How Jazz Changed my Life
Finding God in a Strange and Distant Place
I grew up on the prairies, where horizons are further and further away. This creates a sense that boundaries are mutable, and also a sense that we live within what Whitehead calls an Adventure: an adventure of ideas, experiences, encounters, and feelings. As we exist in any given moment, we inherit the past but there are also fresh horizons in the future. The “future” in Whitehead’s thought does not yet exist as actual, not even for God. It is an opening and an openness: a horizon on the prairie. A beyond that is always beyond-ing, but perpetually present to our eyes and ears and hearts.
As I grew up I was also aware of passage. There was decay, transition, loss, displacement that belong “to the essence of the Creative Advance.” (p 286 Adventures of Ideas). Whitehead speaks of this in Process and Reality as the perpetual perishing of immediacy. Of course I did not know this as a teenager, but it was part of the formation of who I am. I had a sense of perishing and the open future.
Rock and Roll was emerging as the sound track of our time. In the midst of that simple beat and melody that we danced to, I had an epiphany experience. I was 16 and went to the touring group - Jazz at the Philharmonic. The JATP concerts featured Swing and Bop musicians. They were among the first high-profile performances to feature racially integrated bands, and some bookings were cancelled rather than have the musicians perform for segregated audiences. It was exotic. Musicians who were black, playing with others who were white. A time before integration and the civil rights marches beginning to spread across our horizons. Here, too, I learned later, there was something Whiteheadian. There was a coming together of people from different ethnic and cultural traditions – different colors – in which the differences were not collapsed but harmonized and creative. The harmony was not a stagnant harmony but a dynamic one. The open horizons of life were being filled with beauty. It was almost like creative transformation in-carnate or, to coin a phrase, en-melodied.
I heard the great Canadian jazz piano player Oscar Peterson and Lester Young on the sax and others. I had listened to swing and enjoyed it. There is a rhythmic nature to swing that is hope-giving. No matter how down the beats of our lives, there are up-beats that persist, like a pulsating heartbeat. Whitehead speaks of rhythm as part of the very way that occasions of experience create a sense of contrasting intensity over time. Certainly I felt the intensity.
But the experience of listening to jazz went beyond. Simple melodies and complex chords and beats were vivid in the way the players shaped and reshaped them, so the music expanded my horizons and my horizon of life exploded. It was an immediate absorption into a new reality. There was an appeal to youthful despair. Where there is no tomorrow, no memory of disasters survived (P 287 Adventure of Ideas). A moment of joy to quote Whitehead in Process and Reality, but a complex joy: a joy that includes tragedy.
When I was in University there was a Jazz Trio in my residence. Late at night, reading poetry and listening to John Coltrane play After Midnight, my world expanded beyond the prairies. A world opened up. I was finding ways to present myself on my own terms, creating a definition of reality that brought the sacred and profane together. I was expanding my world by listening to other worlds and found that the music persuades rather than forces. Persuasion not coercion: Whitehead’s famous way of saying how God acts in the world. Jazz acts that way, too.
I learned that listening was basic, for the musicians pay attention to what the others are saying. This was made clear, when one night the bass player could not make a gig and I was taught some basic chords and joined the group. My fingers bled at the end of the night and I had satisfaction. Later, I found the words in Whitehead to describe that moment. This transcendent experience led me to the ministry, for the horizon needed to explored, the quality of transcendence jazz had given me needed to be shared and, for me, religion could do it justice.
The sense of the prairies was one of aloneness. In looking back the music took my sense of solitude and connected me to a wider world,a solidarity to the world. When I heard Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts I knew what Whitehead calls Peace - the harmony of harmonies. The Duke said this about that trilogy “Everyone is alone - the basic, essential state of mankind.” Yet the music was one of a group working together, a fusion of multiple and sometimes abrasive textures and styles, the constant reaching across racial, social and national boundaries. His music while giving a sense of isolation it is unimaginable without the voices which gave it life - the band and its members who added their word. The individual players were fused into an unmistakable, personal sound. This gave me a metaphor of the Supreme Love that lures us into new adventures. I felt called to enter the Christian ministry, the metaphor of the jazz ensemble became my metaphor for church and my rationale for ministry. They say that God meets people in terms they understand. God met me through jazz.
This journey of jazz reinforced for me the “Adventure of the Universe starts with the dream and reaps in tragic Beauty. This is the union of Zest with Peace...In this way the World receives its persuasion towards such perfections as are possible for its diverse individual occasions.” (P 296 Adventures of Ideas)
The piano player gave me a lesson in all of this. The player told me to go beyond my fear on that night I played: to play on, to feel the beat, to listen to the silence – to let it be. What kinds of feelings were these? In Whitehead’s philosophy there are many kinds of feelings: feelings of the past, feelings of the present, feelings of ideas, feelings of the future. Even thinking is a form of feeling. What is a “let it be” feeling? I think it is something like faith: trust in the availability of fresh possibilities.
That moment was the beginning of unexpected surprises. I found this when we listened intently to one another and we did create a feeling that others now feel. And they did. A moment of Grace. As the Duke said; “And so your song has stirred the souls/of men in strange and distant places.....“ (Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey G. Cohn.)
Strange and distant places - open horizons on the prairie – the adventure of the universe as one – in the beginning is the listening – in the beginning is the rhythm. There are many places to meet God. I met God in the prairie, and the prairie became jazz. It still flows.