A personal introduction to jazz for Seventh-Day Adventists (and other Christians)

For those of you that clicked the link on the ADM Productions jazz page, thank you so much for coming through to this blog – your desire to understand where I am coming from is not taken for granted in any way.

For those of you who found this post by some other route – and to the regular subscribers of this blog – you are, as ever, warmly welcomed.

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As I have stated elsewhere: jazz – as far as I am concerned – is the single greatest creative challenge in (Western) music.

If you genuinely understand and appreciate jazz, then you will know why this music matters. But if you don’t – and if you (also) happen to be from my church – then you most probably need to read this really rather carefully. And if you are curious for some other reason about my involvement in jazz and unique nature of what we do in jazz at ADM Productions, then do please read on!

Here’s a newsflash – jazz is in fact one of the most incredible mediums that we have found as human beings in the nexus of music itself. It lends itself to integration with so many non-Western music traditions, and it also lends itself to the expression of whatever ideology you believe. [For those interested, I was grilled seriously about my work in jazz on a televised interview, in which this very issue surfaces.]

Like many Seventh-Day Adventists, my parents warned me sternly away from jazz. It was the ‘devil’s music’ along with rock’n’roll, blues, reggae and the rest. But classical music?? This was the highest form of music – but somehow the problems of secular classical music were not as great as the problems with jazz. And we return to the issues of the previous paragraph; many people in my church really don’t seem to understand that it is the same deal in classical music. Mozart may have written some operas with some quite scandalous plots. But his psalm settings are incredible. Do Bible-believing Christians ignore those just because of the salacious opera scenes that he wrote? Hmm.

Handel also wrote some highly secular music – but what’s he best known for? That’s right, an incredible piece of sacred choral/orchestral music entitled Messiah…so the genre is indeed not as important in and of itself – it’s about what you make of the genre!

I only discovered this after I started playing jazz and realised that this music was the exact opposite of faith-denying. At 18, I began to play really seriously. At 19, I had become an early-career jazz professional. And the year I turned 20, I celebrated my birthday in New York, having flown out there specifically to spend part of the summer getting into the jazz scene. By the time I flew back I knew that this was what I wanted to do – to become a truly world-class jazz musician and be an Adventist witness to this community of musicians and to do more than merely entertain people (which is largely all that I ever saw taking place in our church gospel concerts. Occasionally, someone would sing or play in such a way that it really did become ‘ministry’ but this was exceedingly rare). I wanted to do more than ‘entertain.’ I wanted to communicate.

To get my head around that at 20 was one of the biggest journeys I have ever made and will ever make. And from that time, I have been both theologically-conservative Adventist and professional jazz musician.

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So, to brass tacks. If you’re not a Christian believer in any way, you may very reasonably wonder why  I am trying to do something called ‘sacred jazz.’ Why bother? Either play jazz as jazz, or don’t bother, but why try to mix the two?

And if you are a Christian, you may be wondering the same thing, but worded differently with different emphases and from different angles…

So all parties will get the same answer. Why is jazz part of what happens at ADM Productions? Well, because I’m the ‘AD’ of ADM, and I know that God has given me an interest in, feeling for and desire to make music in three genres. Classical music is fantastic, but there are times when only gospel music will do. But at other times, I need something that is more cerebral than gospel, but not as scripted as classical music. I need to ‘be’ in that moment. And I need to think outside the boundaries of language.

It’s kind of ironic, because for someone who loves instrumental music as much as I do, I use a lot of words in the course of my life. But we all have times when it’s not about verbal language at all. As Goethe (no less) once observed, “music begins where words end.”

That is the literal truth, whatever you believe. And as someone with Christian faith, there are times when expressing and articulating aspects of my faith journey (and also serious reflecting on this journey) requires something other than language. The Bible talks about meditating – how do we do that? Is it not possible that one can use artistic mediums to reflect? And why would I only  choose to find a pre-composed piece of music – the outworking of someone else’s personal journey – when I could in fact play something that I myself have created in the moment that is the outworking of my own journey and true to that moment? In case you missed that (apologies to jazz musicians!), that is precisely  what true improvisers do!

Jazz facilitates a level and a type of musical profundity that simply does not exist in any other Western music genre. Many people still don’t know or understand that the major genius composers of times past were not just ‘composers’ in the way that we construct nowadays. They were ‘musicians’ in such a deep sense of the word – and many were consummate and prolific improvisers. The negative connotations imposed by neo-colonial black people on improvisation and most forms of non-scripted music are but one example of the cruelties of ignorance. And this ignorance is hurting the Church in more ways than many people have dared to even think about (which is one of the major reasons why I do ministry).

[Indeed, some even believe that if a musician does not read music, then they are not a real musician. What’s scary about this is that I personally have ONLY EVER heard black Christians say this. My word, we do class and caste better than others at times, we really do!]

But here’s a very interesting thing: badly-performed classical music is so ubiquitous it is beyond contempt. And as for badly-performed gospel music – just don’t get me started (plenty on that subject elsewhere on this blog). The church is an excellent place to find both.

But unlike those two genres, I would contend that jazz really only  works for any audience when it is played well. Properly. And I distinguish between “jazz/gospel” and “sacred jazz” because jazz/gospel is essentially gospel music – but sacred jazz is actually jazz – with a requisite amount of rhythmic/harmonic/melodic intensity and complexity to qualify as actual jazz – but the message is one of faith and hope and assurance – and in a very spiritual sense.

Nearly all the jazz musicians who work with me do not share my faith in any way, but they share a real commitment to a brand of music-making with far more integrity than many Christians (including musicians) will EVER comprehend. And I am delighted and honoured to have them as compadres  in music and that they have been willing to be part of my own faith journey in music.

There are some very big names in SDA ministry who are anti-drums, anti-contemporary music, and more – and while I had planned to cite some of these names, this will not help. Enough controversy has been aroused courtesy of my decision to take apart certain statements by one well-known Adventist who fits into this category. And it shows me that folks convinced against their will will remain of the same opinion still.

And so, as a jazz pianist, I’m fond of ‘quipping’ that I  don’t just play any old jazz stuff – I play ‘faith.’ And while it is true that this statement applies specifically to my work in ‘sacred jazz,’ it is in fact the case that whatever the material is – as long as the song/folksong/standard/original is genuinely compatible with Biblical Christianity, then the way I play it is going to exemplify who I am and what I believe. In truth, my secular jazz colleagues worked that out regarding my playing long before I did!

For all these reasons and more, my team and I have some big plans for sacred jazz at ADM Productions. There are a couple of major writing projects which I really want to finally get off the ground. It was no less a person than Gustav Mahler who said that “if a composer could say that he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music.” Developing a new, gospel-inspired language of sacred jazz for big band (and more) that is spiritually and theologically truthful is going to be an even bigger challenge than conducting the St. Matthew Passion  – but there are certain things that transcend language, and composing this sort of jazz is in fact the work of a lifetime in and of itself!

In the context of life and ministry, it is an unalloyed privilege and pleasure to be able to engaging with fellow jazz musicians and audience members. This is totally about breaking beyond boundaries and barriers of style and concept  ‘playing faith’ – but without compromising who I am or what I believe. Sadly, as I write this post, I can see that even a bunch of youngsters playing standards from the Real Book in a jam session will usually find a greater level of musicianship integrity than that found in the types of jam session that take in church sanctuaries after services. There is more listening. More technical facility. More space (sometimes). More preparation mentally (frequently). And much stronger song forms. Of course, there are some jam sessions in which the medium of jazz music is seriously abused. That is the fault of the PLAYERS, not the music (and this of course applies to gospel music and other musical genres as well!).

And so this blog post actually caps a very serious historical moment in my life. Five years ago, when called to full-time ministry, I honestly thought that I may never, ever play jazz again. But the truth is that my ministry extends far beyond the boundaries of the church walls, and it requires me to be the best version of me. Jazz was more than the mainstay of Phase 1 of my professional career; it was something which God Himself facilitated to keep me sane and to express some deep things in me that I could not express in language. But as I survey a gospel music landscape where market forces drive musical and ‘ministry’ choices, which result in a spiritually impoverished gospel scene, and a classical music landscape where at the highest level, true Biblical Christian faith is extraordinarily hard to find, I realise that to be both composer and performer in ‘real time’ is a gift from God, and while improvisation is hardly exclusive to jazz, there is no other music form that forces the highest level of spontaneity in creativity quite like jazz, and I cannot wait to return to serious concert jazz performance – in 2015. I have something to say and words are not enough…

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3 comments on “A personal introduction to jazz for Seventh-Day Adventists (and other Christians)

  1. P Martin says:

    As a person who has performed both in the jazz as well as secular (pop) music, this has allowed me to think A) I am not alone and B) not to demean these experiences I have been through…..which unfortunately our church does every so often.
    This honest and refreshing outlook has allowed me to rethink some vocal improvisations based from my own jazz vocal days and to some degree validating that my personal experiences are just that………personal!…..I am still in the world……… but not of it!! Nevertheless how I bring it to the table of praise my Lord requires of me is still a work in progress requiring pray, humbleness and dedication.

    Onward and upward with a new song!

  2. theomusicologist says:

    Reblogged this on radicallyadventist and commented:

    This is a most emotive subject that has generated more heat than light…

  3. […] have written a personal introduction to jazz for Seventh-Day Adventists – again, it could be really good to look at that before continuing. Some of you might be […]

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