Jazz speaks for life

In 1964, American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., an avid jazz fan, penned a foreword on the importance of jazz for the inaugural bulletin of the Berlin Jazz Festival. It is King’s only known commentary on jazz and embodies the powerful rhetoric for which he is historically known. King says:

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.

[Jazz] is triumph music.

Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.

And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggles of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of the modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.

In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.[1]

For me, also an avid jazz fan, although I can dig the big band swing of Count Basie, the West Coast jazz of Gerry Mulligan, and the blues of B.B. King, no other style embodies the full breadth of life’s ebbs and flows more than progressive jazz.

The “Kenton Sound”

No other musician exemplifies progressive jazz better than the late Stanley Newcomb Kenton (1911-1979). New York Times jazz critic John S. Wilson wrote of Kenton following his death:

Mr. Kenton was the last major jazz band leader to emerge from the Big Band Era of 1935-1945. … [His] was also the most controversial of all the big jazz bands.

Arthur Fiedler, the late conductor of the Boston Pops, called Mr. Kenton the most important link between jazz and the classics. But Albert J. McCarthy, an English critic, declared that Mr. Kenton’s music screamed “because it can make its point no other way.”[2]

Kenton’s music was both formal and eclectic, pushed stylistic boundaries to their limits, giving a vibe leading to something completely out of this world. It was the “art music” of the jazz genre, making jazz as a whole more than an emotional projection from an individual musician.[3]

The “Kenton Sound” is emotionally riveting. No matter the record or how many times I hear it, Kenton’s music still captivates me as if I were hearing it for the first time. Elements of his repertoire were old and traditional, yet new and unique. What fuels my Kenton fascination is how one section would play the melody, another a counter-melody on top of the original, rhythmically and harmonically complementing each other, yet sounding as full and lyrical when played by themselves. “Intermission Riff,” written by trumpeter Ray Wetzel, a Kenton sideman from the 1940s, is a perfect example of this unique layering style. Simply amazing!

Though Kenton’s musical innovations enjoy better favor among current jazz enthusiasts, they did not escape controversy when first introduced. The jazz establishment decried Kenton’s music as undanceable, screechy, and devoid of any swinging ability. Dizzy Gillespie was emphatic when his music was once compared to Kenton’s: “There ain’t nothing about my music that’s cold, cold like his.”[4] Despite all the controversy and criticism he faced, Kenton found success, his career spanning four decades and his signature sound leaving an indelible mark on the jazz genre.

Jesus in the jazz

This Eastertide, I was drawn to see in Kenton’s career something of a Gospel parable. Much like Kenton’s music, Jesus was seen by many as unacceptable and too much against the grain. Yet, also like Kenton, Jesus found success, though of a different nature. Jesus’ success came in that he was the only begotten Son of God. And for Jesus, as God’s only begotten Son, his death on the cross and triumphant resurrection to life, forever defeating death, which we celebrate this Easter season, have left an indelible mark upon the hearts of many throughout all spans of time.

“He lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today!”[5] “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12).

In this, through the Easter miracle, Jesus brings about a unique artistry. He brings together “the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, [promoting] the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16). Despite how dissonant we all may be, Jesus masterfully composes us together in a way that takes us all one step further, helping us sound better together in a way that nobody else ever could. In being brought together from our dissonance, Jesus brings about a most marvelous harmony. To be harmoniously joined to and grounded in Jesus is to be incorporated into the Easter miracle and forever changed. Jesus’ triumph becomes our triumph.

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I cannot help or resist the attraction I feel toward Jesus. I see in Jesus the joy of life, the light of all humanity, the light that darkness can never overcome (John 1:4-5). Through Jesus, I see new hope and triumph. Only in Jesus do I find my courage strengthened and spirit lifted.

I feel this way because, much like the “Kenton sound,” what Jesus says grabs your attention. His message is old, yet new. Everything Jesus says and does is completely harmonious, yet simply to feel his presence can be enough in itself. Like a good Kenton record, the Good News of Jesus Christ captivates me every time I hear it. The Good News never ceases being good news.

Easter changed everything. Like Stan Kenton coming in, bringing a radical change to modern American jazz, the resurrection of Jesus Christ radically changed history, this world, our lives, and all of eternity. Why? Because of God’s love for us. “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

To paraphrase Dr. King’s words: Everybody has the blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.

The solution to it all? Jesus. He is the stepping stone toward all of these.

Footnotes

[1]Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On the Importance of Jazz,” 91.9 Jazz WCLK. Accessed May 1, 2017.

[2] John S. Wilson, “Stan Kenton, Band Leader, Dies; Was Center of Jazz Controversies,” The New York Times (Aug. 27, 1979).

[3] Paul Lopes.,The Rise of a Jazz Art World (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 212.

[4] Dizzy Gillespie with Al Fraser, To Be or Not … to Bop (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), p. 337.

[5] “I Serve a Risen Savior” (1933), words by A.H. Ackley (1887-1960).

About The Author

The Rev. Brandt Montgomery currently serves as the chaplain of Ascension Episcopal School in Lafayette, Louisiana in the Diocese of Western Louisiana. Prior to this appointment, from 2012-2014, he served as the curate at Canterbury Episcopal Chapel and Student Center at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, his first appointment following his ordination by the Bishop of Alabama.

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