I met a friend for breakfast this morning to talk about missional church. We both have a burning desire to see a local congregation that we mutually love grasp the profound importance of envisioning a new dream for this ecclesial community. After mowing the grass in the late morning, answering some email and spending a little time with this and that (and the grandchildren) I am now sitting at a local McCafe listening to my favorite trumpet player, Wynton Marsalis (on my iPad of course). I’m doing some reading and thinking while I listen to this amazing artist. The truth is I’m just “chillin’ out” on a warm day. I need to do this more often but I never took time for it in my earlier years.
Now and then I now take some time to do this, just for my own good. This afternoon is such a time. In a few hours I will meet a long-time pastor-friend, who has been through a terribly hard year, so we can share an evening at a minor league baseball game. But for right now I listen to the Pulitzer Prize-winning musician and composer Wynton Marsalis as his trumpet sounds flood me with joy and beauty. In his 2008 book, Moving to Higher Ground, Marsalis explores jazz and how an understanding of this particular music can lead to deeper, more original ways of being, living, and relating–for individuals, communities, and [even] nations. You may wonder about this claim but none other than James I. Packer, one of our finest conservative Protestant theologians in the last fifty years, long ago persuaded me that jazz could help us do better theology. He would also agree that it can help us live with more understanding and purpose. I have come to agree with my friend Jim.
In Moving to Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis shows us how to listen to jazz by telling stories about his life and the lessons that he has learned from other music greats. He believes that the central ideas in jazz can influence the way people think and even how they behave with others, “changing self, family, and community for the better” (from a review). He says that at the heart of jazz is an expression of personality and individuality, coupled with an ability to listen to and improvise with others. This is what my friend Jim Packer believes about jazz and who am I to question.
At this moment I am listening to Marsalis play, with the English Chamber Orchestra, Clarke’s famous piece Trumpet Voluntary in D: “The Prince of Denmark’s March.” (This piece was played by the late trumpet professor Arthur Katterjohn at my wedding 41-plus years ago as my bride walked down the long aisle in Wheaton! It still moves me so deeply.)
As I searched through comments about Marsalis’s book I found an interview on Amazon that gave me several moving thoughts to ponder in this afternoon think time. Here are but two questions and responses by Marsalis. See for yourself.
Q: What does the title of this book, Moving to Higher Ground, mean to you?
A: Too often in life, petty squabbles and small-mindedness keep us from realizing a higher purpose. In jazz, that higher purpose is not theoretical: We want to sound good. And when we do, you can hear what it’s like when people are really trying to get along. It’s purely human: In Jazz, you can mess up and still come together, still move together to higher ground. The title means ascending through engagement.
Q: You suggest that the ideas at the heart of jazz can carry over into everyday life. How so?
A: Let’s take two ideas in jazz that are most central: swinging and the blues.
Swinging is the art of negotiation with someone else, under the pressure of time. It shows you how opposites can come together, without compromising who they are. The one who plays the highest-sounding instrument in the rhythm section–the time-keeping cymbal–has to find a way of working with the one who plays the lowest instrument, the bass. And the bass player, who plays the softest instrument, has to find a way of working with the player of the loudest, the drums. To succeed, everybody has to have a very clear idea of the common goal: What exactly are we here to do? In jazz we know: swing. In life, if everyone involved can agree on a primary objective, a group can accomplish almost anything.
The blues is many things–a musical form, a distinctive sound, a universal feeling–but above all, the blues is survival music. It’s message is simple: things are never so bad that they can’t get any better. It’s about crying over something, actually wailing–and it’s about coming back. The words may be sad but the dancing shuffle (the definitive rhythm of the blues) is always happy or heading toward happiness. The blues is about what is–and what is has demons and angels sitting at the same table. That’s a bitter-sweet and realistic message about life that everybody needs, that everybody can hear and respond to. I’ve heard people respond to it, all over the world.
Here is why I’ve come to agree with Dr. Packer. I see a great deal of good Christian theology in these two answers. Higher ground is the same thing as “life together” (Bonhoeffer). Too many of us miss the glory of love and reconciliation because of our petty squabbles and small-mindedness. Since I long to live as an authentic missional-ecumenist I really don’t want to miss life and the many wonderful people I know and love because of “petty squabbles.” (This is what too often marked me in my 20s and 30s. I hope I’ve learned to play better music since then.)
In the second question and response Marsalis speaks to me, as a Christian theologian and missional-ecumenist, with even greater effect when he says that jazz has a simple message which says “things are never so bad that they can’t get any better. It’s about crying over something, actually wailing–and it’s about coming back.” Isn’t that true to reality? Life is about crying and coming back! Christians refer to this as sin, forgiveness and hope!
Then Marsalis says, “The blues is about what is–and what is has demons and angels sitting at the same table. That’s a bitter-sweet and realistic message about life that everybody needs, that everybody can hear and respond to.” I could say that about the good news of Jesus’ kingdom. It is about “angels and demons,” sometimes right beside us at our highest and lowest moments, and it is a “bitter-sweet message about life that everybody needs.”
I am not sure if I shall take the time to read all of Wynton Marsalis’ book, Moving to Higher Ground. I am sure that pondering his big ideas has helped me see life more clearly this sunny afternoon. Sometime soon I will need to remind myself again that the gospel is a “realistic message about life that everybody needs.” The question is how can we make better jazz together, using our numerous gifts and great loves, so that we can touch the lives of others who need to be set free by the music of God’s great grace!