It must have been 1955 or so when Dad brought home an LP record by James Moody, "Flute 'n the Blues." "Listen to this one," he said, when I took a break from practicing my clarinet for band class. It was spellbinding. Moody's work on tenor sax and flute was wonderful, and his vocalist, Eddie Jefferson, blew me away. Jazz didn't obliterate my love of classical music, but it opened a whole new world for me.
I played that LP every day along with Mozart. Over the years I have enthusiastically learned to appreciate the virtuosity and spiritual depth of such jazz greats as Moody - who is still playing today - Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane, and I'm grateful that a lot of the old LPs are being reissued as CDs.
For much of its history, jazz was associated primarily with African- American culture, and too often mainstream America - white, Protestant, and increasingly suburban - maintained a cultural apartheid even to the point of arbitrarily assuming a kind of moral superiority over black culture. So the idea of spiritual depth to jazz is only now being admitted. And, of course, people of all ethnic backgrounds play and appreciate jazz now. A jazz band is standard in most high schools.
February is designated Black History Month in the United States - a historical development from the earlier "Negro History Week" originally proposed in 1926 - and it's appropriate to celebrate and give gratitude for the tremendous dynamism of the contributions of African-Americans to American society and to the world. I like to celebrate the spiritual depth that jazz hints at in energy, improvisation, and harmony.
All these words can describe God and His action. As a matter of fact, Mary Baker Eddy, who founded this newspaper, uses these words in several significant passages in her major work, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures." "Let us feel the divine energy of Spirit," she wrote, "bringing us into newness of life and recognizing no mortal nor material power as able to destroy" (pg. 249).
Shouldn't our prayers be filled with divine energy, riffs of joy as the touch of the Christ makes us feel God's nearness more vividly? Improvisation also frees me from hidebound and stale thinking, making me receptive to a new thought about God and how He loves me. In a jazz ensemble, members improvise on a given theme (which may not always be apparent to the listener). I think that the theme of God's great love for man offers unlimited possibilities.
For a time, I worked on a crime analysis project for the St. Louis police department. At the beginning of every shift, I received a report of every crime that had been committed over the past 24 hours. It was not uplifting reading. At the same time, my project seemed to have run into a brick wall. I had found no solution, and I was beginning to be criticized by my fellow workers. The salary wasn't so great, either, and it seemed a pretty somber situation. Not at all jazzy.
I resolved to take one minute out of every 10 during the workday to pray about something. It took discipline - I just had to learn to pray right there in the middle of prisoner processing, or while in a meeting. I couldn't waste time getting settled or going for a drink at the water cooler first. But I got into the groove. It was an experience both energetic and improvisational.
I started from the basis of God as all-power and then found, in the next 60 seconds, that I could apply that concept to something facing me - I could really see how a colleague's hostility couldn't exist in God's all-inclusive love, for example. During an eight-hour shift, I would have spent 48 minutes in prayer. It turned out not to be a waste of time, and it became not only exhilarating but also productive.
Within only days I had a breakthrough - found the solution, implemented it, finished that contract in happy relationships with my co- workers, and went on to another job elsewhere. It was a fantastic experience.
I learned that energy, improvisation, and harmony are the inevitable results of getting my thinking God-centered instead of me-centered. When I listen to jazz - as I am right now, hearing James Moody's exuberant sax solos - I feel the same joy in God's presence.
He brought me up also
out of an horrible pit,
out of the miry clay,
and set my feet upon a rock,
and established my goings.
And he hath put a new song
in my mouth, even praise
unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall
trust in the Lord.
Psalms 40:2, 3