Artistry in Grace (Of Dee Barton, Stan Kenton, and an Improvisational God)

Artistry in Grace (Of Dee Barton, Stan Kenton, and an Improvisational God) January 4, 2018

By Bert Montgomery

Bert Montgomery
Bert Montgomery

I do not remember when I came to own my first Stan Kenton Orchestra record. I think I was in junior high. Because I was playing trombone in the school jazz band, someone gave me a small stack of old jazz/big-band albums. My favorite one was Stan Kenton’s Artistry in Rhythm. Stan Kenton was one of the great jazz artists and band leaders of the 20th Century. The album I had (which still spins on my turntable today) was pressed on red vinyl.

A few years passed and high school graduation approached. Because both Mom and Dad had graduate degrees from Tulane, it was expected that the Montgomery children would attend college. I was not so enthused. I got bored sitting in classes all day. I hated being told what I was to read and write about. College meant four more years of that stuff. However, I loved being with friends all day and playing trombone in all the school bands. College meant … four more years of that stuff! The pros outweighed the cons, and I packed up my trombone and headed to Mississippi State University.

At MSU I learned about Dee Barton. Dee was a jazz trombonist out of nearby Houston (Mississippi, not that other one). He played with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. According to another jazz trombonist and band leader from this area (whom I knew as MSU’s Director of Bands, “Doc” Sills), Kenton’s drummer showed up late for a show one day. Kenton asked if anyone could play drums, and Dee Barton raised his hand. The drummer was fired on the spot, and Dee, the trombonist, played drums from that moment on.

Jazz musicians are like that.

Stan Kenton’s sound was unique, forceful, unpredictable and innovative. Kenton’s music jumps and climbs, slows down, then zooms off again in a new direction. If music could be diagnosed, then Kenton’s would soar off the ADHD charts.

I think God is like that.

The Psalmist is in awe of God’s creativity on display in all the earth and all the sky. The Psalmist also speaks of God as the mender of all the broken things in the world. God gathers the outcasts, lifts up the downtrodden, heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. Cracks and scars remain, but God works them into a part of a new, beautiful whole.

Like Kenton grabbing whoever and whatever is available and weaving the instruments and the people together into a musical masterpiece, neither does God give up when something does not go as planned. God just picks up what is there and keeps going.

Another biblical image of God is as a potter molding clay. Kneading. Throwing. Shaping. Stopping. Starting over. And kneading and throwing and shaping again. Like any artist, God is always smoothing something out here and roughing it up there, poking there and stretching here. God never stops creating.

I imagine grace as a work of creativity. Grace is improvisational. Grace is our world, and our lives, as art in progress.

Frederick Buechner says God’s grace means something like this: “Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

Life is unpredictable. The world zigs and zags and speeds up and slows down all around us. We hit wrong notes. Drummers don’t show up.

There are countless images that help us know God. These days, I am experiencing God as a great band leader, as a great improviser, as a great artist. If deities could be diagnosed, I think God would have ADHD. I’m discovering that God never sits still; God is always fidgiting with something here or tinkering with something there; God is always active and coming up with stuff that breaks all the rules.

Robin Williams was a master improvisational artist. So was Groucho Marx. And, Bugs Bunny, too (yeah, I know, but he was!). There is great artistry in comedy.

Rembrandt. Van Gogh. Dali. Of course, there is great artistry in colors and brush strokes.

Duke Ellington. Ella Fitzgerald. Stan Kenton and Dee Barton. Artistry in rhythm, indeed.

This new year I am going to drown out the stale, deafening noise of despair by listening to more jazz. And, this new year I am going to pay a little less attention to the negativity around me by paying more attention to God’s creative hand at work smoothing out rough edges, lifting up the lowly, pulling together the broken people, and weaving together (seemingly out of nowhere) a beautiful, rich tapestry of life – of earth and sky and everything and everyone.

This new year I want to be more aware of God’s artistry … in grace. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go flip that red-vinyl record over.

Bert Montgomery pastors University Baptist Church in Starkville, teaches sociology and religion courses at Mississippi State University. Contact him at bert@bertmontgomery.com.

Note: The views expressed here in columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.

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