The Breath of God in Broken Pieces: On Jazz

Your breath hangs in that moment.

It is the moment when the bass sets an ostinato that grinds out groups of fives, increasing sets of tension and resolution that acknowledge and, and then violate the measured spaces, where you know that the pattern has purpose and destination, but it’s going to take 80 measures for it to resolve. The drummer knows it too. He finds it, and sets down on it a rolling 3 pattern on the ride bell. But it’s subtle, so maybe you don’t know that he’s hearing it. You think you might be the only one, so you set in a chord voicing that leaves room down below for the bass to rise up the series of tension notes, and leaves room on top for someone to speak into the open spaces.

And they speak, in diving lines and running scales, notes that have no place in the ordinary order of things, that only make sense because the pianist makes them make sense, gives them a context in which to speak. And so a dominant 7th chord adopts the flat 9 as it’s red-headed step-child, because the tension of it is too beautiful to leave orphaned.

And the bass grinds out groups of fives, and the drums roll on in triplets and subtle shades of swing, and the piano pushes out a harmonic order that the sax speaks into, and it builds and roils until it seems like the thing can’t hold together. You are a guest in a foreign language, and the sounds all sound like sounds you could make with your own mouth if you tried, but the words are all different, and the language is confusing and subtle, and wondrous and complex, and it builds, and grinds, and the tension increase, and you wonder if you’re the only one who hears it, because if anyone else were here, they wouldn’t be in their seats, they would rise up and shout, they would rise up and try to speak in that language, they would rise up and cry out for a resolution to the rising tension of notes that make no sense except that they have been made to make sense by being in the right story.

And in that moment, your breath hangs.

And when the resolution comes, the beauty of the tension is made clear.

The beauty of Jazz is this; Coltrane, and Monk, and McCoy Tyner, and Ella, they all dance the same twelve steps that Bach, Mozart, and Handel danced. That’s it. That’s all we get, the same twelve steps. They all get a fixed amount of time, from first note to last breath, and they all break it down into groups of two and three. That’s it. Just twos and threes.

We who create in this world are working with someone else’s clay. We aren’t creating, we’re recreating. We act in the way that our Father taught us to act, when he breathed into us his image. From that moment on, we set about the mystic task of gathering dust, adding water, and recreating.

Jazz is an infinite statement of recreation. It lives, as all music does, within the brutal confines of physical constraints; the fifth note of any scale always has the same relationship to the first note, because the alternating series of high and low pressures in the sound wave follow fixed and eternal rules, and those rules force it to function in that way. The beauty of Jazz is that it finds its freedom, its limitless expression of human experience, within the confines of that fixed structure.

What else can I say? That it is an incarnation of community? That it is a model of trinitarian theology, where three create as one, being separate, but being the same? That it is the music of the poor and the weak emphatically stating that freedom is their birthright? That if Bach and Mozart and Handel were alive today, they wouldn’t be at the Met, they’d be at the Village Vanguard?

No, I think I’ll say just this. Jazz is a living metaphor for the image of God that, being embodied in us, resists all efforts to be constrained by our brokenness.

Ingrid, my dear, if you don’t think Jazz is worship music, you don’t understand worship.

21 thoughts on “The Breath of God in Broken Pieces: On Jazz

  1. Bobby

    The “same twelve steps”… lets see, isn’t the first admitting you have a problem?
    Seriously, that was a beautiful insight into freedom within structure. Thanks for the word pictures.
    Chad, I heard you rocked the hizzy on the bizzy.

  2. aly hawkins

    Incredible rhythm to this writing, Mikle. “…acknowledge and and then violate” completely works for me (I’m hoping you meant to do that so I don’t feel like a dolt later.) It was like throwing an extra dig in, playing in sets of five.
    For all your talking yesterday about not capturing the transcendant with words, you’ve done a masterful job of it here. The words read like that night at Steamers when Tito Puente played an 8-minute cowbell solo. And I mean that as a high, high compliment.

  3. aly hawkins

    And by Tito Puente, I actually mean Pancho Sanchez. Early Saturday morning Alzheimer’s.

  4. michael lee Post author

    Aly, it was unintentional, and I didn’t even see it until you pointed it out, but I like it too, so I added a comma to make it explicit.
    If anyone is interested, this entire post is an homage to a fantastic piece of heroin-induced fictional autobiography by Charles Mingus called “Beneath the Underdog”. When he writes about jazz, you can feel both the cadence, and the frustration of his inability to press the ideas into words.
    Beneath the Underdog : His World as Composed by Mingus (Vintage)

  5. aly hawkins

    Reading today and have to share:
    There are these rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than they’ve ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself. Out in the real world there exist detailed plans, visionary projects for peaceable realms, all conflicts resolved, happiness for everyone, forever–mirages for which people are prepared to die and kill. Christ’s kingdom on earth, the workers’ paradise, the ideal Islamic state. But only in music, and only on rare occasions, does the curtain actually lift on this dream of community, and it’s tantalisingly conjured, before fading away with the last notes.
    From Saturday by Ian McEwan

  6. Gretchen

    ah the 8 minute cow bell solo…those were the days. I can still hear it ringing in my head. Aly, know any good publishers that can light a fire under my husband’s rump to do something with well written words ;)

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  8. Paul

    Wow, I just found this via another site. I think that is the best description of Jazz for the layman that I have ever heard. Fellow jazz heads take notice, educate the squares.

  9. sligh

    holy smokes. bravo. good job. a brillian piece of writing that kept me leaping ahead to see what would be said next and then going back and poring over what i’d just read.

  10. michael lee Post author

    Sligh, reading articles like this is the kind of thing that will get you kicked out of BJU!

    Don’t worry, we’ll gladly make room for you at APU.

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  12. michael lee Post author

    Ingrid has a nasty habit of deleting and moving articles around. The link in the article has been fixed to the new location for her post on the evils of Jazz. At least until it moves again, or gets deleted.

  13. John Pickett

    Michael, just wanted to thank you for your piece on jazz. I’m part of a relatively small church in Harlem thats full of an eclectic mix of artists, music lovers, and social justice minded people from varying backgrounds in almost every way. I happened to find your piece when I was preparing for a small group discussion on God and jazz. It turned out to be an amazing group and your piece really helped to facilitate it. More and more people want a copy and the last paragraph was even used by the pastor for the service. I don’t want you to become to grandiose, but definitely wanted to let you know the impact you’re having and thank you for what you’re doing. Looking forward to reading more.


  14. Pingback: Why jazz is worship music | MusicalGod

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