JAZZ IS MY RELIGION

A sermon preached at St.Michael and All Angels, Brighton on  5th July 2009  

It is a privilege and a great pleasure to be asked to offer a few thoughts for the day in the context of the local festival. My brief from the Vicar was to say something about religion and the arts.

But what? It’s such a vast subject. Well I think he invited me because I happen to be a jazz musician as well as a priest so please forgive me if I stick to music where there’s more chance I’ll know what I’m talking about.

I always wanted to play the drums and took it up seriously when I was a card-carrying atheist at university.

Religion? Jazz was my religion. Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker were my gods. Only they and others like them could move me to tears of joy or of pathos.

 

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Jazz was the only thing which held any deep meaning for me and for that reason it felt, in a sense, sacred. The rest of life seemed by comparison shallow and ultimately pointless. I knew I had a talent for playing but I didn’t know where it came from.

Then when I was about 40, cynical and depressed, came a powerful conversion experience. One by-product of this was a dawning realisation of why music meant so much to me and why it seemed so precious and profound.

It was not just a deep thing, it was a transcendental thing, perhaps even a holy thing, pointing beyond what can be defined, or measured, or marketed to something not of this world.

Because if God exists, then everything, including whatever talent I had for playing the drums, must come from him. And if the great power of art and poetry and music to move people and take them out of themselves comes from God, then surely it must be used reverently and responsibly and in His service.

There are some Old Testament words which are sometimes used  in Anglican communion services. They are known in the “trade” as the “kitchen sink” prayer:

Thine O Lord is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty.

All that is in heaven and earth is Thine . All things come of Thee O Lord and of Thine own do we give Thee.

 On this basis, when we make music, we make it to the Lord. Because without Him, without the gift of talent, and indeed the gift of life itself, we could not perform at all.

 Sometimes it is almost as if the gift is a thankless, prophetic vocation. A few musicians feel driven to compose or perform ahead of their time, are vilified by baffled and hostile audiences  but are then revered in hindsight after their deaths. I think of the riots provoked by Stravinsky’s Rite of spring, or of John Coltrane, booed off the stage in Paris in 1960 for his solos in the Miles Davis quintet. He died in 1968 and now he is revered. Incredibly there is (in wacky California -where else) an actual “church of John Coltrane”!

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Not all musicians are called to plough such a lonely, unpopular furrow but they do all have a responsibility to their art.

Making music “to the Lord” does not of course mean that it has to be done in church, or that you can’t do it in smokey dives and night clubs as well as concert halls or that you can’t make money out of it as a living, as most performers are obliged to do.

But it does mean that musical talent should not be exploited or prostituted for a quick buck.

And the problem is not just cash. The “celebrity culture” which is trivialising the lives and ambitions of children and young adults undermines the true purpose of art. If the be all and end all of any performance is just to make the performer famous, then we will be never be genuinely moved by the result.

The trouble with the artist who tailors his performance to maximise instant popularity is that his motive is to inflate either his ego or his bank balance. He is taking, not giving. The great joy, and the whole purpose, of making music, particularly in a group and particularly when improvising, is to contribute, to give to one another, and thereby, if you believe, to give to God.

 Of Thine own do we give Thee. When we make music, we make it to the Lord.

Those who do not share my faith will perhaps accuse me of trying to hi-jack art on behalf of the God squad.

Well, it is true that you don’t have to believe in a god before you can paint, write or play beautifully or before you can be moved to tears by what you look at, or read, or hear.

But even the most sceptical doubters must acknowledge at least the possibility, however slight it may seem to them, that God’s grace is silently and invisibly at work behind the scenes producing the talent, its fruit and the appreciation of it.

As Cardinal Basil Hume once said, even we believers will only occasionally catch a glimpse of God’s beauty and goodness. Even we believers are destined to live for the most part on hopeful trust while we do not easily or readily sense His presence.

But I don’t half sense His presence whenever I hear Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus or the Benedictus from Haydn’s Heiligmesse or Peter Warlock’s Pieds en l’air.

And I don’t half feel His divine love at work when I’m playing the drums in a band where all the musicians are listening and giving and playing selflessly for each other.

And, to go back to Basil Hume for the final word, IF God exists, that must be (not least for musicians) the most fundamental truth of all. It cannot both be true and not matter. It changes everything.

Spike Wells