Pink like Jazz : Whatever happened to (postmodern) Jazz ?

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has been, for few years already, featuring this program called “Art after Five.” Every Friday at 5.00pm, and for the price of the entrance in the Museum, the visitors can attend a jazz concert… for free! I have already gone to the “Art after Five” few times and have always enjoyed my time there.

However, few weeks ago, while I was sitting with couple of friends on the stairs overlooking the main hall, something made me feel, somewhat uncomfortable, like I did not belong here. In itself it is strange enough, for jazz should not make anybody feel like a stranger, for jazz is the music of strangers, the music of and for exiled. But as I was beating time and enjoying the beauty of carefully unbalanced measure, I started looking around. And there it was. Surrounding us were many different people, from diverse countries and backgrounds, all coming for the same purpose: enjoying good jazz. One thing they had in common, however: a glass of wine in their hands. And I wondered: whatever happened to Jazz? I am not very knowledgeable on the history of Jazz, and I do not even pretend I understand what I should understand about it. The nature if Jazz itself is for me elusive, as if I was trying to catch the rays of the rising moon through the midnight clouds. But by contact with few jazz musicians, and many other jazz lovers, I gathered that jazz was about interaction with the ups and downs if culture. Especially a comment on the “downs.” So I was thinking about the place of Jazz. Is it really in a Museum, among the things that need to be “preserved”? Should it not be “outside”? After all, Jazz is about what we, humans, feel, live, hope and struggle with. Isn’t it?

These thoughts were confirmed when the band-leader stood up, after two or three excellent pieces, for the traditional few words introducing her band. From my experience, what usually happens at this moment is that the band-leader tells a short, usually funny, story. Sure enough, we were told a (funny) story about how difficult it is to park in New York City and Philadelphia, to the point of confusing the two cities. This is when I thought that Jazz had lost something of its power. Is the only comment postmodern jazz musicians have to provide merely an insipid joke about traffic-jam in New York City? I could not believe my ears (maybe because at this point they were bleeding!) Let’s face it: Jazz is not what it used to be–or so I fear.

Let me ask you a question: what does the color pink evoke for you? For me it’s something along the lines of “romantic-ish,” in its most trivial sense. I picture clouds with emotionally exuberant people floating in a most unreal sky, completely disconnected with what our lives actually are. I imagine something so common and insipid that it is barely worth noticing. Something that does not bring anything to life. And I wonder: has Jazz become “pink”? Maybe it did. Or maybe we painted it pink. Let’s confess: Jazz merely has the life we choose to give it. The way we approach, read, play, enjoy, write Jazz, is the reflection of our hearts. So, is it a surprise that Jazz does not reflect the hopes of blue skies above, but merely the pink-ish of our materialistic world? No. No surprise at all. You’re going to tell me that I was at the Museum myself, with everybody else. Yes I was. And I plead guilty. I probably belong to the new jazz-bourgeois class, even if the mere thought of it makes me feel nauseous Yes, maybe in listening to Jazz at the Museum I paint it pink. Maybe sometimes I think my life is pink. Pink like Jazz. But that’s not the way it’s supposed to be!

I want to listen to Jazz because it is God’s carefully unbalanced measure of history. I want to listen Jazz because it is the Blue hope of God’s presence, and also because I can listen to Jazz in God’s music of Revelation. Can’t you hear Abraham’s Long, Long Journey (Louis Armstrong)? Sounds like God’s Jazz, doesn’t it, when he goes to Egypt with his wife/sister, before becoming this hero of the faith. What about Jacob’s Folklore (John Patitucci)? What is this story, this glorious improvisation, if not Jazz! Would not have the prophets played Jazz? I can hear the exiled Ezekiel sing along What a Wonderful World (Louis Armstrong) on the banks of the Chebar canal. Even Jeremiah, who can’t stop speaking God’s Word, is mumbling I’ve got you under my Skin (Monty Alexander). Or can’t you hear Hosea play Autumn Leaves while his prostitute wife goes from one “client” to another. And along with them Christ is playing Renewal (Monty Alexander)!

Of course, we are no heroes of the faith, are we? There are times when Thin Roof Blues (Le Dixieband) is the best we can get out of our faith. Too may Yesterdays (Wes Montgomery), and not enough Victory Ball (Miles Davis). But we forget that God’s Pursuance (John Coltrane) of his salvation plan, one of loving relationship, does not come down to a pink-ish story. No, it is the dark blue of sinners used by a glorious God. Look at all the people the Bible is filled up with. Not “pink”! It is darker, isn’t it? A dark Blue. But a dark blue is always blue. In God’s Jazz, there is no more Deluge (Wayne Shorter), only a Passion Dance (McCoy Tyner).

Jazz is no pink vision of life. It is blatantly and radically realistic. It is the improvisation on the score of what our world is. If God’s Jazz is Blue, so should ours. What should we sing in Jazz? The sufferings of human life, and its Hope as well. We should sing Never Saw a Better Day (Louis Armstrong), along with Acknowledgment (John Coltrane). But more than anything else, we should all sing our own Jazz, the story of our life under God, in all its sin, misery, and renewal, with nothing left out: injustice, death, despairs and glorious future. Jazz plays it all in a single piece, anywhere, at anytime, because God sings for us Meet Me at no Special Place (Nat King Cole). God meets us where we are, and Jazz meets us where we are, taking the “where we are” to make it alive for all. At the end God’s Jazz is an Epistrophy (Thelonious Monk): It is the epilogue of our human catastrophe. It is the rejoicing catastrophic epilogue of Christ: Blue overcoming Dark and Pink.

If so, postmodern jazz too often is a mere pink-ish copy of what Jazz really is. Life is not pink like jazz, it is (dark) Blue. And while God paints history in Blue on the walls of the world, we can sing along I Believe waiting for the Eternal Sun to shine upon us.

The gods of sport must be crazy: learning to cheer for whatever happens

A major sport event occurred the past weeks: the European Football cup! Held every four years, I was really looking forward to see the best European teams competing with each other. But since it began I have undergone a series of great disappointments. At first I chose to cheer for my team, France. We played against Romania, arguably not a dangerous team, and the result was a draw, 0-0. After this first “debacle” I decided to cheer for the Netherlands after their incredible debut against Italy, 3-0 (please remember that Italy is the 2006 soccer World Champion!). Of course came the day of the game France-Netherlands and I became a traitor, cheering for the Netherlands. The result was surreal: 4-1! Even if I was cheering for the victorious team, I was disappointed. That France would loose 1-0 or even 2-1, well, I could bear. But 4-1, that was annihilation, especially in soccer! In quarterfinals, Croatia played against Turkey, a nouveau venu in the top of European soccer, and lost 2-1. That was not dramatic but I felt at odd with the rest of the soccer world. Then it was the turn of Portugal to be beaten 3-2 by Germany, and even if this defeat was expected, I was still stunned by my lack of “sporting vision.” I started to believe that deciding who to cheer for was more akin to predicting Judgment Day than evaluating the strength of two teams. But my long downfall was not over.

 

The day is Saturday, June 21, first day of summer. It is a beautiful day, sunny, not too warm, and I have already done enough studying to have earned a “small” break (of three hours!). I have a great place to watch the quarterfinal opposing Russia to Netherlands (remember, I am cheering for Netherlands), and friends to watch it with: so far all is perfect. Nothing could be better, and since Netherlands is in such a frenzy, there is no fear to have. As the first half-time game unfolds, I discover that “my” team has aged ten years in two days. They do well enough, but that was nothing comparing to the blue-and-white raz-de-maree that assailed the Dutch goalie. The second half time was no better. The Russian Pavlyuchenko scored at the 56th minute. Serious, but not dramatic, and at the 86th minute, the Dutch finally scored! End of regular time, and the two teams have to go on for two successive 15 minutes half-time. At the 110th minute, ten minutes before the end of this overtime, the situation was still the same. Two minutes later, Russia scored, leaving the Dutch with only eight minutes to make a come back. At this point I am thinking, “What on earth are the gods of sport doing?” I could almost picture Atlas laughing and juggling with the earth, while Nike was trying to stay on balance, uneasy with “triumph” in her hand. Four minutes later, Russia did it again. Final result 3-1 for Russia. (sigh … heavy silence)

 

I was speechless. The favorite team, who had scored 9 goals in 3 games was out, beaten, outclassed by what I thought was a second rank team. After the initial shock the unrealistic nature of the defeat struck me and I started rambling and complaining, as if the end of the world had come upon me. What hope was left in sport I wondered? (easy: none, and my English friend know that too well, since they did not even qualify for the European cup). After few minutes, which probably seemed an eternity to my friends, I realized that something was wrong in this picture. I mean something was wrong, beyond this mere defeat, with me! How can I be an example of self-control (Galatians 5) when the losses of my favorite teams make me feel like the gods wants me to feel miserable! Few minutes were necessary, and only after a while, in the evening, did God came to enlighten my broken morale.

 

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4). Or as a soccer fan would say: “Cheer for the Lord always, I say again Cheer [I add: for whatever happens]!” This is technically simple enough, isn’t it? I then realized (since I’m a slow learner) that enjoying soccer was like enjoying life: I have to cheer for whatever happens, for whatever happens, it is all in the hands of the Perfect Coach, who planned a perfect game, before soccer was even invented! Talking about coaches, guess what nationality the Russian coach is. A Dutch! (I am not making that up!). This coach is a genius in his category: he can pull up a team like nobody else could. Six years ago he pulled the South Korean team up to the semi-finals of the World Cup, a miracle! And this year he did it again with Russia. Some people are gifted with making the best out of nothing. No offense intended to my Russian and South Korean friends but when he took their teams in charge, they were no pretenders to the semi-finals. This made me think about what God does with us. He proclaim his glory with “nothing,” that is, with us, who are sinners. If a human coach can do seemingly miracles in soccer, how more miraculous can the Three in One do with his sinning children? But he asks one thing, among others: that we trust him for whatever will happen. It does not mean we cannot have our favorite teams, or our favorite “plans,” but whenever our plans break down in pieces, we remain the same. We rejoice, we cheer for whatever happens. This is not capitulation in face of what is coming. It is rejoicing hope, because we are not playing the game alone. More than that, the game bas already been won. We can enjoy the game, any game, because at the end, every game will be a “win.” We really can rejoice, always. We really can cheer for whatever happens!

 

Yes, I have to cheer for whatever happens, and it is not easy. As I was writing those words yesterday I realized that it meant I might have to cheer for Italy (if they beat Spain). Given the long history between the French and the Italian teams, that would certainly be a trial. But because sanctification is made of small steps (and I’m still a sinner), God allowed Italy to loose, leaving me more time to learn to cheer for them! But, if we have to Rejoice, always, I think now I could even cheer for England!