Archives For Jazz


All Music is One

A Review of 

Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion
Jason Bivins

Hardcover, Oxford UP, 2015
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Matt Miles

In the first chapter of Jason Bivens’s Spirits Rejoice! the author introduces a trumpeter named Lester Bowie, who satirically asked “Is jazz as we know it dead yet?” before charging ahead with a boundary-breaking trumpet solo. He follows this example with one of a saxophonist named Charles Gayle who alternated between live shows in clubs and playing on the streets as a homeless musician and clown, preaching against abortion and homosexuality in all of his shows. Bivens also mentions Anthony Braxton, a saxophonist/composer who merges metaphysics with his music. These three artists provide an introduction to some of the ways jazz transcends its own labels and constraints, especially those of language. It’s important to understand the way music as a medium defies categorizing, as many musicians consider the limits of the term “jazz” to be as limiting and offensive as a racial slur. Any attempt to categorize music or religion using language limits it, and, all too often, the people trying to use music to overcome the limits of music, religion, and culture. Attempting to capture this experience is as daunting a task as trying to write a book about jazz itself, a task Bivens rises to meet through the use of story.

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A Brief Review of

Before John Was a Jazz Giant:
A Song of John Coltrane
Carole Boston Weatherford.
Illustrated by Sean Qualls.

Hardback: Holt, 2008.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

BEFORE JOHN WAS A JAZZ GIANTWith three kids ages six and under, I am always on the lookout for excellent new picture books.  I was therefore delighted to stumble upon the recent book Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane by Carole Boston Weatherford (and illustrated by Sean Qualls) at my local library.  Although from the title, one would suspect that this book was about John Coltrane, which it is, it is not primarily a biography, but rather uses the story of Coltrane’s boyhood as a pretext to teach the spirit of jazz and the practice of listening.  Or to put it differently, this is a biography of John Coltrane in sounds.  Coltrane’s formation, as presented here, is fundamentally an aural one.  Weatherford, using simple and poetic language, makes the case that the sounds that Coltrane heard as a school boy (“hambones knocking in Grandma’s pots,” “Mama playing hymns for the senior choir” or “the sobs of kinfolk at family funerals” for instance) were essential to the classic jazz pieces that he would come to compose.  Listening, of course, as Weatherford’s telling Coltrane’s story here emphasizes is vital to the creation of art that is rooted in a people and a place.  Qualls’s brightly colored illustrations, done in varying levels of abstraction over the course of the book, are reminiscent of the classic jazz-tinged work of Ezra Jack Keats and vividly capture the jazz imagination of Weatherford’s rendition of the Coltrane story.  Weatherford’s writing ultimately climaxes at the heart of the story: “Before John was a Jazz Giant, he was all ears.”  Ending on this resonant note challenges us to consider what we might create out of our own experiences among a people and a place if we too would only be “all ears”?


“A Love Supreme”


A Review of
Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith.
by Robert Gelinas.

 Reviewed by Chad R. Abbott.


Finding the Groove:
Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith.

Robert Gelinas.
Paperback: Zondervan, 2009.
Buy now:  [ Doulos Christou Books $12 ] [ Amazon ]

One does not have to be a jazz enthusiast, play a trumpet or saxophone, or even know the full history of jazz to appreciate the wisdom that comes from Robert Gelinas’ new book Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith.  Suggesting himself to be a “jazz theologian,” Gelinas argues that it is the formula and culture-producing agency of jazz that can help people of faith understand the modern and ancient worlds through new lenses.  He writes, “A jazz shaped faith is not about liking the music or introducing smooth jazz versions of hymns into our worship services.  Rather, it is about understanding and incorporating the essence of jazz into the way we follow Jesus.”  Jazz is “more than music” and is instead a way of being, a way of seeing, or more importantly a sense of rhythm.


The rhythm of which Gelinas speaks that makes jazz relevant to faith comes in three ways: Syncopation, Improvisation and Call-and-Response.  Syncopation is the emphasis of the “off beat” in the rhythm of a 4/4 measured song.  Placing emphasis on the offbeat creates a swing and rhythm way of life, one that sees something that is present but often goes unnoticed.  Gelinas offers the suggestion that Jesus was a “master of noticing the unnoticed.”  Improvisation is a reinterpretation of old forms and structures by expressing a new creativity on the fly.  Improvisation works within the structure given, but interprets the ancient with a new twist.  Gelinas relates this to the attribute of God as a “Creator” and suggests that our relationship with God is not always the same and that interaction with the God of the Bible suggests improvisation as a model of interaction and faithfulness.  Finally, the call-and-response rhythm is a conversation taking place among the group.  Jazz musicians have this conversation regularly by allowing each instrument to have their turn in sharing a solo within the framework of the song that is playing.  Gelinas, again, relates this to God’s entrepreneurial way and creative demand of a dialectical response from creation.  The conversation creates new ways of being.  Gelinas, coming from the black church tradition, reminds the reader of the deep connection to the slave religion in the early Americas that enlisted this conversational style as a mode of being and continues to this day.  These three elements of jazz, essential elements that make it the only uniquely American music, tells the story not only of America, but of the way of the Christian faith. Continue Reading…