Spirituality, Poetry and Jazz

First delivered at the University of Missouri, Columbia , November 8, 2004

"Enigmatical beauty . . . beautiful enigma. Double-thing . . . always duplicitous, never single. Disturbing, unsettling. We do not know what is real and what is not. Imprisoned in constant change, serious, solid men do not remain (undecided). They make up their minds and in doing so die. Shiftless fools and shifty drifters are neither imprisoned nor dead. They err aimlessly in a permanence composed of impermanence. Morning and evening, arising and passing away – endlessly form an ever-dawning festival. In this playful dance, players make gay the hallucinations in surfaces."
- Mark Taylor, Erring
"Why should I wish to see God better than on this day? I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then. In the faces of men and women I see God – and in my own face in the glass. I find letters from God dropped in the street. And every one is signed by God's name. And I leave them where they are, for I know that wherever I go, others will punctually come forever and ever."
- Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

I must admit to some trepidation regarding my challenge tonight. I don't want to give you all my secrets as an artist. Also, I think there is a general lack of mystery in our culture to begin with. Certainly, there is a lack of respect for it. I think that part of the beauty of the experience of art is in its mystery – particularly when it comes to poetry and music. There is little that can be said of music and the spirit in an academic setting that does not trample the subject underfoot by its mere utterance. Deconstructing poetry is like undressing the Madonna. What's more, I have spent the last 10 years making things. It can be hard to pull back from that taste far enough to get the necessary perspective. Nevertheless, I do feel that I can help to provide some context to what I have made that may help some listeners understand, as they say, 'where I'm coming from'.

There is probably no need, and there is certainly not time, for me to relate a grand history of music in the service of Spirit. Music has served as provocation, evocation, expression of Spirit for millennia – from temple-centered ritual chanting to fetish dancing around fires – from the Mass in B-Minor to the spirituals of African slavery – from the Islamic call to prayer to the Kol Nidre. The Reformation's hero, Martin Luther, reluctant founder of the protestant strain of monotheism in which I was raised famously wrote that,

"The rites of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them . . . next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world . . . This precious gift has been given to [humans] alone that [they] might thereby remind [themselves] that God created [them] for the express purpose of praising and extolling God."
(Fwd to Georg Rhaum's Collection, Symphonaie iucundae)

The formation of Jazz as a musical genre into itself and the only form of art that is native to the United States drew heavily from Spirit roots. Gospel music, church music, western instruments and instrumentation met one another on the U.S. – in New Orleans. They mixed with Creole music and French dance music – bawdyhouse music and marching band music to make a spicy, earthy, honest and ambitious new sonic gumbo known as Jazz. In spite of its early reputation as the "Devil's Music", Jazz had the Spirit from its birth. Gospel music is in its genes.

The migration of Black Americans to the north between the two world wars reared generations of young musicians in church settings in the burgeoning black urban centers. Many grew up to find their callings in life as Jazz musicians. Both of John Coltrane's grandfathers were ministers. Jon Hendricks' father was a minister. Ramsey Lewis' father was a minister, and you can hear the church in all of his early recordings. Cannonball Adderley, a leader in the funky, post-bop school, said that the move "to recapture the audience and reestablish the hot Jazz expression . . . abandoned by the bop and cool styles . . . was enthusiastic and reached back to the most communicative music in [the collective] past – church music." (Jazz, The Essential Companion) One could argue that Horace Silver IS, HIMSELF, a church.

Plenty of players of many backgrounds have written explicitly from Spirit to Spirit. Recordings attest to it. Among the most famous are John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" and Duke Ellington's "Sacred Concerts". Dave Brubeck has written sacred works for several settings, and was even awarded an honorary Doctorate in Sacred Theology from The University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

And the Spirit in Jazz is not limited to Christian expression. Charley Mingus said simply, "My music is evidence of my soul's will to expand". (Beneath the Underdog, 1971) Dizzy Gillespie drew parallels between the developments of religion and Jazz: in both God raises up leaders to take humankind up to new levels of spiritual development. I have spoken with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter – both of whom are long practicing Buddhists – and both feel that the music they make is in service to the mutual enlightenment of themselves and their listeners. Art Blakey, one of the Jazz world's greatest drummer/bandleaders, converted to Islam and called his band, "The Jazz Messengers", out of respect for the prophets recognized in Islam – Mohammed, Jesus, and Moses, and in reference to the fact that almost all the members of the first incarnation of the band were practicing Muslims.

Blakey famously took his missionary charge very seriously. There is an apocryphal story of the earliest incarnation of Jazz Messengers on tour somewhere in the South coming across a roadside funeral. As was the custom, the band pulled over to get out and show respect to the deceased and his family. At a certain point towards the end of the ceremony, the minister said, "does anyone else have any words to say about Old Joe?" at which point Blakey, hat in hand, spoke up, saying, "well, now I didn't know Old Joe, but from what I'm hearing today, he sounds like he was a very good man – beloved by his wife and family and respected by his friends. I'm sure he will be missed. And now, since I have your attention, I'd like to say a few words about Jazz . . ."

There are many, many recordings of Spirit-oriented Jazz and many more Jazz players who acknowledge Spirit in important ways even when they do not make explicit comments in liner notes or as composition titles. I was with Bobby Watson last night playing the gig at Murray's, and we discussed Spirit matters. Neither one of us could remember ever having come across a musician who, when pressed, could define his or her work as anything but essentially spiritual.

The very act of learning to play an instrument and to improvise at a deep level brings to mind the spiritual habits of meditation and prayer. The mastery of an instrument is an existential exercise. The performance of Jazz improvisation requires that the artist be fully present in his or her consciousness. Wayne Shorter expressed it well, saying that the music requires "total involvement . . . When you're playing, the music is not just you and the horn – the music is the microphone, the chair, the door opening, the spotlight, something rattling. From soul to universe." (W.Shorter Oct., 1968) The musician defines him or herself over the course of a life by the time one spends being fully present in the music. It is a life full of personal overcoming, of deep listening, of humanity and (one hopes) of an increase of understanding.

At its best, music serves as an instrument of self-mastery and compassion. It is an experience of deep level communication – both between band members and between an artist and an audience alike. It unifies them. It inspires awe and human self-respect. It produces self-forgetting and joy. It keeps the lonely company, consoles the broken-hearted. It bespeaks possibilities of hope and grace and presents us with the keys to the secret doors within us all. And all of this is possible without the utterance of a single lyric or overt statement of a language other than that of music itself.

So imagine the power and responsibility one has in one's hands when combining the forces of musical composition and lyrical intent.

Now, I did, myself, grow up in orthodox Lutheran churchly surroundings. My own grandfather married into a family that raised up as many as six ministers a generation. He was himself ordained and rode horseback as a missionary to what was then the Canadian frontier. His son, my father, has been a church musician and choral conductor throughout his life. From my earliest memories, I retain a sense of the innate power of lyric and music to lift the roof of a church and inspire ecstatic states – however hidden behind the reserve of field-weathered, Teutonic and Scandinavian faces. It is no secret: Lutherans love to sing.

But while I respect and cherish that heritage as an artist and a maturing person, I refuse to be bound or imprisoned by it. For one to understand the trajectory of my lyrics one must place the influence of Luther's small catechism and, indeed, the concepts of traditional monotheism in a much more cosmopolitan and dare I say, post-modern array of influences. One must make a web that includes Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha and Demian as well as the poetry of Daisaku Ikeda, and the Buddhist-influenced Beat writers. One must include the Wisdom Literature of the Desert Fathers alongside the German mystic Friedrich Holderlin – also Aldous Huxley, Meister Eckhart and Simone Weil. One must remember the tales of the Baal Shem Tov and the vital despair writings of Elie Wiesel right alongside the gentle hopefulness of the Sufi mystics Jelalludin Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. Then there are the literaries: Ayn Rand, Saul Bellow, Marquez and Kundera. And the philosophers: Mark Taylor, Thomas Kuhn, and Wittgenstein; also Mircea Eliade and Hegel and Feuerbach AND Kierkegaard.

Now, thankfully, I am more than the sum of my reading. I am an artist. I have had my own quiet vision. For any discussion of my lyrics, one must ultimately look to the poets – for two reasons:

The poets are the ones who enlighten, and reveal visions while also inspiring a sense of awe and mystery. I am an artist – not a preacher, a philosopher or an academic.

Lyric writing is a form of poetry. It must rhyme and follow a coherent form. In the sub-category of Jazz and vocalese writing, that means the composition of words to fit the melodic contours and rhythms of a modern musical art form that is exhaustingly challenging.

Dr. David Tracy, one of the leading thinkers based at the University of Chicago's Divinity School (where I took my graduate degree) has said that, "religion is poetry which intervenes in life". I find that a very helpful definition. If it is true, one could also assert that poetry in music can serve to call sensitive moderns to life lived in a higher state of consciousness. Poetry invites us to dream ourselves awake – to share in a vision. Poetry and religion both begin in vision. Both poetry and religion make truth claims, and demand to be taken seriously. Yet neither the religion nor the poem can be proved. No vision can be. All can be glimpsed through hints and guesses – moments in nature, history, love, and music – or as T.S. Eliot put it through "hints followed by guesses". Religion, as "poetry that intervenes in life", does not offer knowledge, strictly speaking. It offers understanding, maturity, acceptance, compassion and statements of ecstasy. That the ecstasy is communicated through language means it is mitigated – it must be compacted somehow. God does not speak in the thunder or the earthquake or the fire but from the still, small voice. To hear it – one has to listen closely and be humble.

Kant taught us that the highest thing in life is to know one cannot truly "know" das Ding and Sich and yet to reflect and meditate on it anyway. "It" cannot be known. "It" can be quietly understood. One can even have a relationship with "It". To do so, both main line believers and post-enlightenment, post-moderns must look to aesthetics – to music and poetry – to hear the hints and guesses sounded like chiming bells. Or, perhaps, like someone playing Jazz.

David Tracy has helped me tremendously to understand my place as a poet in his recognition of a general set of porous flexible categories of western transcendental poetry. In a lecture series I attended some years ago, Tracy observed three general classes of poetry's pronouncements of ultimate reality. Not meant to be understood as pure types, the three are correlates to the views of metaphysics to which all religious statements eventually adhere. According to Dr. Tracy, they are:

The Void
An Open view (a gracious void)
Some vision of God

These are visions. They often move in and out one another – even in individual lives and in the works of individual poets. But each poet gravitates toward some sense of one of these types.

Tracy describes the vision of the void as filled with awe. This vision says that reality is reality – it is energy rushing without purpose and without beginning and end. Modern quantum physics points to the void. It is a beautiful and terrifying vision. The Epicureans recognized this vision early on. For Lucrecius, there are gods but they are indifferent to us. Lucrecius lived to say yes to this vision. Virgil and Nietzsche are the great poets of the void. Nietzsche saw exactly what was at stake here. Will was the key to living – so he wrote of leaping in, engaging freedom with utter abandon. For Nietzsche, really, music was the only art – rushing, uncapturable, and once played, gone forever. Wide-eyed terror can be a powerful spur to action.

Audio clip: Gingerbread Boy

Tracy defines the open vision of reality as not the void or one of a personal god. The open vision says that all things, although impersonal, are related and somehow trustworthy. Modern systems theory can sometimes encourage such a view. There is a whiff of gnosis in this kind of vision. Poets sharing this vision point us to a life in which we let go of terror – of our ego. Here we are not to fear life but to participate in it. It says let go of fear and you will see free. But don't cling. It says don't even cling to clinging. It says we humans are already part of this. We belong here. We are of the stars. Examples in religious life of this vision include Buddhism, Taoism, many primal religions and pagan visions, as well as the Romantics' love of nature. Poets who point to an open view in the West include Emerson, the great poet philosopher, Wordsworth, and of course Walt Whitman. I would put Kenneth Rexroth in this group as well, along with Rilke, that unparalleled transcendentalist of mystery and great gentle beneficence. This vision of a gracious void posits no God outside that which we can see, touch and, essentially, are. The vision is not anti-theistic (no God), monotheistic (one God) nor pantheistic (many gods). It is, rather, pan-en-theistic – God IN everything. This is view perhaps best represented by T.S. Elliot's reminder "you are the music while the music lasts . . . The hint half guessed, the gift half understood . . ." ("The Dry Salvages" part V from "Four Quartets")

Audio Clip: Beauty Of All Things

According to Dr. Tracy, the vision of God is the one we in the West are most familiar with. It tells us that ultimate reality can be trusted and has an individual quality that includes intelligence, care, love, justice and a sense of order. Yet even though God provides an ideal of perfection and grounding for a "good" life, power is still God's defining attribute. God is hidden and ultimately terrifying. Obviously, one finds this vision represented in the three great monotheisms of the world. These are visions in which no one has ever seen God. Yet, he is said to hold all things in his hands.

Audio Clip: Higher Vibe

There are themes that resonate between these visions and echo back and forth. There is a strong sense of metaphysical grandeur in both the God and the Open visions. Both the God and the Void visions share a sense of metaphysical terror. Martin Luther was exceptional as showing how terrifying God can be. Like Job, Luther saw how God can be the void – offering no answer even to the most earnest and pathetic pleading.

Dr. Tracy goes on to imply that the best poetry combines all three visions – including God, tragedy, and natural joy – and, importantly, a sense of humility; of welcoming the mystery – of wonder – of not knowing. In the best examples, this not knowing manifests itself not in an existentially flabby way, but in a rigorous and bracing creative search. As Simone Weil put it, "one cannot wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is the truth. If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms." Rilke addressed this sense of welcoming the mystery better than anyone. Throughout his short life's work he encouraged all who felt the questions burning and gnawing in the depths of the night. Rilke:

I want to beg you, as much as I can . . . to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually live along some distant day into the answer . . . But take whatever comes with great trust, and only if it comes out of your own will, out of some need of your innermost being, take it upon yourself, and hate nothing.
(RMR: Letters . . ., Nr. 4)

To take this lack of knowing seriously, one must make a radical existential commitment. Clearly, this is more than most people have constitution and stamina for. What's more, circumstances in the contemporary world work in concert to crush the very possibility of quiet spiritual growth. Who has time or opportunity to consider the hidden light of God? While people in the third world are ground to pieces by poverty, disease and war, we in the developed nations are assailed by an endless mental and psychic onslaught of everyday commerce, a screeching technological assault, and a developing culture war. For many of us who try to stand upright in this maelstrom and maintain the search for meaning, Richard Elvee has noted that, "not only are we not protected, there seem to be no lights in the darkness. And even the great holy light of creation remains concealed. Even the path to the light seems to be effaced . . ."

In this context, many give up on mystery and the power of ecclesia. There exist great rafts of moderns who live with open but metaphysically unfocused minds; oblivious to any sense of the great gifts of meaning, value and identity that have been cherished and fostered over centuries. These minds crowd with modern clutter to stave off emptiness. Clinging to status, commerce or mere entertainments, and bored by what they cannot immediately control, purchase or consume, these unfortunates drift along through their time on earth – untethered by meaning, vacant of deeper purpose and often afraid of death. These are souls, says Heidegger who have forgotten even that they have forgotten the light.

Conversely, there are those who are too certain. The forces of control are clamping down again – demanding that we take religion not just seriously, but literally. It is a dangerous time. My job as an artist with transcendentalist habits gets harder and harder as the lexicon of religion gets increasingly co-opted and controlled by fundamentalists. The word "God" – already poisoned in many people's minds by the actions of those who have invoked it over centuries is becoming a toxic talisman of the religious right across the globe. These are people who have no sense of the poetry of their own texts; who will the obliteration of mystery. Often among the undereducated and the economically impoverished of the world they are existentially terrified of being "wrong" about one more thing in life. Many who are powerless are seduced by the power in having what feels like an irrefutably right and righteous answer to every indignity life foists upon them. Many others with socio-economic advantages act out of a terror of the truly (and uncontrollably) sublime. Either way they are people driven by fear. This fear expresses itself through a will to power and the domination of others. Globally, those who live in this terror are forcefully insisting that every knee bow or risk being broken. Great is their faith: great and without Grace.

A life of true existential peace and of an experience of deep Grace is one of joy. It is a life of affirmation that does not require the negation of other expressions of joyfulness and inquiry. Fundamentalism does not permit an honest enquiry. It is willful in its ignorance. It closes off possibility. It is not concerned with vision or even of the challenges posed by the possible existence of an ineffable deity. It serves minds that are merely closed.

"We are luminous, we human beings. We are alight in that we have been given a light through our creator, through a gift of nature. Everyone is born with this logos/light. The light is, as it were, sealed in the protection of our flesh – inscribed like a secret text of nature. Because of this gift we have the capacity to make visible the light of divine meaning in our common life." (Elvee, 1988) Yet we forget. Or we try to control it. We become terrified of the very task we should most welcome.

Rather than overcoming terror of the sublime by forgetfulness or by closing of the mind, I choose to use music and lyric as instruments of compassion, of reminding. This, I think is our greatest and most humane task: to show compassion to one another; to remember and recognize the divine light residing in each one of us. To evolve as a species by lifting up all beings. To begin in gentleness and peace within ourselves – reconciled to our humility in this life and also stepping boldly and creatively toward our birthright: divine, transcendent identities.

There are times when fans will stop me after a show and say things like, "I'm so glad to hear a Christian Jazz musician who is able to speak up for God," or, "Thank you for being such a strong Christian." Then I have to stop them and say, "I'm sorry, but while I am a Christian in many ways and refer to that tradition, I am also not a Christian; just as I am both a Jew and not a Jew – a Muslim and not a Muslim." Then they’ll ask, "What does that mean?" And I answer, "It means I am an artist".

The artist's role in mining the gold of poetic meaning in our contemporary life is a high intellectual and spiritual discipline. It is a calling in which one must be able to overcome one's own fear in the search for – the amplification and creation of meaning. This act of creation is both bane and blessing, both trial and joy. But it belongs to us. In fact, it belongs to all of us. It is for us to live, to love, be thankful, to sing. Accepting that we are both the humble recipients and the proud creators of the song that surrounds us, we dance on. Even so, "we dance round in a ring and suppose," says Frost. "But the secret sits in the middle and knows."

Audio Clip: Resolution