Theology in 5/4 Time:
Dave Brubeck and Creative Transformation
by Patricia Adams Farmer
The art of progress is to preserve order amid change,
and to preserve change amid order. Life refuses to be embalmed alive.
--Alfred North Whitehead
A Syncopated Sort of Life (and Death)
You don’t have to love hardcore jazz to love Dave Brubeck. One of the few jazz geniuses to cross over to the mainstream without compromising his musical integrity, he enchanted—and continues to enchant—a wide swath of music lovers. As a young saxophonist in a high school jazz band in the early Seventies, I was one of the beguiled, finding special inspiration in Brubeck’s cool-as-a cucumber sax player, Paul Desmond. Today, I don’t play the saxophone very often, but I do play Brubeck, for his music helps me imagine a truly creative approach to life, one that constantly challenges the status quo without forsaking it altogether—revolution, yes, but not bloody revolution. Change amid order. Zest amid harmony. It speaks of a Whiteheadian view of the world, a process-relational world, a daringly beautiful world of “creative transformation.”
David Warren "Dave" Brubeck (December 6, 1920-December 5, 2012) died one day before his 92nd birthday. One day! Maybe he planned it that way, for it is surely a syncopated way to die. Not quite on the beat.
And that’s what we love about him.
“Take Five,” his masterpiece single from the album Time Out (1959), broke through all the known boundaries of jazz of the time by simply adding a extra beat to the measure. Four beats turned into five. Five beats? Oh, come on. Who can dance to that? Well, you don’t have to dance to it; just feel it, and let it pick you up and hurdle you through the door of “what is” into that new musical dimension called “what can be.” This is what Brubeck did for his art form: he stretched out jazz like it was warm taffy—not to the breaking point, but well beyond the known boundaries. With time signatures pushed beyond their comfort zones, we witness one of those historical musical moments when order meets zest, when jazz refuses to be embalmed in jazz.
An Excellent Paradox
The Atlantic calls his ability to reinvent jazz rhythms while still being true to tradition “an excellent paradox.” Excellent indeed. And like all excellent paradoxes, it works somehow, creating yet a new form of jazz that then becomes the tradition for the next paradox to strike. In this way, Brubeck opened the door to radically new jazz rhythms just as, say, Einstein opened the relativity door leading to quantum physics. Somebody had to do it, and Brubeck had the courage, the genius, or at least enough mischief to give in to the witty muse of 5/4 time—not to mention 9/8 time.
So, Brubeck’s new rhythms became like the fifth dimension in jazz, dismantling our musical preconceptions and thrusting us forward to imagine things unheard of—like walking on the moon. It feels happy, too, listening—or singing—in 5/4 time. It never ceases to feel a bit startling, catching one off balance, like a lover going out the door and suddenly turning back for one last kiss.
But how does such a thing happen? What goads the imagination toward novelty, the kind which adds such richness to the world? Process theology would say that such novelty comes from God, the very Soul of the world, the ultimate, organizing source of not only order, but things-not-yet. And the more we open our minds to new worlds and new ways of thinking, the more likely we are to pick from the fresh possibilities ripening in the divine mind, awaiting those who dare to imagine.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of putting ourselves in a new situation and being fully aware and alive in the moment. This very thing happened to Dave Brubeck. Joshua Rothman from The New Yorker explains: “In the nineteen-fifties, the U.S. State Department cultivated a group of ‘jazz ambassadors,’ whom they would send on tour around the world to demonstrate the overwhelming coolness of American culture. In 1958, they sent the Dave Brubeck Quartet to East Germany, Poland, Turkey, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Iran, and Iraq.”
Rothman says that it was in Istanbul that Brubeck became fascinated with the unusual rhythms and exotic syncopations of street musicians. They were playing in an oddly alluring 9/8 time—nine eighth notes per measure (unheard of to Western ears!)—and that was just the beginning. That was the spark that ignited a jazz revolution. In 1959, when he returned from his world tour, his quartet recorded Time Out, where he not only introduces 5/4 time (five quarter notes per measure) in “Take Five,” but also the ultra-exotic 9/8 time in “Blue Rondo a la Turk.”
The Source of Life-Enriching Novelty
As with many creative people, Brubeck was a spiritual person who also wrote sacred music, such as one of my favorite Christmas hymns, “God’s Love Made Visible.” (Of course it is in 5/4 time—would we want it any other way?) Is it any wonder that spirituality—though not always orthodox—and creativity tend to coincide? But then, if God is the source of life-enriching novelty, then it begins to make sense.
Whitehead believed that creativity is the most real thing about the universe. Some people are especially gifted in their awareness of novel ideas, but we can all live like a jazz artist if we are aware of this deep, loving, divine reality always beckoning us toward freshness. Creativity—our freedom to choose—does not necessarily mean we will choose what is good or beautiful or even novel. Change is not always called for and not always good—yes, sometimes we need to preserve order amid change—but our choices are always fresh and they always matter to the universe and to God. Whether it is a radical departure or steady-as-she-goes, the unleashing of whatever is good and true and beautiful within our souls is a creative act that process thinkers call “creative transformation.”
The John Cobb of Jazz
But how do moments of high novelty ever really get off the ground when life is so weighted down by the heaviness of the past—the status quo? Whitehead believed that reality is not as solid and heavy and unforgiving as we think. He believed reality is made up of energy events or "occasions of experience," much like musical vibrations. These occasions of experience or vibrations tend to create things we see like pianos and saxophones and horned-rimmed glasses. Whitehead calls this tendency the "historic route of occasions." Such historic routes of energy events also create what we hear or feel or understand as tradition—like religious tradition or musical tradition. We can say, then, that the tradition of jazz before Brubeck had a particular historic route. It was dominated by certain ideas and sounds that did not include wild, far-out time signatures.
But in the late 1950s, the jazz tradition--its particular historic route of occasions--needed some infusion of freshness, for it was getting a bit stale, stifling, unimaginative, etc. Then one day, the tradition of American jazz meets a radically fresh occasion, one from yet another historic route of occasions, a wholly different tradition from the streets of Istanbul. A light goes on in Brubeck’s musical mind—an "aha!" moment. This fresh idea, this new occasion of experience that leaps from the exotic Turkish music and lands in the receptive mind of Brubeck, is the lure of God, what Whitehead calls the "initial aim," for an entirely new creation.
In this new creation, the old way of jazz is not abandoned; rather, the old is enriched and intensified. This new thing—American jazz braving discombobulating time signatures—becomes an instance of creative transformation. Jazz, then, becomes an intensely fresh, living, breathing, route of occasions that will, in its turn, become an historic route in need of further infusions of novelty.
Given this, I think Dave Brubeck qualifies as a musical process theologian—perhaps the “John Cobb of Jazz.”
It's not a bad comparison. In the mid-twentieth century, while Brubeck was taking jazz beyond its borders of tradition, John Cobb was busy taking theology in a similar direction of originality. Cobb opened up a creative way for theologians—and thoughtful people in general—to think about God outside the stifling theological box of 4/4 time. He used the occasion of Whitehead’s and Hartshorne’s influence to infuse theology’s past historic route with a fresh understanding of God and world. And it has an entirely fresh rhythm.
This view of God, the process view, happens to be very much like a jazz musician: always improvising in the world-as-it-is with some new creative lure for what might be—what can be. God may be limited by the reality of the world, but never boxed in by 4/4 time. Oh, no. This God believes in jazz. This God is the Creative Jazz Mind of the cosmos.
Patricia Adams Farmer is an essayist and novelist in the tradition of process theology. She is the author of Embracing a Beautiful God and the Fat Soul Philosophy Novel Series (The Metaphor Maker and Fat Soul Fridays). She and her husband, Ron Farmer, live and write on the central coast of Ecuador. Visit her website at patriciaadamsfarmer.com. Other JJB essays include: The Quaking and Breaking of Everything, The Numinosity of Rocks, You, Me, and the Ceibo Tree, Savoring, Fat Soul, Happy Soul, and When Things Fall Apart