Jazz Theology
 Contents: UU World Back Issue

Improvisational Faith

Jazz and Unitarian Universalist Theology

By Tom Stites

Once a month or more at the First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon, jazz or Latin music enlivens the Sunday morning service, sometimes to the point that people can’t sit still. Music director Mark Slegers particularly loves what happens on Celebration Sundays, when people make their annual pledges—and percussionists propel an eighty-voice choir through Latin tunes. “People sort of samba up the aisle to put their pledge cards in the basket,” he says with a chuckle.

Could these be the same cerebral Unitarian Universalists who are sometimes caricatured as “God’s frozen people”? The answer is yes, and the phenomenon is hardly confined to Portland. In many of our congregations—including Salt Lake City; Nashville, Tennessee; St. Louis; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Cincinnati; Greenville, South Carolina; Tampa, Florida; New York City; and Stratford, Connecticut—worshippers are experiencing music that, as Slegers puts it, is “a whole-body experience.”

New England Transcendental Brass Band
“It’s music of celebration,” he says. “It gets us out of our heads and into our bodies.”

The Rev. Suzanne Meyer, who this fall becomes senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis, also believes that jazz has a place in our worship—and that Unitarian Universalists need to get out of their heads more. She was thoroughly steeped in jazz and blues when she was minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, and in the process developed what she has called “blues theology” in a series of lectures. To her, the music opens the way to the religious experience of transcendence, to the ecstatic.

“I have known a few religious liberals who express intellectual disdain for what they describe as ‘emotional religion’ and would prefer their worship services to resemble a polite book discussion group,” she says. “Ironically, some of these same individuals are jazz fanatics who hold their CDs with the same level of awe and reverence with which priests hold the consecrated host. Their true religion—jazz—is anything but unemotional.”

All music arises from the spirit, which is why it has been important in almost every religion—the chants of Buddhism, the plainsong of European monks, the sacred drums of Africa. But you don’t have to be in a sanctuary for music to move your spirit, and when you are, the music doesn’t have to be a Bach chorale.

No one expects European music and the four-part congregational hymn to be supplanted as the norm in our congregations any time soon, but Unitarian Universalists seem more and more drawn to expanding the musical expression of worship. First came folk music and gospel; now world music and jazz are gaining strength. Jim Scott, the musician who helped compose the Paul Winter Consort’s Missa Gaia, has created jazz vocal arrangements of many of the hymns in Singing the Living Tradition. He says that at General Assembly workshops on jazzing up the hymnal the last two years, “people packed the place.”

Scott, who has long been active in the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network, says, “It’s the connection of the body to the divine, the rhythm, the handclapping rather than just standing still and mouthing words.”

Perhaps jazz is finding greater expression in our congregations because it is such a deep metaphor for Unitarian Universalism. The music and this religion—not all religion, but our specific religion—resonate on a remarkable number of levels.

First, at their cores, jazz and Unitarian Universalism are democratic in the broadest sense. Author and musician Tom Piazza writes in The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz:

In a jazz group, as in any community, certain roles need to be filled. Someone has to play the melody, someone has to keep time, someone has to suggest the harmonic context. In jazz, each instrumentalist has to understand his or her role in the group well enough so that he or she can improvise on it and not just follow directions. Playing in a jazz group involves both responsibility and freedom; freedom consists of understanding your responsibility well enough to act independently and still make the needed contribution to the group. As such, a jazz performance is a working model of democracy.

Unitarian Universalist congregations are working models of democracy, too: They answer to no authority higher than their memberships and take direct responsibility for choosing their ministers, approving their budgets, and electing governing boards to oversee the congregations’ business.

Second, both jazz and Unitarian Universalism are inclusive rather than exclusive. Everybody is welcome, and everybody is welcome to improvise. In jazz, improvisation means spontaneous composition of music in the moment it is played. In Unitarian Universalism, it means that each of us must search for our own truth and meaning—and, like jazz players, we draw from many sources of inspiration. And neither jazz nor Unitarian Universalist improvisation is for the faint-hearted. It requires real courage to take responsibility for our own religious lives, both as individuals and as congregations.

Third, when everybody is welcome to improvise, in jazz or in church, some dissonance is inevitable. People tend to regard dissonance as grating and tension as bad. But dissonance can be holy: Liberal religion rests on the theological premise that by coming together with all our differences we summon the holy. That’s because people who are responsible for their own truths always produce tension when trying to be in relationship. So being part of churches like ours challenges us to learn from each other as we work to resolve the tension and refine our truths.

Martha Meyer, music director of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Bridgeport in Stratford, Connecticut, finds more parallels. In a jazz ensemble, she sees a “Unitarian freedom of spirit, a willingness to enter into new territory.”

“But before you improvise,” she cautions, “you have to have a strong sense of what has already been laid down. The accomplishments of those who have gone before must be a part of the mix.”

Meyer, the pianist in a jazz quintet drawn from the congregation that performs during worship every six weeks or so, also says that a lesson about humility can be drawn from jazz as well. “If you don’t listen to the other players with humility,” she says, “you’re in trouble.”

Many Unitarian Universalist congregations have sponsored jazz concerts for decades. Recent efforts to create alternative worship services have brought more jazz into sanctuaries. And jazz in turn has brought in new people.

Perhaps the oldest of the alternative services is Jazz Vespers at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, which begins its fifteenth season this fall. The Rev. Tom Goldsmith, who established the program, says that small jazz groups typically play six numbers during the one-hour Sunday evening service; he adds readings and often humorous commentary, and invites audience members to a coffee hour with the musicians after a benediction and postlude. The church has become widely known in the community for Jazz Vespers, which are presented for ten weeks leading up to Christmas each year, and touring jazz players sometimes drop by to sit in.

Goldsmith describes the program as a Unitarian Universalist ministry to Utah’s jazz community, which includes many Mormons. Goldsmith not only conducts the vespers, he has also performed jazz memorial services for unchurched musicians whose only religion is their music. While his congregation is solidly supportive of the vespers, he says, only 10 percent of the membership attends regularly.

Across the continent at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, jazz combines with poetry at the All Souls at Sundown services held the first Sunday of each month except in the summer. This fall, the third season begins.

The Rev. Galen Guengerich, who conducts the services, says, “It’s a way to open the door a bit wider, to people who might not show up for church at ten a.m. Sunday but would at six p.m.” He says the Sundown attendance is much more ethnically diverse than Sunday morning’s. Because New York jazz clubs tend to have high cover charges and Sundown has none, the services attract many jazz fans who might not otherwise find their way to church. People have come to expect very high quality music, Guengerich says.

The worship consists of poetry interspersed with jazz pieces, silent meditation, prayer, and singing together. Many All Souls members are Sundown stalwarts. “The congregation has heartily embraced it,” Guengerich says.

The success of such services, and the number of people who are drawn to them, suggests that bringing jazz into our churches serves as a beacon of welcome to people who do not easily identify with the church music of European culture.

“What we sing is who we are,” says Jason Shelton, music director of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville and a recent graduate of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. “If we want to talk about being inclusive and multicultural, and our music in worship is confined to Western European art music, we have a conflict.”

One way or another, jazz hooks into everything that is American. In a triumph of the human spirit of the highest order, jazz arose from America’s national sin, slavery. Slave traders did all they could to crush the culture of the people they brought from West Africa. But there was no way to prevent the slaves from singing.

As they were exposed to European music—usually in church—they adapted the forms and harmonies to their own rhythms and inflections. Field hollers spawned spirituals and the blues, then various jazz forms and later rock ’n’ roll and rap. You might say the enslaved Africans and their descendants integrated European and African music into something that is uniquely American. In the music that results, you can hear both the joys and the sorrows of the slaves’ experience. The spirit triumphed, and what a contribution this triumph has made to the world.

America prides itself on being a meritocracy but it so often falters. Jazz really is one. To be a jazz performer, all you’ve got to be able to do is play this demanding and sophisticated music well enough and you’re in. You don’t need conservatory training. The conventional wisdom of the power elite carries no weight. No affirmative action program has ever been needed. Skin pigment doesn’t matter. Neither does gender. Women have played formative roles since an 18-year-old named Lil Hardin was the pianist in King Oliver’s seminal Creole Jazz Band in New Orleans in 1920. Two years later a young unknown cornet player named Louis Armstrong joined the group; Hardin played on Armstrong’s famous Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings and was for a time his wife. And Duke Ellington’s longtime collaborator and arranger, Billy Strayhorn, best known as the composer of the great ballad “Lush Life” and of Ellington’s famous theme song “Take the A Train,” was an out gay man in an era that offered few havens for gays. Jazz can be a music of justice as well as freedom.

Because of the generous spirit and sturdy character of so many of the people who gave the world this music, jazz became the groundbreaking force for American racial integration. Like Unitarian Universalism, the jazz world was and is far from a utopia, and even though the music is truly colorblind not all its players have been. But jazz musicians took on Jim Crow and exploitative booking agents and music publishers and other obstacles erected by a society that proclaims high ideals but too rarely lives by them. As the music matured it drew more and more admirers until it had gathered the power to break through these forces in ways that forever changed our culture.
More than a decade before Branch Rickey hired Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Benny Goodman used the power of his fame to break the taboos of the 1930s: He performed with racially integrated groups in Carnegie Hall and in hundreds of other places where this had been unthinkable before. And look at what has happened since.

Now jazz is flavoring Unitarian Universalist theology. Sharon Welch, a professor of feminist ethics at the University of Missouri-Columbia and a trustee of the Meadville Lombard Theological School, presented a popular workshop at the 2000 General Assembly called “Trust, Justice, and Jazz: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Social Change.” And, accompanied by a jazz quintet, she was the keynote speaker for the UUA’s 2003 Mid-size Church Conference.

In jazz, Welch finds an escape route from the rigidity of dualistic “either/or” thinking and a form through which creativity of the spirit overcomes social injustice and thus becomes an integral part of social transformation.

“Jazz is born from a complex mix of creativity and persistence, of living outside of and in defiance of the stifling mantle of racism,” Welch writes in Sweet Dreams in America: Making Ethics and Spirituality Work. “I find it ironic, and yet fitting, that we who are white can also find in jazz resources for creating identities as Americans outside of racism.”

Other thinkers are exploring the same territory. Jazz is not just a music but “a mode of being in the world,” writes the social philosopher Cornel West in Race Matters. It is “an improvisational mode,”

suspicious of “either/or” viewpoints, dogmatic pronouncements, or supremacist ideologies. . . . The interplay of individuality and unity is not one of uniformity and unanimity imposed from above but rather of conflict among diverse groupings that reach a dynamic consensus subject to questioning and criticism. As with a soloist with a jazz band, individuality is promoted in order to sustain and increase creative tension within the group—a tension that yields higher levels of performance to achieve the aim of the collective project. This kind of critical and democratic sensibility flies in the face of any policing of borders and boundaries of “blackness,” “maleness,” “femaleness,” or “whiteness.”

Suzanne Meyer dips into her blues theology to add:

We Westerners seem to have a penchant for organizing our worlds into dualities, into either/or patterns of mutually exclusive options. If something is secular, it can’t be spiritual. If something is sacred, then it can’t contain earthy metaphors. If something is sensual, or emotional, then it can’t be intellectual. If music is played in a barroom then it is unquestionably unsuitable for church.

Blues theology begins by shaking up this kind of dualistic thinking. Blues theology poses the question: What might happen if we were to embrace a more holistic realm of experience? What if we began to experience the sacred through the profane; timeless truths through the sensual experience in the existential moment? The first truth of the blues is that things are seldom either/or—more often or not, theological truth is discovered hidden in seeming contradictions and unorthodox combinations.

Is it possible for us to speak of those things we hold sacred—freedom, reason, and tolerance—using a different vocabulary, images and metaphors? What if we were to search for and discover these same values in a completely different cultural context? Is it possible to gain a deeper appreciation for the universality of our faith by attempting to describe it through an entirely different set of metaphors?

Jazz also has a pastoral side. Just listening can help people overcome sadness. “Listen,” the pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams often told noisy nightclub audiences, “this can heal you.”

The music reminds us through its example that in this world of oppression we can do better, we can learn from the holy dissonance to help achieve more freedom and greater justice. Jazz tells us that there is always reason for hope.

“The spirit that jazz embodies will never die,” writes Piazza, the author and musician, “as long as we can touch a button and begin again, at the beginning, of Duke Ellington’s ‘Ko-Ko,’ or John Coltrane’s ‘Crescent,’ or Louis Armstrong’s ‘West End Blues,’ we will have proof that the individual and the group can be reconciled, that African and European cultural streams are compatible, and that the blues can be held at bay. And when the balance sheets are toted up for this country, let no one miss the sweet justice that the greatest artistic expression of the American ideal has come from the descendants of slaves, who found the true meaning of democracy and the essence of freedom.”

Tom Stites, the editor of this magazine, has conducted jazz services in Unitarian Universalist congregations in four states. He was the founding editor and publisher of Jazz Magazine, which published from 1976 to 1981.

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

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