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Jazz Theologian

Reflections of a Jazz Theologian

Updated: 2012-04-15T17:56:12.401-07:00


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(image) A break from Coltrane to tell you about a blog you are going to want to be familiar with. It's a prophetic urban Christian voice of faith, action and imagination. Check it out...make it your home it often! Next we'll take a look at Coltrane's best known album, Love Supreme, a framework for jazz-based spiritual formation.

The Sound of God--Coltrane continued


(image) It was a sound, a droning sound unlike anything he had heard. God met him, revealed Himself to Coltrane through a resonance. “It was so beautiful,” he told his wife as he hopelessly tried to reproduce it on a piano. That is the key to Coltrane. “With this event, the search for the mysterious sound began. It was a search that would continue throughout his life and would cause him to create some of his most intense and emotional music.” writes Fraim. After this experience he still played solo’s with amazing speed but they were not frenzied rather they were searches for ultimate meaning. When he picked up his sax and played, he was trying to reproduce the sound of God. Sometimes he would solo for thirty minutes! The question is what was he doing? He was searching for that sound of God that was playing at his lowest and yet most transformational moment of life. That magnificent murmur, that melody that met him when he was at his weakest and yet somehow was becoming his strongest. He was searching for the sound of God not to play to him, but to have it played by him and through him as a witness to his audiences. When you listen to his music you either love it or hate it but remember the meaning is not found in what he was playing but in why he was playing the way he was playing. Our lives will be meaningless to those around us until we are willing to tell them the story that reveals our search for God. Others will always baffle us until we are willing to pursue the meaning behind their music.

Talkin' Trane (cont.)


(image) The key to Coltrane is found not in how or what he played but why he played the way, he did. Musically he was a genius and a trendsetter. Practicing for hours a day, he developed unprecedented speed that awed all who heard. But why did he play the way he did? What pushed him to play scales at such mind-boggling, even manic speeds? In, Spirit Catcher: The Life and Art of John Coltrane, John Fraim chronicles the struggles, triumphs and spiritual transformation of this man who was reared in his grandfather’s church and was familiar with the ways of God. He had a substance abuse problem and eventually he moved in with his mother and began playing less and abusing drugs and alcohol more. “However, this time he must have sensed that some final decision had to be made if he was going to reach his full potential as a musician: he would have to decide once and for all if he was going to live the rest of his life as a drug addict or as a musician.” (p33) He sought the support of his wife and mother and then sought sanctuary in his room, praying and seeking God’s help to withstand the pain of withdrawals. Four days later he emerged a changed man, God had met him in a most unusual way... the result being that he began to play his instrument for a different reason. To truly truly hear Coltrane we must know what happened to him in that room. Have you ever had an experience with God that was so personal, so utterly amazing that you couldn't describe it? How has it affected you? Do you savor the moment or has the moment sent you on a pursuit to find it again? To be continued...

People get ready there's a Trane coming


(image) I started this series of posts on Coltrane but my real life has me a bit busy. Sorry. I should be back to the blogosphere soon. Coltrane is a fascinating man who had a God-experience in 1957 that changed his life and his music. I think we can learn from him...

Talkin' Trane (p1)


(image) Let's talk some Trane...John Coltrane. Talented...struggler...and spiritual seeker. There's even a church named after him. ( Over the next few posts we'll talk about his music, his demons and what he might teach us about a jazz approach to spiritual formation.

Have I read, "Blue Like Jazz?"


(image) Have I read “Blue Like Jazz?” No. Donald Miller seems like a wonderful man. I’ve skimmed his book (especially the chapter on “Penguin Sex”) and can tell that Miller is extremely creative and a wonderful writer. The reason why I have not read the whole book is because I can’t get past the first two pages. Miller writes, “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music…I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve...” “In America, the first generation out of slavery invented jazz music. It is a free-form expression. It comes from the soul, and it is true.” I have not read the book because I can’t get past these words. I am enthralled with this connection between God and jazz…jazz and God. Perhaps someday I’ll read the rest of the book, but for now these opening words have given me enough to think about.

The two questions I am asked most often.


(image) Since starting Reflections of a Jazz Theologian, I have received two questions frequently, mostly in private emails. Have I read, “Blue Like Jazz?" And, “Who am I?” The answer to the former is "No." The answer to the latter is, "I don't know." To be continued...

Praying the icon of Rublev


(image) Forever they sat in perfect communion and conversation. Somewhere in eternity past a triune desire came into being…to fill the empty spaces around the table. The second member of the Godhead rose from his seat only to return with a chalice of his own blood and sat it center table. And the invitation is to all to come and become part of the conversation. Imagine yourself invited to that table. Imagine yourself taking a seat. Do you say anything? What about them?

Rublev continued...


In the background one can faintly see a hill, tree and house. Some say the hill represents the journey & trials of life; the tree symbolizes the life that comes from the death and sacrifice of the journey; and the house…the house of the father waiting for prodigals to return! You might also notice that each person of the Godhead has a staff. Though they don’t need to walk. They join us in the journey. Scroll down again, what would you add or change? What do you see in these symbols?



(image) God the Father, sitting on the left, lifts his hand, blessing the Son. God the Son, sits center, two fingers pointing toward the Spirit. The Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Holy Spirit. All one, distinct yet equal. All soloists in their own right and yet sharing the stage of history. God...the original jazz ensemble.

Rublev's Icon


(image) Created in the 15the century, Rublev's Icon is based upon the obscure story of Abraham and the three visitors by the oak of Mamre. Drawing upon that revelation of God, Rublev undertook to capture the mystery of the Trinity in iconic fashion. This icon has forever changed my relationship with God. It has helped me to pray as well as understand what it means to know God. What do you see? What questions does it raise? If you don't already know what would your guess be as to who is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit?

Jazz in Haiku


  • 3 lines
  • Lines One and Three have five syllables, Line Two has 7 syllables
  • No rhyming, similes, metaphors or narration.
  • Usually about nature or a moment.

I'm not that proficient at these but I'd thought I take a shot at putting my thoughts as to what Jazz is, in the form of six Haiku's.


Who am I? Tension. Jazz is Life on the Hyphen. Race. Contradiction. Jazz is Convergence. Unity not Uniform. Out of Many One. Freedom, Boundaries. Jazz is Improvisation. Solo-darity. Life in the Moment. Jazz is the Selah of Life. Christ-Incognito Jazz is Listening. Practicing…Presence…People. Playing it by Ear. Jazz is Born of Blues. Transfigured the Disfigured. Soulful, Full of Soul.

Jazz is...


(image) Whitney Balliett said that jazz is... “The Sound of Surprise.”

Ray Charles, how did you answer the question?


(image) Ray Charles has an answer to what jazz is...he once released a jazz album entitled... Genius + Soul = Jazz (image)

Jazz is...


(image) If we are going to talk jazz theology then we must first ask, "What is jazz?" Complete the sentence, "Jazz is..."

Jazz Theology 101--with visiting professor Carl Ellis (Final Session)


(image) "If the classical approach to theology has been called 'the queen of sciences,' the jazz approach to theology could be called the 'queen of the arts.' The latter investigates God's dealing with people in the joys and trails of daily life...The jazz approach is not so much concerned with the status of theological propositions as with the hurts of oppressed people. It is communicated not so much by a literary tradition as by an oral tradition. And it is not so much concerned with facts as it is with life skills: knowing how rather than knowing that." "The great advantage of the jazz approach to theology is its requirement that people be involved with Truth.” Jazz theology invites us to participate in the propositions. To enter in to the Biblical story and know the truth so that the truth can set us free. "Jazz theology is a participation in the basic patterns revealed in biblical life situations. It inquires not only what God did and said but how he said and did it. Further more, it expects him to do it again in a similar way in our lives...Effective Black preachers respond to current situations by theologizing creatively on their feet, just as jazz musicians improvise new music and enliven old songs in response to the feeling and needs of the moment." When you read the scriptures, what tools or tips have you discovered to enter in to the text and experience the living word? How do you keep theology from being just informational?

Jazz Theology 101 with visiting professor Carl Ellis (Session 3)


(image) Ellis puts it this way, “…God is not just classical. God is jazz. Not only does he have an eternal and unchanging purpose, but he is intimately involved with the difficulties of sparrows and slaves. Within the dynamic of his eternal will, he improvises. God’s providential jazz liberates slaves and weeps over cities. Jazz can be robustly exultant or blue; God has been triumphant and also sad. Jazz portrays the diversity, freedom and eternal freshness of God. The genius of jazz theology is the theology as it is done.” “Theology as it is done.” Something in us tells us that our knowing about God is to be more than an intellectual knowing. The demons could pass any classical theology exam but do they know God? We long for the kind of knowing that goes beyond the intellect without bypassing the intellect. The kind of knowing of God and being known by God that made God take Enoch early. The kind of knowing that rivals Moses and Joshua as they spoke with God face to face. The kind enthrallment with God that kept Jesus up all night in conversation with his Father. Jazz theology helps with this kind of knowing. It was J.I. Packer who said in his class work, Knowing God, that it is possible to know a lot about God without ever knowing God. How do we avoid this? How have you avoided this?

Jazz Theology 101--with visiting professor Carl Ellis (Session 2)


(image) We need Classical Theology. Carl Ellis points out its importance. “Like classical music, the classical approach to theology comprises the formal methods of arranging what we know about God and his world into a reasoned, cogent and consistent system. Classical theology interacts in the critical dialogue with the philosophies of the world. It investigates the attributes of God and communicates primarily through a written tradition.”[1] We are forever indebted to those who have codified and systematized the substance of our faith. Being able to “Know what we believe and Why We Believe” as Paul Little put it, is essential for being able to “give an answer for the hope that lies within.” Classical theology has done much to build our faith by helping us to see that there are good reasons and not just reasons that sound good for our faith. “Classical theology and classical music reflect God’s oneness. The unity of God’s purpose and providence is reflected in the consistent explanations and consonant harmonies of classical music and classical theology. The genius of classical theology is in the theology as it was formulated.”[2] Yet most of us are bored with the classical approach to Christianity. Something gets lost in the propositions and proposals. Inspiration to lay our life on the line for Jesus rarely comes from hearing another 10 reasons why the Bible is the Word of God. It isn’t that we don’t care or that these things don’t matter. We need Classical Theology, but it is incomplete. Classical theology engages our heads Jazz theology awakens our hearts. [1] Free At Last, Carl Ellis [2] Ibid., p

Jazz Theology 101--with visiting professor Carl Ellis (Session 1)


(image) I have read Carl Ellis’ book, Free At Last?: The Gospel in the African-American Experience, at least once a year for almost a decade now. Save the scriptures, Free at Last?, has influenced my life and ministry more than any other book. One reason is that it speaks viscerally to me when it comes to how God was and is at work in the African-American experience. Carl Ellis does a masterful job of demonstrating how it is possible to “preach ‘the full counsel of God’ through our history, the way Stephen and later Paul were able to preach through Jewish history (Acts 7:2-53; 13:16-41).”[1] I had never heard of this. I had learned that one can share the gospel through propositions or one's own personal history, that is personal testimony, but I had never considered sharing the gospel through the history of my people…what a radical, Biblical idea! My primary reason for my returning to Carl’s work so often has been not just for what he is saying but for what he is doing—Jazz Theology. Jazz Theology is an alternative way of approaching ministry, spiritual formation, church and the scriptures. How do you share the gospel? Propositions? Personal Testimony? Have you ever shared the gospel through the corporate testimony of your people like Stephen and Paul? [1] Carl Ellis, “Free At Last? The Gospel in the African-American Experience,” (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), p38

Improvisation (part 3)


(image) “The word improvisation derives from the Latin im + provisus, meaning “not provided” or “not forseen.”

Improvisation (part 2)


(image) Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, tells of a time when he attended a show for an improv comedy group. “They would get up onstage, without any idea whatsoever of what character they would be playing or what plot they would be acting out, take a random suggestion from the audience, and then, without so much as a moment’s consultation, make up a thirty minute play form scratch.” Improv seems to be 100% off the cuff but it is not. “…the true is that improve isn’t random and chaotic at all…Every week they get together for a lengthy rehearsal. After each show they gather backstage and critique each other’s performance soberly. Why do they practice so much? Because improve is an art from governed by a series of rules, and they want to make sure that when they’re up on stage, everyone abides by those rules.” “This is the critical lesson of improv…spontaneity isn’t random.” Gladwell concludes that improve works only when the hard work is done to create “the conditions for successful spontaneity.”[i] How does this inform how we do ministry? We all want to be free, but are we willing to put in the practice in order for it to happen? What are the "conditions for successful spontaneity" when it comes to doing ministry together? [i] Gladwell, Malcolm, “Blink: The power of Thinking Without Thinking,” (Little,Brown; New York: 2005), pp111-117

Improvisation (part 1)


(image) Kirk Byron Jones in his book, The Jazz of Preaching, tells this story about Mr. marsalis "Wynton Marsalis was playing, "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You," unaccompanied. At the most dramatic point of his conclusion, someone's cell phone went off." David Hajdu was present and tells what happened next... " "Marsalis paused for a beat, motionless, and his eybrows arched. I scrawled on a sheet of notepaper, MAGIC, RUINED. The cell-phone offender scooted into the hall as the chatter in the room grew louder. Still frozen at the microphone, Marsalis replayed the silly cell-phone melody note for note. Then he repeated it, and began improvising variations on the tune. The audience slowly came back to him. In a few minutes he resolved the improvisation--which had changed keys once or twice and throttled down to a ballad tempo--and ended up exactly where he had left off: "" The ovation was tremendous." Improvisation--an essential skill for any jazz theologian.

Wynton Marsalis


(image) What do you say about Wynton? Artistic Director of Jazz at the Lincoln Center; Pulitzer Prize winning author and a jazz genius...a modern day jazz icon. The recording is not great but close your eyes and take a listen...



I've been a little sick lately. My temperature is coming down. Hallucinations are fading. I'm starting to remember who I am. Food has slight appeal now. I should be back soon. In the mean time, are there any topics or questions that you would like to see discussed in relation to jazz theology?