Blues and Jazz: Lament and Improvisation

Art: Week 2

Blues and Jazz: Lament and Improvisation
Thursday, May 24, 2018

Today’s meditation is drawn from Barbara Holmes’ book Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church. She explores the blues—a musical form developed in the Deep South by African Americans in the late 19th century—and jazz—originating in New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—as authentic expressions of life. In addition to reading her words, I invite you to listen (and perhaps dance?) to B. B. King or Miles Davis as a contemplative practice. [1]

Like the familiar laments in Psalms, blues artists forthrightly engaged the issues in life that the church would not discuss—such as sexuality, theodicy, and the unabated despair of the people. The lyrics were straightforward and sometimes raunchy, but they captured the life experiences of the listeners. While gospel music promised peace in the hereafter and the promise of God’s presence, the blues became public theology, communal inquiry, and a critique of the church. . . .

The contemplative moment comes as the cause of the blues is considered within the broader context of God’s inexplicable absence or startling intervention. Under every stanza is the silent and unspoken question, “How long, oh Lord, how long will your people continue to suffer?” . . .

No one thinks for one moment that when B. B. King sang, he was saying all that there was to be said about the subject. . . . One or two lines hold the portal open for listeners to mentally supply the rest. This is the contemplative turn. . . . Smoky nightclubs and juke joints become the spaces for contemplation that attends to the details of daily life and the potential for its enrichment and ultimate fulfillment. . . .

Jazz is a way of being in the world, a willingness to break away from rhetorical comfort zones and language hierarchies. When you know that you are “between a rock and a hard place,” then you must respond creatively to the situation. Jazz is the musical version of the communal response to displacement. This is not a black thing; the majority of Americans today are displaced in one way or another. However, the displacement of the African diaspora was sealed by skin color as a permanent social exile. Some amelioration of that exile has only now begun, but only because of the genius of the community for creativity and improvisation upon the main themes of oppression and marginalization.

The improvisational motif in jazz music refers to the spontaneous creation of melodic innovations that diverge and meld with the main tune. . . . When the contributions of the individual improvisations soar, the contemplative potential increases. For in the midst of unthinkable rhythmic and tonal combinations, we also hear the impossible being brought within our reach.

When Miles Davis blows the cacophony that can barely be contained by the word song, we come closest to the unimaginable, the potential of the future, and the source of our being.

References:
[1] Note that a “contemplative practice” can be anything we do with the intention of opening our hearts, minds, and bodies to God’s presence, to Love. Contemplation is the graced experience of union with Love, which is always a gift, never earned or achieved. We practice to be open to receive such a gift.

Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, second edition (Fortress Press: 2017), 186-188.

Image credit: Portrait of Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, Cecil Payne, Miles Davis, and Ray Brown (detail), by William P. Gottlieb, 1946-1948, Downbeat, New York City, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: When Miles Davis blows the cacophony that can barely be contained by the word song, we come closest to the unimaginable, the potential of the future, and the source of our being. —Barbara Holmes

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