Don’t Call it Jazz, Man

jazz

My introduction to Jazz was only in passing as a boy when I watched Charlie Brown and heard the theme music—but I didn’t know what to call it. My first real love, though was punk rock when I saw The Clash and The Ramones on MTV, and I drew comparisons to the Outlaw Country and Surf music my father listened to along with Motown from the 1960s my mother enjoyed. My mother blames a punk rock friend of mine I met in high school for my love of the fast beats and three chords, but she and my father laid down my musical foundation with twangy, soulful moans rocking back and forth with the ocean. She wouldn’t hear any of it. To acknowledge my points would cause her to face her own narrow mindedness. The point of all that back and forth was my love of all kinds of music while favoring specific styles, but I didn’t know the origins until I was in eighth grade.

In junior high my school offered a class called The History of American Music.  I instantly signed up for it because I am a sucker for origin stories. I thought the class would start with the birth of rock n roll in the 1950s, but I did not expect the class to begin on the plantations of the American South in the mid-19th century. My teacher made the argument, we read the books, and then watched videos. I knew enough about spirituals to know these were mournful prayers for deliverance and served as code for runaway slaves passing through to freedom. What I didn’t know was sixteen years after The Civil War in New Orleans, white musicians took the rhythm of the spirituals and the beats of the drums used by slaves, and created Jazz, but made it clear that no black man would ever play this music. These musicians disregarded the origins of their music and paid their rent with exploitation. This was the point of Langston Hughes in the 1920s when he brought up the amount of white people who danced to Jazz and played Jazz. He didn’t care so much that white people were part of Jazz, but they did nothing to solve the injustice inspiring Jazz.

We moved to the beginnings of Blues in the 1920s as a way of naming and singing the pain to be free from pain, the beginnings of Country and Western in the 1930s, and Bop in the 1940s. What blew away my mind, though, was the creation of rock n roll. Bill Haley synthesized Country & Western and Rhythm & Blues to create the song “Rock Around the Clock.”

I saw the creation of sub-genres like surf, Motown, Punk, and Hip Hop. The music I enjoyed and loved connected me to the sorrow of back breaking labor and marginalization. The same anger and contempt I heard in my Punk Rock, I could hear in Hip Hop, and a voice of many calling out in the urban wilderness for jubilee and justice. God didn’t go silent after the ascension of Jesus nor did the canon of God’s word close in the mid -4th century, but shrieked in my 20th century American concrete sprawl.

Jack Kerouac

I didn’t begin to appreciate Jazz or immerse myself into the music until I discovered the books of Jack Kerouac. Kerouac’s writing was influenced by the Bop created by Charlie Parker. The reason Parker created Bop had to do with making beats so complicated that none of the white swing people could copy and commodify his music. Kerouac wanted to write like Parker blew. First thought, best thought which is the core of his Bop spontaneity, and the driving force behind On the Road. But I must point out that Kerouac romanticized Jazz and the hard life of the African-American trying to survive in a culture that hated them. James Baldwin had more than a few terse words regarding Kerouac’s treatment of African-Americans in his monumental work. African-Americans are not the child-like, magical saviors for disaffected, bored white people looking for kicks. That being said, though, Kerouac was searching for something more, but echoed the systemic racism of the country. For me, I knew enough to know I don’t understand, and I, like Kerouac, will say something unintentionally prejudiced, but I want to know. I want to join with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker to look for IT. To look for that divine source where all answers hum a benevolent truth granting shelter to the weary seeker.

miles ahead

My recent Jazz experience was in an AMC connected to a mall in Omaha, NE. It was April of 2016, and Don Cheadle’s mystical biopic of Miles Davis “Miles Ahead” was playing. The movie was brilliant and solidified my opinion of Cheadle’s talent in acting and directing. Ronnie and I bought our tickets at five ‘o’ clock for the seven ‘o’ clock showing, and went to the Half Price Books to look over some Beat literature of which they had plenty, but the store also had a tremendous Jazz selection. In the brief time we had, I purchased a box set of Miles Davis, and went to the theater. We were the only ones in the theater, and in the darkness I heard Miles Davis through Don Cheadle sitting with his back against a car door, “Don’t call it Jazz, man. That’s some made up word—it’s social music.” The movie ended with Miles Davis playing to a 21st century audience wearing a vest, and on the back of the vest, “#socialmusic.” The argument of the film is what Miles Davis said in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s still said something today. The social situation had not changed when Davis first picked up his horn, but the language did, and the rage could be felt in the modern expressions of hip hop and punk. Jazz, at its core, gives words to the indecipherable groaning of the broken heart. Jazz still speaks because hearts have not healed, but when hearts finally heal Jazz will not cease. The music will evolve and continue to be the rumbling human search for the divine.

Clean

I began my day at 6:09 this morning. Ronnie has to work the occasional Sunday, and I got out of bed to shower and shave, and prepare our breakfast and her lunch. The plan was to drop her off at work,  get gas, go to Mo’Joes write over my sandwiches and coffee, and go to church. The rain sprinkled off and on as I exited I-70 on the West St. exit, and drove past Lucas Oil Stadium towards Mo’Joe’s.  The gray, drizzly weather is perfect for dark roast coffee, sketching out a prospective piece, and read Ellis Amburn’s Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. The work is good thus far, but I’ve a high opinion on writers like Amburn, Joyce Johnson, and Ann Charters who write about Jack Kerouac based on their scholarly research and their relationship with him. I spent nearly ninety minutes writing out a first draft on my desire to heal and take life case by case, and went right into Amburn’s book. All the while, I’m listening to my writing playlist of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. That’s my normal music for writing, but sometimes I will throw in the occasional Thelonious Monk.

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At 9:50, I packed up my books and notebook, and went outside to a pouring rain battering the buildings and the pavement at an angle. In the fifty feet it took to get to  my van, I was soaked. I heard the pounding on the roof of the van, the thud on the windshield, the dull rub of the wipers as they moved in time to remove the water. Visibility was nonexistent,  the sounds of the rain and car, and the smell of my coffee inspired me to play Thelonious Monk’s “Monk the Transformer” Album. The piano playing is slow and deliberate, but the percussion of the falling water caused Monk’s music to throb with a forceful urgency calculated and executed patiently. As I drove south on West St dodging the many tour buses stopping at the hotels to drop off patrons who are here on business or the race, I saw myself as Moses, bearded and weary, passing through divided waters.  When I entered I-70 West going toward Lynhust, the rain subsided leaving behind a drenched urban sprawl.

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As I entered the church, I had already been set off by one of the greeters who called me, “Big Guy.” I hate that. I’ve had that since high school, and the nickname was based off Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. One of the main characters is Lenny who is a large man, and quite stupid. Because of that book, I was taunted with the name of “Lenny” and bullied all the more when I dared to rise above the intellectual limits my classmates set for me. As I entered my twenties, people would respond angrily to me when I told them I preferred to read and write poetry instead of playing football as if I owed people athletic prowess because I’m 6”8 and quite well read. Everything rises up in me, the person in front of me is transformed into those adolescent images. “I’m educated! I’ve a degree in religion and literature! I’m an intellectual! Do you see me?! I’m not my fucking size, you ass!” I give him a quick no, and withhold eye contact as he offers me a bulletin for the service.

I go up the stairs, I walk into the sanctuary, and see bells set up for the bell choir, but I don’t see the member of the bell choir. The last time they played in the service they sat in front of me, and were quite rude to me. When Ben called for the greeting they stuck out their hand, “Aren’t you going to shake my hand?”
“No. You were rude to me, why should I deign myself to take your hand?” One gave me an angry glare and a curled lip, but said nothing. I continue, “What? You’re not laughing? You mean my countering you doesn’t cause you to laugh? You thought your rudeness towards me was funny!” They weren’t in the place I usually sit, and I thought they were in another part of the sanctuary. As I began my writing before the service, I thought I left my headlights on so I put down my notebook, and went outside to check. The headlights were off and I returned to the building. As I went in one of the ladies in the bell choir stopped right in front of me and I waited for her to move so I could sit. She stares at my bag, and proceeds to sit on my bag. As I move my bag, she offers no apology when I speak of her lack of consideration towards my space. Within a few minutes, I am lost in my thought as I scribble out another piece on the Indy 500, and another bell choir member plops next to me grazing my leg. I stop, take a breath, and return. She kept shifting, and pushing me until, I belted, “For the love of God would you sit still, I am trying to write!” Nothing. No apologies. Other choir members proceed to flank me, and I am at my wit’s end. I am not above causing a scene and shaming folk, who are old enough to know better, with a lecture on manners. I’ve been working on how I express my agitation peacefully, but I am not at that place where I can be calm, so, in the middle of service, before God and all the congregation, I get up with my bag in tow, and move to the pew behind me. I found out later, the children’s ministry leader was pissed at the bell choir’s behavior towards me. I stretch out my legs, and continue to write.

I don’t write to escape anything, but to make sense of the thoughts that race through my head, and when I find a rhythm, I blow until everything is out and I set aside the writing for future editing. After the editing, I put out the piece for the benefit of others. If I am interrupted any time before the final exhale, I become curt with short hostile syllables so I can be left to myself. Because I was already agitated from the “big guy” comment and the behavior of the bell choir, I was in no mood to take shake hands with the man who shoved his his open hand toward my face, “So glad you keep coming back.” At a quick glance, I see it’s the guy who made the comment to me outside the church doors. “I’m writing.” then I return to my thought. As I jot the final word on the paper, the sermon begins, but it is not the usual sermon.

Ben teaches the word of God is not limited to the bible, nor do we confine our experiences to how the people in the bible experience God, but God is writing new stories in individual lives. The new stories differ from the bible because of culture, but there is a consistency in God’s character. Because of this, Ben lets people from the congregation get up and tell the congregation how God is moving in their life. I’ve heard some good stories during my time at Lynhurst, and I see God relating to these different people in different ways. These people speak honest stories that are not the pretty, beige ceiling advertisement of suburban spirituality, but stories out of brokenness and desperation involving drugs, alcohol, weapons, and promiscuity. They aren’t juicy tidbits, though, told with feigned regret. The people at Lynhurst who tell their stories wish to God they didn’t go through their experiences, but are grateful for God delivering them and saving their lives. Their theology is “I was lost, but now I’m found,” and, “Come and see.” That’s a spirituality worth considering because it’s not out to sell a particular brand of God.

That’s the story Stephanie told this morning. She grew up in a small town in southern Indiana, and went through a painful hell. She had body image issues, and developed an eating disorder that she wrestled with, and when that pain became too much she self-medicated further with drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, and unhealthy relationships. The self-medication deepened when a good friend of hers committed suicide. She is drained and spent like Bilbo’s butter thinning over too much bread. She has to take several pauses throughout her telling to collect herself because the pain is still close to her heart. She is sobbing. She apologizes for the long pauses. I hear from the pews, “It’s ok. Take your time.” She is free to let her vulnerability show, and I feel the love of this congregation towards her. She is safe even as she is reliving her sorrow. When she ended, Stephanie told the church she wanted to sing a song for them to summarize her story, but hesitated, “I don’t want to break the song with my voice.” In my head, I’m shouting, “Oh, girl, no! Those are the best songs to sing! That’s how Ellen Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Patsy Cline sang. They sang their sorrows, and reached down to the depths pulling out their pain buried under the rubble of their broken hearts! You sing that song with all the ferocity of your sorrow!” That’s the blues. Naming what has spent you to lift up as a prayer to the universe, to God, or whatever name you want to apply. Releasing the pain brings freedom, and, after she sang, Stephanie walked away clean. Not only was she clean, but her story and song redeemed the agitation I felt from the bell choir’s rudeness and the unintended insult outside the church doors. The world receives salvation when you sing your grief.