Friday, September 16, 2005

Kind of Blue (part 4)

Pre-Kind Of Blue, that is 1959, Conformity was a way of seeking acceptance in America. Black musicians needed to make clear the fierce intelligence that was necessary to play [jazz]. The greater society thought of jazz as merely an offshoot of the so-called natural sense of rhythm of African-Americans and believed that it lacked the sophistication of classical music." Conformity was seen as the key to success in America for many African-Americans in general and jazz musicians in particular. Because of this comparison to classical music, "Harmonic complexity became a hallmark of modern jazz." "The rhythms and...melodies of jazz can be traced to Africa. But the use of chords comes out of the European harmonic system." " the late 1930's and early 1940's, there was a restlessness in jazz that would begin gradually and grow to enormous proportions by the time it reached its culmination in the 1950's and 1960's. And with black soldiers fighting a war against racism and fascism in Europe, the idea of returning to a home country in which they were themselves oppressed fanned new winds of change." "Many began to question whether European tradition was the only yardstick they had with which to measure their own music...Many jazzmen began to wonder whether trying to achieve the harmonic complexity of classical music was a desired goal after all." Kind of Blue was a break from the status quo, a protest…an emergence. For theology to become Jazz Theology there must be a moment of protest and resistance (and eventually convergence). Walter Brueggemann writes, "the task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us." (The Prophetic Imagination, p3) "The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act." (Brueggeman, p1) What about you? Have you ever conformed to a standard of "whiteness?" What is your "Race?" What ever your answer, in this country it assumes a standard of "whiteness." Why do we conform? How does it affect your theology? Do you even know that it is??? We must emerge...more than that, we must converge. (All quotes above are from Eric Nisenson's fine book, "The Making of Kind of Blue")


Blogger Pete Gall said...

Thank you for taking the time to do this, JazzTheo.

I think the word conformity is useful, but I think it's important to remember that the model to which people are urged to conform is not a conspiratory, intentional thing so much as the "here's what's worked before" assumptions of people classically conditioned to navigate their worlds in certain ways.

Hmm..."classic" conditioning. "Jazz" conditioning would be a different Skinner box altogether, wouldn't it?

I spend a good amount of time interacting with high school, college, and mid-20s people, and one thing that continually stuns me is how much they misunderstand their parents. Or at least how much I did, and now I assume they're just as wrong about what their parents say as I was. When I shifted from being a Business major to English, I assumed my father would be disappointed because obviously (I thought) an English major could never make as much money and my dad's "return on investment" would be spoiled. I told him this my senior year - after two years of this assumption. We were in the French Quarter in New Orleans, drinking beer, eating oysters, and listening to jazz. He got very angry with me - "I never said anything like that. That's crap. All we've ever wanted was for you to be happy."

And then he gave me about the most liberating, wonderful advice I can imagine: "You need to learn to live as though Mom and I are dead. You can't worry about our response - if we don't like what you do, that's our problem, not yours."

My point is this. When we conform, or when we adopt the assumptions of others around us, we tend to think someone else, or some structure, will be paying attention and will care. I don't think this is the case, and all of the time we spend waiting to hear the echo of our petty rebellions is wasted. And even when we do find people or forces who will resist our endeavors, they're still a silly thing to focus upon because our definition will never come from our enemy, but from our affirmations.

I think Brueggemann taske to "evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us" happens to be correct because our efforts at following Christ happen to be alternative to the dominant culture, but our efforts are not defined by being different. Our efforts are defined by our affirmations - the things we actively choose.

This is - in small part - what the emergent church is missing. Rebellion is easy - laying down the new orthodoxy is hard. Anyone can throw stones, but it takes a real effort to build a castle.

As to moments of choosing "whiteness," this is an area where a jazz approach can help us all. It's really hard to know who you are and where you stand - where your edges are and where a larger set of cultural assumptions begin - when you're surrounded by the dominant culture of your upbringing. And that culture will always try to use coercion to maintain its power - it will say some are not remaining Black in the right way, or in White circles it comes out more as a patronizing "it's just a phase" sort of statement (maybe because in White culture there is such a huge wad of reward on the nightstand that White culture feels pretty confident in its ability to make whores of whomever it chooses).

As a White person (I'm going to drop the capital letters here pretty soon because I'm getting annoyed at the PC-ness of it all), I KNOW that I'm going to end up stuck in a conformity I can't quite figure out because I've grown up in the dysfunction. I NEED someone who can help me see the dysfunction. I NEED people who play to the same musical standards, but who come with a different instrument (the larger instrument thing is just a myth - I know you well enough to know you were going there) to help free me. AND, so long as I remain trapped within the conformity I can't quite figure out and can't quite escape without your help, I remain guilty of the sins of my culture and my part (blind to it though I may be) in it.

So, please, brotherman, preach on.


12:42 PM  
Blogger olympiada said...

What about you? Have you ever conformed to a standard of "whiteness?" What is your "Race?" What ever your answer, in this country it assumes a standard of "whiteness." Why do we conform? How does it affect your theology? Do you even know that it is?

Having a poor Italian-American mother, I never had the option of conforming to standard of "whiteness", thank God. My "Race"? Human. Christian.
I have never conformed and have paid hell for it.
My theology? LOL. My theology is freedom theology baby.

12:56 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

this whole conversation shed new light on, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world..."

1:00 PM  
Blogger olympiada said...

Well I will have to look up that scripture then. Perhaps do an exegesis on the word conformity in the scriptures. I am part of a biblical studies group now.

9:11 AM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

Go for it Olympiada.

Exegesis is so important. But one caution.

Exegesis can only tell you what the text says...Jazz Theology helps helps you know what it means.

10:51 AM  
Blogger olympiada said...

All right then my dear friend Theo, then this is my discussion group for theology, Jazz Theology, I love it!

I did look up conform in the bible and it did refer me to Romans. I did take a bible quiz which I identified me as the book of Romans. I do have a study guide from Shepherd's Notes.

I have to make sure it is not American Protestant Fundamentalist Right Wing Evangelical Born Again theology. Any idea how to do that?

7:06 PM  

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