Jazz lessons

Bringing a spiritual perspective to daily life

I've been listening to two great jazz pieces lately. Just like any work of genius, these compositions keep giving me new insights each time I hear them.

One is "Acknowledgement" by the great tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, who recorded it for his 1964 album "A Love Supreme." The other is "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," by the equally gifted bassist Charles Mingus. Both compositions have taught me something about angels and our response to them.

Coltrane referred to "A Love Supreme" as his gift to God, and said in the liner notes, "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am - my faith, my knowledge, my being."

"Acknowledgement" begins with a four-note motive in the bass, which, through repetition and variation, becomes the foundation. After some fantastic improvisations, Coltrane puts his horn down about six minutes into the piece and begins to sing, "A Love Supreme." It's clear to me that he's talking about God's supreme love for all His creation, which includes Coltrane and the rest of us.

The improvisations fall into place as exuberant rejoicing - all the band members, which to me come to symbolize all humanity, rejoice as mutually harmonious - unrestrained yet coordinated - objects of God's love. The piece is teeming with joyful thoughts. It ends quietly, with the bass working the four-note motive, and now we know what it means: a repetition of the angelic message that God's love is ever with us.

Mingus's piece also has come to have deep spiritual significance to me. Here we have, as in normal jazz practice, the introduction of the basic melodic material, followed by several solo improvisations, then a section with the tenor saxophone unaccompanied except by clapping and verbal encouragement from the band members. Then the full band returns, in another unrestrained improvisation, before the theme is restated and the piece closes.

Given the title, we can assume we are hearing individual testimonies to God's goodness, which elicit cries of support from all who hear them. Spontaneous jumping-up-and-down gratitude to God is a natural response to the fullness of His thoughts - His angels.

Like the Coltrane work, it's not a subdued piece, but one telling us that angel messages of gratitude can come in droves, armies of individual joys reinforcing one another. They don't exist alone, in a kind of static solitary splendor, but happily jostle one another in a universe of rejoicing. At first the works may sound chaotic, but familiarity gives an assurance of structure, an order where a multiplicity of ideas exist simultaneously yet don't tear the piece apart.

Mary Baker Eddy, founder of this newspaper, described angels as "God's thoughts passing to man; spiritual intuitions, pure and perfect; the inspiration of goodness, purity, and immortality, counteracting all evil, sensuality, and mortality" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," page 581).

The two jazz pieces teach me that God's thoughts don't pass by me solemnly and occasionally, one by one. Don't they surround me every moment in exuberance, bringing armies of healing ideas? Jesus, at a time of immense personal peril in the garden of Gethsemane, told one of his disciples, "Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matt. 26:53).

Aided by a Bible dictionary and my calculator, I did the math. This comes to more than 72,000 angels. What a jazz improvisation 72,000 of God's messages would make! It gives me a huge amount of joy to realize that at every moment we all have more than 72,000 angel thoughts surrounding us.

Accepting this truth of God's care gives us comfort and strength. It can help us resist fears of contagion, temptations to be unfaithful to our spouse, the desire to take a quick peek at porno sites on the Internet, to make a fast unethical buck, or to be swept away by flare-ups of anger and resentment in our interpersonal relations.

We're not in this alone, and our gratitude leaps to respond to the legions of angels that are there to help us. Being good and doing good is not a matter of willpower struggling against the flesh or poverty or disease. Our true wellness, one that is not fragile, can lie in accepting and rejoicing in this jazzlike teeming atmosphere of angels.

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