.

I don’t know what your attitude is to making mistakes? Joe Venuti, a jazz violinist of the first half of the 20th century said: “If you’re going to make a mistake, make it loud so everyone else sounds wrong.” Does that work for you?

Miles Davies, on the other hand, the great jazz trumpeter of the generation later than Venuti, had a slightly different take. How about this: he said “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” Or, again, more simply & perhaps more bravely for a musician, he added, “there are no wrong notes.”

I guess you can imagine what he means. In the flow of jazz, the note following note, the freefall of creativity where a musician just plays and plays… and plays… (incidentally – do you know the difference between a bottomless pit and a long jazz solo? Even a bottomless pit eventually comes to an end…) you can imagine in the flow of jazz he means that you can play anything. There are no wrong notes.

But there’s a problem with that.

The problem is there are wrong notes.

I’ve heard enough bad jazz to have heard too many bad notes, and some of them played very loud, and all that did was make everything sound wrong. There were mistakes. There are mistakes. In jazz, in music generally, in life, of course.

Bill Evans, pianist, who died in 1980, actually not long after I was first getting into jazz, not that my getting into jazz and his death were connected you understand, put a slightly different spin on things. He said:
“There are no wrong notes – only wrong resolutions.”

George Gershwin, the great American composer, pointed out that “Life is a lot like jazz – it’s best when you improvise”, but the problem with improvising is that we do sometimes mess up. We hit a wall. We make mistakes. We get to places we’d rather we hadn’t got, and we get to places we are thrilled to have reached but now we are here we have no idea what to do next. Bill Evans’ point is – it’s the resolution that matters at these points. Not the mistakes, not the wrong notes, not the problems. Everyone has the problems. Mistakes are a reality of life – if you don’t make them you aren’t making music. You aren’t living.

The question is – how do you resolve them? What note will you play next? “There are no wrong notes – only wrong resolutions.”

The Bible is full of occasions where Jesus meets people in precisely this situation. A woman who has had 5 husbands and the bloke she’s with now she’s not married to and the community has spurned her; a man who’s supposed to be a priest but has either been thrown out or who has walked away (we don’t know) but who is now reduced to taking tax money for the occupying forces from his own kin; a woman caught in adultery with a crowd around her ready to stone her to death; a thief on a cross, dying. People in the midst of the wrong note.

But life is not about the wrong note – there are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions – and Jesus offers them a next note, shows them how the song might carry on, how the melody can play on and become something beautiful if they’ll listen to him and trust him. They have a choice; and so do we.

Some of you have made mistakes today. Some of you yesterday, some will do it tomorrow. But bad notes are not what life is about. Jesus offers songs of life that are more than one bad note – and his resolutions can become something wonderful, if we will trust him.

Of course, it’s easy in the Bible – there he is, standing before you. Speaking. Showing you what to do.

D’you know, Jesus promises to be with us always? And if one person can be trusted to keep a promise it’s Jesus? There are times we simply have to realise it’s time to ask for help? I guess you might call it prayer – though religious words (prayer) can make him seem far away. He’s not far away.

So here’s another jazz principal that should help.

Charlie Parker, a truly influential saxophonist who died very young in the mid 1950s, is reputed to have said: “know the changes, forget the changes.”

In jazz, the “changes” aren’t when things are suddenly different – like, how many bishops does it take to change a light bulb? – “Change???
The changes are the bedrock of all music – the harmonic pattern, the chord structure, the base on which the melody and the rhythm and the improvisation that jazz is seemingly all about are anchored and from which all these things grow and live.

If you want to be a jazz player, you have to know the changes. Cos you’ll roll into a bar one day with your sax under your arm ready to play, and the pianist will look at you and say, “Do you know ‘I only have eyes for you’?”, and in the jazz world normally that’s not a terrible chat up line, it’s an enquiry as to whether you can play a particular song. Normally.

And if you don’t know the changes, you ain’t got the gig.

Now there are thousands of songs – and you have to learn them all. You have to - if you’re serious. It takes an awful lot of practice to make it up as you go along. But there’s an extra level. Cos there’s no pleasure in dancing with someone who never looks at you or listens to you cos they’re always looking at their own feet, and there’s no point in listening to someone who’s always thinking, “Eb – Cm – Fm7 – Bb7(b9)”. You have to learn these things so well they become instinctive. Know the changes – forget the changes.

It’s all very well for me to say, there are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions, trust Jesus to help you play the right next note in life when today you’ve made a mistake. But what IS the next note? What do you do when you’ve made a mistake? Where do you go? What are the changes? What are the parameters that will get you through and make music out of the mess?

Jesus was asked, during the last week of his life, what is the greatest commandment? The Jews had 613 commandments in the Old Testament, and their scribes and rabbis added a ton on top of that. He was being asked this question. What are the changes of life, the structure, on what are we supposed to base everything else? He replied:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.

God loves you more than you can ever know. Trust him. Believe him. Receive him. And love back as you are loved. When things go wrong – whether it’s your fault or done to you – don’t get defensive, don’t fight back, remember that you are loved and carry on loving. The person in front of you is a person too.

Love God, love people. Know this so well you can forget it. Not because you no longer know it or care, but because it becomes instinctive. A part of you. Know the changes, forget the changes.

You see, it’s not the wrong notes – it’s what you do with them. And if you have this as the changes, the structure, the harmonic pattern of life – Love God, love people – you will make mistakes, play wrong notes, you too are human, but you will go on to resolve those bad notes into some kind of wonderful music and to improvise a life that people around you near and far will love to see and hear.

About jazz. Tick. About Jesus. Tick. About ten minutes. (Look at watch) Not bad. May we pray?


theMuddledMarketPlace said...

clearly ( and beautifully) explained

nice one

the_exile said...

Yes indeed! Very nice.

Anonymous said...

"know the changes; forget the changes"

Slowly but surely I am understanding your whiteboard...

Marcus Green said...

Mark - well done for spotting that! It's like a bit of my head seeping out... it takes a while to make sense, but eventually I promise everything there really does!

Anonymous said...

Improvisation on everything but knowing God s love for us......I think you will have touched a boys heart with that message.joyce