Ktismatics

15 October 2006

An Eschatology of Jazz

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 10:04 am

In “Jazz and the Mode of Hopeful Transgression,” church planter and trombonist Wesley White places jazz within an eschatology of hope. Rooted in the gospel and blues of the American black underclass, jazz erupts in rebellious freedom. Jazz, Wes contends, “is premised on the art of breaking the rules.”

“As a public voice for exiles, jazz invokes a sense of solidarity that necessarily disturbs the benefactors of inequality and isolation… Soloing equity is allotted to each musician (not just one select soloist or even a few select soloists) in order for jazz to be jazz. Likewise, the selflessness of providing backup sounds and rhythms while the other solos requires a fraternal spirit that is both musical and communal. In a good performance, that is to say, the rules that dictate and manage inequality and isolation are violated.”

Unlike the practitioners of most other musical idioms, jazz performers “never play the same thing once.” The hierarchical dualisms of classical music – composer/musician, score/performance, performer/audience, mind/body – are purposely blurred. In a culture of conformity and restriction, jazz is the eruption of imagination and possibility.

Wes sees in jazz a manifestation of Christian hope. In our world the free play of individuals in solidarity manifests a kind of transgression, but it also points forward to a time and place when all of life will be transformed into something like a continual jam session. The otherworldliness of gospel, set in counterpoint with the present despair of blues, bursts forth in musical redemption. In jazz, “the future (prefaced in Christological distinctives) is latent in the present.”

To me, jazz is quintessentially a music of the present. Jazz is live; recordings are static and repetitive imitations of eternity. A jazz show is an interval of freedom that lives inside the club; outside the walls, the square life continues unaffected by what’s happening inside. A jazz tune is an interval of freedom that lives inside a “standard” tune. The song is played “straight” once, then the imaginative variations veer farther and farther from the tune as written; finally, at the end, the players return (more or less) to the starting point.

I don’t think jazz points away from itself toward the future. I think jazz points into itself, traversing through a portal to an alternate reality juxtaposed on the “square,” “standard” world. If there’s such a thing as a “hope for the present,” jazz has it.

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8 Comments »

  1. I’ve always recognized in jazz the fragmentation of human existence. This is particularly true in Coltrane. He is searching and soaring. The tune never seems completely stable because he is always pushing and driving on, and this regardless of the tempo. There is no resolution, only expression. Only searching.

    Coltrane is expressing the fragmentation that exists within the soul.

    But I also think the concept of searching is tied up with finding, at least within a Christian theology. Oddly enough, to express one’s fragmentation leads one to a settledness. Exploring the instability provides a weird kind of stability. On this earth we explore the instability and in the eschaton that which was unstable will be made stable. In the meantime, it’s all jazz…..

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 16 October 2006 @ 4:15 pm

  2. I believe that Christians too often read a Christian perspective into things where it doesn’t belong. Maybe we need a hermeneutics of jazz: what is it that the musician intends to express, rather than what meaning we impose on the music.

    “Expressing one’s fragmentation leads one to a settledness,” you say. I’m not sure I understand, but here’s what I get out of that. The ability to express anything — unsettledness, rage, joy, paranoia, desire, depression — gives you a sense of having made creative connection, for yourself first and then maybe for others, with something that might otherwise have remained hidden, lost, unreal. Is this the idea?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 16 October 2006 @ 4:42 pm

  3. I see that Bruce Ellis Benson has written something about a jazz hermeneutic in the edited book Hermeneutics at the Crossroads. Have you seen the book or Benson’s chapter?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 16 October 2006 @ 4:46 pm

  4. I am currently working through Crossroads and have seen the essay, but not read it in depth. Will try to do that soon, as it relates well to your current topics….which have been very stimulating, by the way….

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 17 October 2006 @ 4:57 pm

  5. Yes, you are on the right track towards understanding what I am trying to say (authorial intent!).

    I remember watching a documentary on the blues, and someone said that within blues music was an expression of the blues, and this expression of the blues is what drove the blues away and helped a culture cope with suppression and oppression…

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 17 October 2006 @ 4:59 pm

  6. I wonder if the expression of one’s uncertainty brings certainty, of one’s isolation brings fellowship, of one’s anger brings peace… of one’s agnosticism brings faith. This sort of paradoxical reversal of expression feels like the basis for a Derridean deconstruction, an undermining of the psychological resolution of conflict that’s evident within the expression itself.

    So Paul says if in this life only we have hope we are of all men most to be pitied… — a deconstructive reading might suggest that simply expressing this sense of doubt and self-pity brings about its own subjective resolution — an ensuing feeling of certainty. Then you project this subjective feeling into objective “reality”: my new sense of certainty must have its basis in fact. Christ must really have been raised from the dead, otherwise I wouldn’t feel so confident after expressing my doubts.

    Every statement of Christian truth would thus paradoxically demonstrate the opposite subjective experience of the writer. Statements of hope demonstrate existential despair, of belief demonstrate doubt, etc. Does this make sense?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 17 October 2006 @ 5:42 pm

  7. Does this make sense?

    Indeed it does, and it is an important thought. I think it is, perhaps, one of the most important thoughts for Christianity in our age.

    I think it goes back to the question of the Symbol. Is there a resurrected Christ, or is there only a Savior Symbol?

    As I mentioned over at my blog, I agree with what I understand about Derrida (and others) regarding the shifting and instability of signs. And yet I’m not convinced that we should, necessarily, resign ourselves to the sign in and of itself. I don’t see how the instability of the sign implies the impossibility of representation. Put another way, does the instability of lanuage render communication impossible? Obviously not, or we wouldn’t be blogging. J.K.A. Smith labors to demonstrate in his essay “Limited Inc/arnation” that this is, in fact, the case for Derrida: communication is, in no way, impossible. (I’ll post on this essay tomorrow – I want to have one more look at it tonight before i pull the trigger and post!)

    Discussion Point:
    To completely reduce the Savior to a Symbol is, I think, our generation’s form of idolatry.

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 18 October 2006 @ 3:17 pm

  8. I’ll look forward to your post.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 18 October 2006 @ 4:38 pm


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