Friday, September 22, 2006

Worship and Miles Davis

A few years ago, one of the guys who worked with me on collegiate ministry staff asked me what music was I listening to that led me to a sense of worship. I gave him some standard Vineyard CD that I liked, not thinking much of it. I returned his question. He said Miles Davis. I thought his answer was a bit odd, since my cultural framework had put his music in the "jazz" genre and not on the "praise and worship" list. I asked him to explain. He told me that it was the beauty of the sound these musicians created together that drew his soul into a place of gratitude for a God that put His image into humanity. My response was, "Huh." I thought music had to be "Christian" in some way in order for me to deem it OK to worship with. I also assumed that words of songs had to say something about how great God is and how much I suck and so forth. My paradigm was pretty rigid and I was completely unaware that it was. But it took a guy who I was supposed to helping learn ministry to teach me something about myself and to open my mind up a bit. The shift was slow, but I now see what he meant by beauty leading to worship. I bought a Miles Davis CD, Kind of Blue, and can say that it changed my life. I did a little research on the album, which is not hard to do since there is so much written about it. Music experts point to this album as arguably the most influential work on music today. The short of it is this, up until 1959, jazz continued to progress in a more and more complex direction. Bop gave way to be bop, which led to hard bop. All these styles had very intricate chordal structures. Davis suddenly took jazz in a completely opposite direction. He moved toward a simpler approach. The structure of his songs would be based on single note scales, or modes, rather than multiple note chords. What this did was free the musician to explore more freely the improvisational landscape. Davis said of chordal jazz, "once you master knowing how to play through the changes, the music gets boring." Jazz traditionalists balked at the idea, saying it would make jazz too easy, that it would discourage young players from the discipline of learning the standards. Some seasoned players hated modal jazz, because they didn't know what to do with it. It was just too different from what they were used to. The album made a splash then and it still sells well today. Some experts say that even modern electronica and techno has its root in that album, because of its modal structure. Everytime I hear the opening track of Kind of Blue, I get goose bumps. I picture these jazz giants in the studio who were there for just another gig because the trusted Davis' leadership. They had no idea they were about to make history. They weren't concerned with what the music world would think. They had music to make. Interestingly, that opening cut is titled, "So What."


GuyMuse said...

As a music major in both college and seminary, I appreciated this post. One of the things that I remember about seminary music courses was that jazz (and folk) music are much more akin to Christian values than are the predominate "pop forms" that have taken over most of the contemporary church music today.

Jazz has achieved the status of art music at the expense of popularity...popular music and jazz are far from being the same thing...Good jazz is compatible with the gospel because it is good art...and has a place in the church's musical expressions...It is ironic, though, that many who reject jazz outright embrace the more widely accepted music of rock 'n roll (with Christian words, of course), a pop form which has such a sordid social and musical history that its use in the church would be scandalous to the average congregation should the truth about it be known..." --Calvin Johansson

It has only been in the past couple of years that I have begun to develop a genuine appreciation for jazz. I am still in the "bop" and "be bop" stage and have not progressed enough to understand some of the other forms, but the more I understand about jazz, the higher the appreciation I have for this art form and its relationship and place within the church.

In David Garrison's "Church Planting Movements" he speaks about the relationships between jazz music and house churches. ...Both types of music use the same instruments, but while classical music is tightly structured (like cell churches), jazz enjoys the freedom to flow across the range of musical possibilities (like house churches). I like that. It expresses so well what we see as a reality in our own ministry of planting house churches. They are indeed much more akin to jazz than to classical or any of the other highly structured forms of musci.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the post!

Watchman said...


Thanks for that Johansson guote. Its an interesting comparison. Good art always raises more questions than it answers. Such is the case with good jazz. This is why most people write it off as being foolish or "the emperor's new clothes."

There was so much experimentation going on after the release of "Kind of Blue," some of it was pretty hard to appreciate. Listen to some of John Coltrane's modal improvisations and they will make your head spin. Does this mean that everyone should be a Coltrane fan, and if they're not, they're just uneducated? Not so.

First, we need not be so quick to criticise what we don't understand, and two, release the artists to explore new places. You see, it was Miles Davis that put John Coltrane on the map. There were "better" players around at the time, but Davis saw something in JC that he really liked. It is said by Davis that during some of their gigs playing together, that he would leave the stage when Coltrane began his solo, go to the bar and get a drink, then come back to the stage 45 min later just as Coltrane was finishing his improv. This is a great lesson for me in mentoring.