Death of a Christian jazzman

Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck died at age 92.  The man and his quartet showed sheer genius.  My old guitar teacher once sat in with him and it was one of the highlights of his life.  Brubeck was a Christian who composed a great deal of sacred music.  From David A. Anderson:

“I approached the composition as a prayer,” jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck said of his “To Hope! A Celebration,” a contemporary setting for the Roman Catholic Mass, “concentrating upon the phrases, trying to probe beneath the surface, hoping to translate into music the powerful words which have grown through the centuries.”

Probing beneath the surface marked all of Brubeck’s music, from the revolutionary 1959 polyrhythmic album “Time Out,” to his oratorio, “A Light in the Wilderness,” and his setting of Thomas Aquinas’ hymn, “Pange Lingua.”

Brubeck is best known in the secular jazz world for his startling compositions using different time signatures, such as 5/4 time in the classic “Take Five,” or the mixture of 9/8 time and the more traditional 4/4 rhythm of “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Both pieces are on the “Time Out” album, the first jazz album to sell 1 million copies and still one of the best-selling.

Religious faith, however, was never far from Brubeck’s creative mind. . . .

In a 2009 interview with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, Brubeck said his service in World War II convinced him “something should be done musically to strengthen man’s knowledge of God.”

That experience gave him the idea of an oratorio based on the Ten Commandments, particularly the “Thou shalt not kill” part.

But he did not act on the idea of writing sacred music until 1965, when he wrote a short piece, “Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled,” to comfort his brother, Howard, whose son had died of a brain tumor at age 16.

That piece was incorporated into 1968’s “A Light in the Wilderness,” his first full-scale sacred composition.

That was followed by a series of pieces including 1969’s “The Gates of Justice,” a choral work using words from Martin Luther King, Jr.; “Truth is Fallen,” in 1971; “La Fiesta de la Posada” in 1975; and “Beloved Son,” in 1978.

“When I write a piece, a sacred piece, I’m looking hard and trying to discover what I’m about, and what my parents were about and the world is about,” he told Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Raised a Protestant although never baptized, Brubeck became a Roman Catholic in 1980 after completing “To Hope!”, a Mass setting commissioned by the Catholic periodical, Our Sunday Visitor.

via The sacred ran through jazz legend Dave Brubeck’s music – The Washington Post.

Brubeck shows that it’s certainly possible and desirable to have contemporary Christian music, even to have it used in worship–if it could only be rich and complex and artistic and in accord with the Christian sensibility, unlike much of what passes for that genre today.

Here is his “Celebration” Mass. It’s just over 10 minutes, but keep listening for the choral parts and for when his quartet breaks in (around the 4 minute mark).

Here is “Take Five,” Brubeck’s most famous piece.  (Pick out the 5/4 time.)  Brubeck right now is taking five before the Resurrection.

“In a struggle against all the musicians of the world”

The nation of Mali has Africa’s richest musical tradition and most vibrant musical talent.  But Muslim radicals have taken control of that country and are stamping out the music–destroying instruments, forbidding singing, and driving musicians out of the country.   The article, linked below, is worth reading in its entirety. But I was struck by this quotation:

“Music is against Islam,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, the military leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the three extremist groups controlling the north. “Instead of singing, why don’t they read the Koran? Why don’t they subject themselves to God and pray? We are not only against the musicians in Mali. We are in a struggle against all the musicians of the world.”

via In northern Mali, music silenced as Islamists drive out artists – The Washington Post.

Does anyone know where this attitude comes from?  Does the Koran specifically forbid music?  (I understand how its iconoclasm restricts visual art, but music is art without images.)  What is it in the radical Islamic worldview that sets it against music?   And, conversely, what is it in the Christian worldview that has made it so open to music–more than that, so creative and  influential musically?

The Transfiguration of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has an interview in Rolling Stone that is confounding some people for bringing back that whole religion thing.  You can’t read it online without a subscription, but David Zahl at Mockingbird posts some highlights:

Do you ever worry that people interpreted your work in misguided ways? For example, some people still see “Rainy Day Women” as coded about getting high.

It doesn’t surprise me that some people would see it that way. But these are people that aren’t familiar with the Book of Acts…

People thought your music spoke to and reflected the 1960s. Do you feel that’s also the case with your music since 1997?

Sure, my music is always speaking to times that are recent. But let’s not forget human nature isn’t bound to any specific time in history. And it always starts with that. My songs are personal music; they’re not communal. I wouldn’t want people singing along with me. It would sound funny. I’m not playing campfire meetings. I don’t remember anyone singing along with Elvis, or Carl Perkins, or Little Richard. The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions. A performer, if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t feel any emotion at all. It’s a certain kind of alchemy that a performer has..

[When you talk about] transfiguration, you mean it in the sense of being transformed? Or do you mean transmigration, when a soul passes into a different body?

Transmigration is not what we are talking about. This is something else. I had a motorcycle accident in 1966… Now, you can put this together any way you want. You can work on it any way you want. Transfiguration: You can go learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept. It’s happened throughout the ages. Nobody knows who it’s happened to, or why. But you get real proof of it here and there. It’s not like something you can dream up and think. It’s not like conjuring up a reality or like incarnation–or like when you might think you’re somebody from the past but have no proof. It’s not anything to do with the past or the future.

So when you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time…

So live performance is a purpose you find fulfilling?

If you’re not fulfilled in other ways, performing can never make you happy. Performing is something you have to learn how to do. You do it, you get better at it and you keep going. And if you don’t get better at it, you have to give it up. Is it a fulfilling way of life? Well, what kind of way of life is fulfilling? No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn’t been redeemed…

You said that you originally wanted to make a more religious album this time–can you tell me more about that?

The songs on Tempest were worked out in rehearsals on stages during soundchecks before live shows. The religious songs maybe I felt were too similar to each other to release as an album. Someplace along the line, I had to go with one or the other, and Tempest is what I went with. I’m still not sure if it was the right decision.

When you say religious songs…

Newly written songs, but one that are traditionally motivated.

More like “Slow Train Coming”?

No. No. Not at all. They’re more like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”…

Has your sense of faith changed?

Certainly it has, o ye of little faith. Who’s to say that I even have any faith or what kind? I see God’s hand in everything. Every person, place and thing, every situation…

Clearly, the language of the Bible still provides imagery in your songs.

Of course, what else could there be? I believe in the Book of Revelation. I believe in disclosure, you know?

There is more at The Transfiguration of Robert Zimmerman, or Just a Closer Walk with Dylan | Mockingbird.

The interview has other revelations, or at least disclosures, about Dylan and his work.  For example, we see that he is still irked at the  folk purists who charged him with betrayal when he started playing an electric guitar:

These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified…

This comment about the relationship between the artist, emotion, and the audience is a revelation:

The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions. A performer, if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t feel any emotion at all. It’s a certain kind of alchemy that a performer has.

Exactly!  And this is what many would-be artists don’t realize.  Art of whatever kind is not about just vomiting up your inner emotions.  Music, poetry, fiction, acting, painting, film, and other art forms require intense discipline, concentration, and objectivity.  An artist can’t just go up and go berserk in front of an audience.  (Performers who seem to do that are just acting.)  Art does indeed involve emotion, but it isn’t primarily the artist’s.  What all of those objective techniques do “is make people [the audience, the listeners, the readers] feel their own emotions“!

Thanks also to David Zahl for appending this sampler from Dylan’s new album, Tempest:

An art critic discovers Luther

Daniel Siedell is a Christian art critic and curator, the author of God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art.  In a recent post on his Patheos blog Cultivare, he describes how frustrated he became with evangelical and Reformed scholarship on the arts, leading him to turn to Catholic and Orthodox theologians.  But then he discovered Luther and Lutheranism, who were not at all the way he had assumed:

 The outlier in my aesthetic evangelical resourcement was Luther, whom I had simply lumped into the Protestant tradition as a “pre-Calvinist” and a “post-Catholic,” shaped as I was by the biases of Catholic and Reformed interpreters, and art historians like Joseph Leo Koerner, who blamed the Reformer for a privatized, relativized, and disenchanted Protestant faith. But things changed when my family and I became members of a confessional Lutheran Church (LCMS), and I discovered through the weekly practice of the preached Word and Sacrament, that Philip Cary is right: Luther is not quite Protestant. And for the sake of enriching evangelical cultural thought, that is a very good thing, as even Reformed historian Mark Noll observed in his classic essay, “The Lutheran Difference,” published in 1992 in First Things. But, unfortunately, as Kevin DeYoung admitted last summer, Luther and the Lutheran tradition remain virtually unknown to conference-circuit evangelicalism.

Although I practiced the Christian faith in the Lutheran tradition for almost eight years, it was not until I encountered Luther, liberated from a confessional tradition that had domesticated it and non-Lutheran thinkers who had distorted it, and interpreted through sensitive readers like the Hamann scholar Oswald Bayer, Steve Paulson, Gerhard Ebeling, and Gerhard Forde, that he came alive for me, presenting to me a Luther I never knew. And a Luther evangelicalism desperately needs.

What I discovered is a Luther whose thought offers fertile ground for a desperately needed re-evaluation of evangelical approaches to art and culture, from his understanding of the distinctions between the letter and the spirit; law and gospel; theology of the cross and theology of glory; the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world; the human being as simultaneously sinner and saint; God hidden and revealed; and nature and grace. In addition, in his revolutionary understanding of vocation and through his emphasis on the sacramental nature of the preached Word, Luther opens up space to think freely and creatively about modern art, without expectations for what art should look like. For Luther, it is not what we see, but what we hear from paintings, when the bullets are flying, when push comes to shove, as we live and feel the pressure of life and the strained relationship between God and neighbor.

And so I find Luther a welcome and helpful companion when I go to art museums and art galleries, when I am confronted by work that looks different, that frustrates my expectations, and distracts me by its strangeness. Luther is teaching me to wait in faith, and listen, with love.

via Luther, Evangelicals, and Modern Art.

Who best approaches the spirit of Bach?

Masaaki Suzuki is a distinguished harpsichordist, organist, Yale music professor, and conductor who founded and directs the Bach Collegium Japan.  He is also a devout Christian.  Many thanks to Paul McCain and the various people he credits for unearthing this quotation from the liner notes to the first album of Bach Collegium Japan.   He is responding to the question of how the Japanese can play Bach, whose music comes out of a very different culture.  He says that better than having the same culture is having the same religion:

“… [T]he God in whose service Bach laboured and the God I worship today are one and the same. In the sight of the God of Abraham, I believe that the two hundred years separating the time of Bach from my own day can be of little account. This conviction has brought the great composer very much closer to me. We are fellows in faith, and equally foreign in our parentage to the people of Israel, God’s people of Biblical times. Who can be said to approach more nearly the spirit of Bach: a European who does not attend church and carries his Christian cultural heritage mostly on the subconscious level, or an Asian who is active in his faith although the influence of Christianity on his national culture is small?”

via News Flash: J. S. Bach was a Christian – Why Suzuki Gets Bach | CyberBrethren – A Lutheran Blog.

Here is an interview with Suzuki and a sampling of his music:

How Christianity, for awhile, became cool

The 1970s was a time of hippies, free love, psychedelic drugs, and cultural revolution.  But it was also a time of major religious revival, with the “Jesus Movement” gaining headway in that very counter-culture.  How could that be?  Baylor professor Philip Jenkins credits the Byrds, who popularized a recovery of American roots music, much of which is explicitly Christian.  He explains:

At least part of the explanation lies outside the religious realm, in quite secular musical trends of the late 1960s, and the rediscovery of American musical roots — originally, without any religious intent whatever. As a driving force in the new cultural/religious upsurge I would point to one group above all, namely the Byrds. Through the mid-1960s, the Byrds moved ever more deeply into psychedelic experimentation, culminating with the 1968 album The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but at that point, things changed radically. David Crosby left the group, which now added Gram Parsons, with his enduring passion for country and western music. In 1968, the reformed Byrds began recording at Nashville, where they even played the Grand Old Opry. (The audience had no idea what to make of them).

In August 1968, the Byrds released the album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which pioneered a new style of country rock. It also initiated a revolutionary change in the country music world, which was at the time very conservative musically and politically, and where long hair was strictly taboo. (Merle Haggard’s Okie From Muskogee became a huge hit the following year, and a confrontational conservative anthem). At first, country listeners assumed Sweetheart was meant as a mocking retro parody, while the rock audience was bemused. Over the next few years, though, the two genres increasingly coalesced, with all sorts of fusion styles inbetween — country rock, Southern rock, outlaw country, and the rest. (John Spong recently published a terrific history of this synthesis as it developed through the 1970s in Texas Monthly, but subscription is required).

Suddenly and shockingly, “country” culture became fashionable, as part of the Southernization that historian Bruce Shulman described as one of the key social trends sweeping America in the 1970s. This shift was greatly strengthened by the demographic and economic trends of these years, and the shift of wealth and population from Rustbelt to Sunbelt states.

Quite unintentionally, the Byrds also revived and legitimized Christian themes in music for an audience wholly unaccustomed to them. If you want to revive America’s roots music, it’s hard to do so without incorporating hymns, gospel and Christian songs, and Sweetheart of the Rodeo featured such evocative classics as I am a Pilgrim and The Christian Life.

In 1969, they recorded the Art Reynolds Singers song “Jesus is Just Alright with Me,” which became an anthem for the emerging Jesus People. Plenty of other artists jumped on the bandwagon, recording or adapting Christian roots — and that is quite distinct from the contemporary emergence of avowedly Christian contemporary music. (Christian rock largely dates from Larry Norman’s 1969 album Upon This Rock). The language of pilgrimage, redemption and sin entered rock music, as did Satan himself: in 1970, the Grateful Dead issued Friend of the Devil.

Suddenly, young people who knew nothing whatever about the American religious heritage were exposed to this music, in highly accessible rock/country fusion styles, played by hip musicians with long hair and beards. Along the way, they also heard key evangelical messages, which suddenly became cool and contemporary.

And that, I suggest, is a major reason why those Christian movements were suddenly able to find young audiences open and receptive to their messages.

via RealClearReligion – When Evangelicals Were Cool.

I love the Byrds!  I heard them play.  I do remember marveling at all of the Christian references I was hearing in their music and in other albums of that day.

And yet, I’m not sure I’m convinced by this analysis.  Why did those old hymns and gospel songs resonate with people like Gram Parsons and record-buyers the way they did?

I think a better explanation is that where sin abounds, grace breaks in.  Which means that we may be in for another spiritual awakening soon.

But this gives me the excuse to post some Byrds music. (“Jesus is Just All Right With Me” comes from 1970, though there is nothing particularly rootsy about it. Gram Parsons joined the group in 1968, but the far better “Turn, Turn, Turn”–a setting of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 by Pete Seeger–came out in 1965. This YouTube version is stellar, but it is more recent, from 1990.)

UPDATE:  Thanks to SK Peterson for bringing up this STUNNING song by Gram Parsons (with harmony by co-writer Emmylou Harris AND Linda Rondstadt):  “In My Hour of Darkness.”  This is what the original article is talking about, not just with the coolness factor (though the accompanying pictures of these three performers are very, very cool) but with the way Parsons is taking that old-time gospel hymn structure and using it in a highly personal and expressive way.  (I think we will all need to purchase the two-album set GP / Grievous Angel.)

I would add that the difference between this and what passes for most contemporary Christian music in the pop vein, in addition to facing up to “darkness,” is that Parsons is drawing on the past, on the Christian musical tradition, rather than repudiating it.


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