My favorite recording of my favorite Louis Armstrong tune, “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” features the great trumpeter Byron Stripling and his friends. They bring that great jazz masterpiece[i] to life in ways that would make Louis smile that great big grin of his. As jazz performances frequently go, this one begins with the entire ensemble playing the melody, follows with individual soloists (two trumpets, trombone, clarinet, piano, and drums) taking turns improvising on that melody, and culminates with all the musicians returning to the main melody at the end for a thrilling, joyful romp.
Together, these artists follow what jazz musicians call a “lead sheet,” a basic notation of the written-out melody and underlying chords. Playing this way – off a lead sheet – allows for a tremendous amount of improvisation, yet all the while staying true to the original design of the composer. Jazz combines a firmly established structure and a seemingly infinite amount of variety. In one sense, the rhythm section (piano, bass, drums and sometimes guitar) just keeps playing the same sequence of chords over and over while the soloist creates spontaneous compositions of new melodies that fit with the song’s shape and structure. (Don’t feel sorry for the rhythm section. They weave in lots of their own brilliant improvisation, too, as they keep the structure of the tune moving forward.)
I find jazz to be a kind of template for living the Christian life, a life with a lead sheet of God’s firmly established commandments and principles that allow for a diverse set of applications by different people in different situations during different times. Does that seem too far of a stretch? I hope not. Even if you’re not a fan of jazz, I hope you’ll consider this idea for just a bit. But don’t push this analogy too far! Even in jazz, you can play “wrong” notes. When I was a music major during my undergraduate days, learning jazz saxophone, you can trust that I played a lot of wrong notes along the way. Improvisation does not mean audio anarchy (although I do acknowledge that, for some non-fans, jazz can sound that way).
By grasping just a few features of jazz, many Christians can find helpful paradigms for living out their life of faith.
First, consider improvisation, what some consider the sine qua non of jazz. When performed by the masters, it seems fluid, melodic, mesmerizing, almost effortless, and fun. Listen to Stan Getz’ rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”[ii] to get an idea of how a familiar tune can spark dozens of elaborations, adaptations, emendations, and melodic fantasies by someone who never seems to run out of creativity. Or compare Errol Garner’s rendition of that same song[iii] and see how much variety and instantaneous beauty can be extracted from the same melody and chord sequence.
Again, we must realize that improvisation is not just playing any notes one wants to play! The notes must fit within the set, inviolable sequence of chords. But some jazz musicians have found this to be too constrictive and opted for what became known as “free jazz.” Ornette Coleman and others wanted to break free from the confines of the composers’ restrictions and just played anything and everything that came into their heads. Several musicians on the same stage would engage in these instrumental free-for-alls and, for a time, fans would flock to these — what shall I call them – concerts? sessions? I found recordings of them to be nothing more than prompters to reach for Tylenol, and most agreed, as free jazz’s popularity, such as it was, died out fairly quickly and its recordings don’t sell well anymore (if they ever did). Despite the appeal of “total freedom,” structure (in both jazz and life) is preferable and fits far better with the ways God has created his world, the people who live in it, and our ears.
Here’s how a jazz improvisation mentality can help us live out our spiritual lives. Consider the scriptural command to “live a life of love” (Eph. 5:2). What a great concept to have as our life’s overarching theme. But how do we live that out in our daily lives? We’re helped to understand and feel the weight of that idea by the surrounding context in Ephesians 5. We are to be “imitators of God” and to bask in the fact that we’re “dearly loved children” (verse 1). We have the ultimate paradigm of such love in Christ’s love for us, that he “gave himself up for us” (verse 2). And we’re given some specific prohibitions against the exact opposite of loving other people, namely engaging in sexual immorality, impurity, and greed (verse 3). We’re even warned against using our words in ways that are unloving (verse 4).
Yet all of that still leaves us with a wide array of situations where we’re on our own to come up with how to live a life of love. How do I live a life of love toward my next-door neighbor when he plays his music too loudly late at night? Or how do I live a life of love toward my co-worker who doesn’t do her work well and thus, makes my job a bit more complex? Or how do I live a life of love towards my closest friend when he needs to talk late at night about some painful circumstances he’s facing? Or how do I live a life of love in my church’s community group when we want to share in the joy of one member’s new job but grieve the loss of another member’s mother — at the same time?
We need to improvise over the underlying structure of “live a life of love” and create spontaneous melodies that sing the goodness of gospel grace. Some of us have a harder time with this than others. We want a list of do’s and don’ts for applying Scripture, not the responsibility of coming up with those applications on our own. We want easy-to-follow instructions that someone provides for us, paint by numbers spirituality. We don’t want to have to exercise wisdom and creativity.
But whether we like it or not, Scripture leaves a great deal of application up to us, requiring us to ask God for wisdom and not to expect him to zap us with audible words. To be sure, sometimes God does speak to us (although the audible part seems doubtful). He might use a dream or a vision, as Paul had of a man telling him to “come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). But more often, he provides wisdom in ways that “seem good to us” (see Acts 15:22 and 25).
Much as I’d like God to give me a set of play-by-play instructions for how to bring up my children “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (see Ephesians 6:4), I find that I need wisdom to improvise on that theme as life stages keep changing. When my sons were young, that meant reading Bible stories to them and asking them simple questions. Now that they’re grown men, it means listening intently when we talk on the phone about challenges they face at work. Improvising on that theme when they were five created different melodies than from when they’re thirty-five, and it will yet again when they are fifty-five. The spontaneous melodies also vary from child to child, circumstance to circumstance, and challenge to challenge.
Second, consider how one learns to play jazz: by imitation, imitating other, more seasoned and skilled masters. Jazz musicians listen carefully and repeatedly to recordings of jazz greats. Over time, the masters’ styles and ideas start weaving their way into the performances of novices. Jazz fans say things like, “I can hear a lot of Charlie Parker’s influence in his playing,” or “She plays the piano a lot like Art Tatum.”
On the recording of “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” that I mentioned above, Byron Stripling and another trumpeter play a carefully crafted duet over the chords of the song after all the other musicians have taken their turns improvising. The two trumpets do not simply return to the melody of the song as it was played at the very beginning. But they were not spontaneously improvising either. They had worked out a two-part variation on the melody and played together tightly. I always enjoyed that part of their rendition of Armstrong’s composition.
Then, years after listening to Stripling’s rendition dozens of times, I found a 1927 recording of Louis Armstrong and his band playing his tune.[iv] His improvisation on the melody sounded remarkably familiar, even though I had never heard that recording before. I realized that Stripling had taken Armstrong’s improvisation, written it out note for note, added a second line as harmony, and together with his fellow trumpeter, played the duet as an homage to his jazz hero, Louis Armstrong, over 70 years after the original performance.
We, too, should imitate the faith of brothers and sisters who have a longer track record of faithful living. Older men and women who have faced more of life’s challenges can help us adapt their experiences to our circumstances. To be sure, there are limits to how much we can imitate. No one except our Messiah lived perfectly. But Paul did not shy away from urging people, specifically the Christians in Philippi, to follow his and others’ examples. “Join with others in following my example,” he wrote them and added, “take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you” (Phil. 3:17). In 1 Corinthians 11:1 he says it more simply: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” New Testament commentator Matthew Harmon provides some context about this. “In the ancient world it was commonly expected that students would not merely learn content from teachers, but learn to imitate their behavior as well.”[v]
I’m sure some of us resist this, having been shaped by our individualistic culture that tells us “be your own person” and “you be you.” Or we may have gotten burned by following closely the model of Christian leaders only to watch them crash and burn due to a moral failure. But with appropriate caveats and cautions, we can all benefit greatly from seeking out godly examples of older, wiser saints who can help us live out our callings as followers of Christ.
Third, note how jazz flows from immersion in the blues. Jazz grew out of a great deal of pain, especially the evils of slavery, injustice, and racism that have played such a major part in the history of African Americans. Theologian William Edgar, a lifelong student and performer of jazz, comments in his recent book A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel, “Born out of slavery, it [jazz] was nurtured in the invisible and visible churches where spirituals were generated, in the cotton fields with their inhuman working conditions, in the night spots across the country, and in funeral processions where dirges were followed by jubilation. Much of it has great depth, often the tragic sounds of suffering, but also of great jubilation.”[vi]
Melodically and lyrically, jazz weaves together honest lament with expectant hope. We would do well to follow that pattern. Consider how many of the Psalms follow the path from honest lament to confident trust. Psalm 13 provides a concise example:
How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the LORD’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
Note how the Psalmist does not minimize his pain and sense of alienation from God. But don’t miss how he forces himself to remember the character of God, especially his unfailing love and his salvation, and end up at a place of hope. To be sure, our processing of lament may take a lot longer than the time it takes to read this Psalm. But our pathway should not vary from the route displayed here and in many other Lament Psalms.
If the Psalmist can progress from despair to doxology, how much more can we, saved sinners who live after and under the cross, do so with even more confidence? The Psalmist drew strength from God’s “salvation.” For him, that meant numerous times when God had gotten an individual or the entire nation of Israel out of a temporal mess — deliverance from an enemy, provision of food or water, protection against disaster, and many other threats to earthly life. How much more shall we who see the word “salvation” and realize its eternal ramifications not offer up praise and thanksgiving? The gospel moves from the pain of a crucified Messiah to the victory of a risen Savior. Jazz songs that progress on a parallel path can help us experience the liberation the gospel provides. They can help us confess sin with greater remorse and celebrate forgiveness with greater joy.
One more lesson struck me during a recent listening of that Byron Stripling recording of “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue.” After all the musicians had finished their solo improvisations and the two trumpets completed their duet, the entire ensemble reunited for one final chorus. But it was yet again not a unified restatement of the melody. Rather, it was every musician — two trumpets, trombone, clarinet, piano, bass, and drums — improvising simultaneously. You would think this would sound like chaotic noise or worse, but it worked in an energetic and spellbinding way. Even though each individual instrumentalist was making up what he played on the spot, it all blended harmoniously because they all fit their spontaneous compositions under the chord progression of the song (unlike the “free jazz” I mentioned above). At any given moment, if you could somehow freezeframe the performance, it would sound as one rich, complex chord, a diverse chorus of finely blended voices.
Jazz is an ensemble genre. To be sure, some masters like guitarist Joe Pass or pianist Keith Jarrett could mesmerize audiences all by themselves on a stage. But even these geniuses also performed (more often, I think) in trios or quartets. In fact, when ensemble players feed off each other’s ideas or echo back something one player has just improvised or intensify the mood through increased volume or complexity, that’s when jazz starts to differentiate itself from other genres. These are the moments when jazz fans can’t help but applaud long before the end of the performance.
How very much like the individual parts of the body of Christ, exercising their gifts simultaneously under the “chord progression” of glorifying God! Serving and worshiping together, side by side, gifted individuals exercise their distinct gifts to build up the body, advance God’s kingdom, and work together for the spread of the gospel. When this happens, a unified concert of praise exalts the distributor and blesser of the gifts.
Jazz can shed light onto the realities of spiritual growth. It can provide patterns and examples for us to follow. It can help us feel more deeply the “blues” of our world and our sinful souls. It can loosen our tongues and hearts to sing songs of joy. And it can also heighten our anticipation of that great finale “when the saints go marching in.”
[i] You can enjoy this recording at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=hPxOMkKfjDo
[v] Matthew Harmon, Philippians: A Mentor Commentary, (Christian Focus Publications, 2015, 369).
[vi] William Edgar, A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel, (IVP Academic, 2022, 2).