Creeds and Freedom or The Jazz Rhythm Section and the Soloist

Arts and TheologyIn explaining some of the church’s confessions and creeds to my Worship Leading class, I used an example I often go to: jazz.  Jazz (and I have in mind more straigh-ahead jazz from the 40s to the 70s, like Miles or Coltrane or Brubeck or Parker) has much to offer our lives beyond its music (which is good by itself, too).

I’ve kind of breached the subject on freedom already but there’s so much more to cover in this intersection of music and theology.  And our focus right now is the Creeds of the Church, in general.  More often than not, the major creeds define things negatively- what the subject in question is not. A great example of this is the person of Christ as defined by the four councils of Chalcedon. The four councils mark out what the person of Christ is not- Christ is not only God, Christ is not only man, Christ is not more or less than one person, Christ has nothing more or less than two natures.  This creates four lines, demarcating the lines of where we cannot go outside of.  But these four lines form an area like a square, inside of which we can have freedom to move around and see exactly who the person of Christ is- the positive definition. This is the task left to us.

Jesus and John Coltrane

Jesus and John Coltrane have more in common than what we

So where does jazz come in? Jazz comes in as a great metaphor for something we do every day in this arena of positively spelling out our theology.  Let’s look at a typical jazz rhythm section, there’s the drummer, the bassist and the piano player.  The drummer is laying down the tempo, the rhythm, the groove.  The bassist is establishing the tonal foundation, the lowest tones we’ll hear, giving a base for the chords.  The piano player lays out the rest of the chord.  Each are filling in the emptiness the others have and each are contributing to the overall mood of the song.  Now here comes the saxophone soloist.  He hears all these things as boundaries or limits to where this particular song will go.  There’s a tempo, a key, a mood, a length of verse and chorus. The soloist hears these and uses these to create the melody, the solo.  The notes are all within the boundaries, but when put together by this soloist, the melody (and the complete overall sound) is something completely unique.  When it’s the other soloist’s chance to play, she hears the drummer, bassist and pianist and plays another melody line, all within the established boundaries, and also completely unique.  Each soloist is unique, depending on instrument, timbre, influences, what one wants to say versus another, and therefore, each overall sound will be unique.  But none of these have to break the established rules to be unique. This seems to be opposite our culture’s view of what is unique or authentic and what is not.

So this jazz soloist is you and it is me.  When we go about our lives, doing our daily things, we are positively asserting what our theology is. When we choose to sacrifice ourselves and love someone, it is something unique to our situation and easily within the boundaries of what love or humility is. Our creeds and most of theology proper give us the right boundaries for us to positively live out what life is truly meant to be. All of our individual songs will end up sounding different, even if we have the same rhythm section playing the same thing.  They are different and they are good (if keeping within the boundaries).

Hopefully we have the correct boundaries. And if we do, hopefully we will stay within them. The funny thing is, we know when we get outside the boundaries.  We might try and rationalize it, but there’s a dissonance that rings inside of us. But what about when we play bad notes? What happens when a jazz player plays a wrong note, something that goes outside of the established rules? What happens when he or she intentionally goes outside the rules? This will be the subject of the next post.

12 thoughts on “Creeds and Freedom or The Jazz Rhythm Section and the Soloist

  1. Ah, well… as long as you include Harry Carney honking on his bari sax in your stable, that’s cool. For the record, “my” sax section would be fronted by Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster and Carney.

    And I prefer Lawrence Brown to JJ…

  2. Any fan of the Duke and his band members is a friend of mine. See, brass and woodwind can live in harmony after all. This should be an object lesson for the world.

  3. Where’s the horn in a jazz analogy? Not present, unless it is Henry Mancini, when it is just a strange looking fourth trombone.

    Improv comedy is the same. Although most would think an improv group is all over the place, each individual is really existing withing a set of boundaries agreed upon and practiced in advance. The group dynamic on stage is made from all those unique individuals, just like fellowship can be strengthened by the diverse nature of a body of believers.

  4. @Chuck: Improv comedy is another great example. Drama theory has a lot to say about this (like speech-act theory) and has had a lot more scholarship devoted to it than the area of music. Maybe I should do some things in this area in the near future…

  5. Pingback: greg willson » Blog Archive » When We Play Wrong Notes

  6. Pingback: Does dissonance disturb you? - He is Sufficient

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