Playing Jazz with God

I shared this reflection at our Evensong Jazz Vespers this past summer – jazz as a metaphor for relating to each other and to God in our lives.

What is jazz? We know it when we hear it, or see it? But how would you define it? Pianist Bill Evans once said, “Jazz is not a what, it is a how.” Evans meant was that jazz isn’t a single style or sound, but rather it’s the way musicians relate to each other.

Very little in the music is predetermined. While the musicians might play off of a set tune or chord progression, each musician responds to that loose set of instructions in his or her own way, based on their experiences and what they’re feeling and hearing in the moment.

See, when we’re playing jazz, we’re relating to each other. We’re listening; we’re interacting – following each line and solo, imagining how we can support where the music goes. It also takes a lot of trust in one another – and in our own abilities to listen and respond – but in that relationship we continually find new, unexpected, and wonderful places.

And it’s not about us as individuals. The worst thing a jazz musician can do is get so caught up in his or her own sound that in that moment they abandon the group and forget about the bigger music we are creating together.

And you never know quite where jazz might go. To truly give yourself over to the spirit of jazz, there’s no way to control the music’s path. The most unhappy jazz musician would be the one who plays with others expecting them to play according to his way. There’s no room for creating together. He wants a world of robots.

Sometimes we want to place a score in front of God, and say “play!” and dictate each note – volume, length and articulation according to our way; according to what we think we deserve.

But I believe God’s mysterious ways are more like jazz. God hears the song of our lives, the prayers, the devotion, and the choices we make, and doesn’t just parrot back at us what we think we want. The Creator of the Universe takes our broken, incomplete, tattered lead-sheets we attempt to compose and plays back to us something unexpected, something we couldn’t have created ourselves, maybe something we feel we don’t “deserve” – good or bad.

Because, see, there’s no “shouldn’t have” in jazz. There’s no, “I played this, so you ought to have played that!” To play jazz together is to embrace where the music goes – whether we hear it as sublimely beautiful or seemingly off-key. When we truly take in what another person plays, it might not always be pretty to us. It might throw us off what we expected. But our choice is this: to judge, show contempt, stop listening, take ourselves out of the music. Or to engage – to take what we’ve been given and respond melodiously, to continue the music together, wherever it goes.

So do we engage with God when difficult music comes? When He spins a line that we didn’t expect, or don’t like, or we may even feel unworthy of receiving!

Likewise, who are the out-of-tune players in your life? The sour trumpet player who always hits you with the ‘wrong’ notes? The drummer who can’t seem to play quietly behind you when it’s your turn to solo.

When we accept the freedom that Christ offers – to die to ourselves, our desires, and our self-centeredness – what is reborn in us is a new song and wide-open ears. The new song we weave into the music of those around us, and the open ears which take in the songs of others, fully, understanding that this composition is not only ours to write. This life is not our own.