Sunday, September 18, 2005

Kind of Blue (part 5--in conclusion)

"The parallels between the lives of African-Americans battling for their freedom as citizens and that of jazz musicians for their freedom from European harmony are too close to be mere happenstance." Jazz icon, Miles Davis, used to play with his back to the audience. To whites it was offensive. To blacks it was empowering. If a mere negro musician would dare turn his backs on whites in a racist society, then what else was possible? Same drinking fountains, no more lynchings, same schools...voting? "Harmonic complexity [had become] a hallmark of modern jazz." And "the use of harmonic structure had special, extramusical significance in jazz: it was the aspect of the music that was most deeply rooted in Europe...the use of chords comes out of the European harmonic system. And jazzmen were very aware of this." Kind of Blue was a breaking away from European musical standards. After seeing a dance troup from Africa and listening with amazement to the beats of the drummers, Miles emerged. He broke from European chord progressions as the best way to play jazz and went with a modal approach, based upon scales. And in a a 2 day recoding session with some of jazz's greats, Kind Of Blue was recorded. And jazz has never been the same. "it was voted one of the ten bet albums of all time--in any genre--and it is the only jazz album ever to reach double-platinum status....it is also a watershed in the history of jazz, a signpost pointed to the tumultuous changes that would dominate this music and society itself in the decade ahead." There was another reason why he played with his back to his primarily white audiences. In his autobiography he says that by turning and facing the band, he could listen better, read their cues and ultimately produce a better musical experience for the audience. Miles converged. How amazing is that! Inspite of his disdain for those who wouldn't even use the same restroom with him, he also sought to give them a gift. Jazz and the African-American experience are not just about emergence but also convergence. What would a jazz approach to theology look like? What about the current emergent church conversation...is emerging enough? (Quotations above are from Eric Nisenson's fine book, "The Making of Kind of Blue)

18 Comments:

Blogger Rod said...

My brother this is some powerful prophetic insight here. I come across many a decent writer in the blogosphere, but this is eloquent, divine revelation and my spirit is filled with joy at the prospects that you suggest.

You're familiar with my good friend Anthony "Postmodern Negro" Smith and he often talks about jazz as a metaphor for the African-American Christian experience as well. I'm exploring these same questions in the context of hip-hop myself.

But in answer to your question "What would a jazz approach to theology look like? What about the current emergent church conversation...is emerging enough?" here is my response:

A jazz theology must as you infer, necessarily deviate from normative Western European teachings to some degree in both style and substance. White theology which professes to be sophistocated and orderly is often considered too dispassionate for the tastes of African descendents. In order to experience God, many of us need to worship and express ourselves through explicit emotion (e.g. public weeping)and bodily action (i.e. dance). Whereas white Christian thought and practice tends to be preoccupied with individual piety and personal salvation, the best of black theology and preaching appeals to the communal dimension of salvation and is grounded in a history of struggle against. injustice.

The emerging church conversation provides spaces which were previously non-existent for thoughtful brothers and sisers of diverse backgrounds to come together in meaningful dialogue about Christ and His Kingdom. Yet my perspective on the Emerging Church and diversity is akin to a couple who sincerely desired to invite a wide variety of family, friends, and associates. For whatever reason, however, the invitations only managed to go out to the couples' closest family members and friends. Word got out to the other acquaintances that they were welcome even though they didn't receive a formal invite. When these other people arrived at the wedding and reception they were well received by the couple, but there were some in the wedding party who were indifferent and less receptive.

There is much talk about diversity in emerging circles, but still very little deliberate effort is being made to expand the conversation. The reason people like Anthony to a large extent and myself to a lesser extent are in the conversation, is because we have imposed ourselves and decided to either validate the proclaimed desire for diversity or call the bluff if you will. There is much potential for jazz theology in the e.c. and arguably some is taking place even now, yet it is my belief that those best equipped to practice this form of Christian thought and practice are those who have inherited the experience which makes jazz theology possible. As African-Americans we should take responsibility for racial reconciliation as we always have (it is our prophetic burden) while living in our own parallel reality to make sure our people have the food and nourishment they need for their unique journey. Sorry for being so long-winded.

4:54 PM  
Blogger Pete Gall said...

Rod:

What a beautiful post. Amazingly gracious - especially given the tensions present on these points. Thank you for your choices in that regard, and for what you had to say.

I spent an hour at Borders this evening, wandering around listening to different CDs, asking myself what gets at the ethos of whiteness in a way that echoes jazz in blackness.

I want to learn more about what I bring to the jam, you see, and I think that's a hard thing for a white person to know. I work in advertising, and in ads, white is generic. If you cast a person of color in an ad, the product being advertised is instantly seen as targeting a given minority. While there is no question that being outside of the generic leaves a person feeling like an outsider, there is a reciprocal truth where a person inside the generic feels...generic.

I think that's part of why the differences you express in worship exist...what does the person modeled after corporate impressions and general audience characters and the like DO exactly when encountering God? I don't think white people know what it means to be white, because being white doesn't really mean anything.

Other, perhaps, than arrayed before them are all sorts of injustices offered up like a buffet to choose from. There was nothing all THAT remarkable about Hitler's abilities...he mostly seemed willing to go there, and he had no restraints from doing so. The social structure was set up so he could.

At least that's what I was thinking about as I was listening to the rage of Marilyn Manson...a rage that comes from being born to privilege and optional injustices with no comforts from power boundaries. I've seen movies about children of huge empires who live with this huge pressure about living/growing into the blessings handed them at birth...they know something isn't right, and it's a warping thing to deal with that un-rightness.

I was thinking about the anxiety of such unfair legacy privilege - the "you better make this count, boy" tensions present at some level within white people - as I listened to Miles Davis contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich's classical compostions on war.

It's important for me to figure out what it means for me to be white if I'm going to be able to converge with you - if I'm going to be able to bring anything of merit to the concert. My contention is that the emergent church does not have an answer for this identity piece (though there are counterfeits derived from statements about what those people think they are NOT). Further, I think the clumsiness you have felt with the invitations to the emergent reception (you were perhaps even too generous with that description) comes exactly from not knowing or claiming a specific identity...my hunch is that the missing passion about your arrival at the party stands out to you vs. the way you and JazzTheo can connect in a shared experience, but you may be quite sad to learn that white people don't ever connect as passionately as you two can just by knowing something about your melanin content and the nation in which you dwell.

I don't think I can feel passionate welcome for you, let alone make you feel truly invited to whatever I'm doing, until I know something more about who I am and what I'm about. And there is something inherent in dominance that corrupts that sense of self. And this only gets worse the more white culture becomes increasingly self-conscious and self-deprecating en lieu fo a meaningful repentance and course correction.

I think a jazz theology - at least one that ends up moving towards convergence - has some beginnings in you helping me see what it is that makes you want to be at the reception: I honestly don't believe white culture knows the value of what it's able to host, and I don't believe it values what it has because it doesn't know why it should.

Imagine that, having to tell a white culture why as a representative of a black culture - with every form of injustice and charge to bring - you would value convergence. Backlash and anger and potential rejection and potential invisibility abound. Such, I agree, may be the prophetic burden you bear. My prayer is that you are able to help me see an answer though, my brother, because I feel a pain and a desperation within me, and I see the devilish nature of the voice that's been trained within me. I think I'm stuck without you.

Pete

7:31 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

Pete,

What if your not White? Go back to the post on conformity...

African-American's must reject White-European structures and so must Whites. That's why jazz is for you as well. Jazz is a uniquely American art form. An alternative American theology.

You are only white because I had, a group of people had to be black, categorized...it is a result of modernity. African-American's had their cultures taken away...you had to hand them over in order to conform.

In order to converge you must first emerge.

8:23 PM  
Blogger Pete Gall said...

I need help understanding that, JazzTheo. At first blush, my rejection of white european structures feels as wrong as you rejecting african-american structures. I am a white european - and while I want to transcend those structures, it's transcendence I'm after, not rejection. I remain culpable for my part in the behaviors of my people, and I remain cast in the place of priviledge.

I've done my stint living as a rejector of my culture and people. Not only was it lonely, it was phony (because I never looked at home in that kufi, and the NoI store never had a place for me like it did for you)...and it slammed the door on speaking to the people who would be able to understand me...and it slammed the door on understanding myself. I thought of myself - and felt like I could understand the man on the news - when I heard about the white kid from California joining the taliban.

Same deal with feeling like I have three options with church: throw stones, build fresh, or hurl myself into remodeling. There is much of value left, or at least there is the prospect of an awareness of the flaws and the hope of living in humble awareness of those flaws, that rejection feels like an inefficient lateral move.

Help me hear what I'm not getting.

8:50 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

Rod,
Your affirmations touch my soul!

I have been skimming through Anthony's blog as well and am appreciating his and your mind. I look forward to continued dialogue around jazz and hip-hop. There is a contribution to be made from both paradigms to the larger conversation...

I am wondering if the emergent church movement is willing to let go of modernity when it comes to race and it's implcations. It seems to me that the EC movement is still rather entrenched in conforming to "whiteness" even as it goes global.

I admire you for your inserting yoru self into the conversation as you have described. I was once asked to be one of 5 keynote speakers at an EC conference only to discover that the only reason I was invited was as an afterthought...to get a black face on stage in front of the white audience.

You have many more thoughts here that I want to chew on a bit...never apologize for being long winded when your content is this worthwhile.

to be continued...

8:54 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

What are you Pete? Everyone has a nationality and an ethnicity.

Nationality, "I pledge allegiance..."

Ethnicity, "my people are..."

Your people didn't wear kufi's...who were they, what is there contribution?

You had to give up these answers to become white.

9:35 PM  
Anonymous lightskinned negro said...

Your Cool Daddy,

What do you think of Jack Teagarden?

-lightskinned negro

10:06 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

Pete,

You might have to rethink that whole "hyphen-less" thing.

Life on the hyphen is not comfortable nor tensionless but it is ripe for Theomoments and the playground of jazz.

lightskinned,
I'll deal with you later!

5:58 AM  
Blogger Rod said...

Pete,

First of all let me say that regardless of how you identify yourself or even understand that identity, you have soul my brother. You see soul in an African and African-American context isn't just about having a sense of rhythm or a passionate presentation, it's about a deep connection to the pain and pleasure of life and a desire to connect with the sorrow and joy of others. It's about me feeling what you're going through and you feeling what I'm going through (the Blues ethos). That is the testimony and the power of the black experience. Foreign cultural and spiritual practices are threatening that rich history, but by going back we can move forward ("Sankofa").

Whiteness and blackness are social constructs as you realize. These abstract colors have been given life by concrete realities of racism in the forms of slavery, segregation, and continued discrimination. It's sad that when European descended brothers and sisters such as yourself become victims of your own culture's desire to whitewash or baptize everyone else in whitness. Your identity becomes so normative to the point that it is internalized as generic. This is why so many young whites are fascinated with hip-hop, no matter how pathological much of it is. I would argue that some of their fascination is driven just as much by their unconscious racism as it is there attempt to escape their own whiteness, however (White boys want to be black, so they must act like pimps, because being black is to be a pimp).

What is your particular ethnic history? Is it Irish, English, German or what? What is the unique struggle of your people, because every people has one. Even the Brits were colonized by the Romans at some point. When you felt like a minority because you tried to step into foreign territory did you think about how that is the everyday existence for people like me and Theo? Embrace your pain in order to emerge and connect with ours and then together let us converge in He who makes true fellowship possible, Jesus Christ. You've got soul, the only question is, will you use it?

8:23 AM  
Blogger Pete Gall said...

Thank you, Rod and JazzTheo, for your time and effort with me.

An example of generic and of clumsiness about being White/white: I feel badly that I can trace my family tree 11 generations on the paternal side, and about the same on the maternal.

I'm the third generation of Galls born in the US. My paternal great-grandfather moved here to settle land in North Dakota (if you worked it for a certain number of years, it became yours). My grandfather's parents were born in the Volga River region of Russia, where they had been strangers in a second-class situation, farmers like I've read about in Tolstoy. They were the third generation born there - their parents had moved from Germany when Russia offered free land in exchange for settling it...but as the land became settled, the second-class tensions grew (the land had originally been offered by Czar Catherine in the 1500s because the Mogols were killing too many Russians, so they invited foreigners to come fight for the land). My grandfather was born in a sod hut dug into the earth near a tiny town called Wishek, which is where my father was born. The Germans (my family remained distinctly German) saw the Russians as lazy - they didn't take care of their stuff well, and the Norwegians (my mother's people) were just weird.

The struggle with which I identify is the settler story. I love what I see happening with the Latino impact on America right now because it speaks to the soul I've been taught to value.

There's another aspect to struggle that I feel. While my family was in Russia, they maintained a distinct German culture, and they kept them strong as the oppression grew. It also served them well as they gathered in North Dakota, and as they went from dirt houses to framed. My father spent his early years surrounded by extended family in a town of people who were in no way self-conscious about their German-ness.

What I keep thinking about is how financial/social ascent has led to a shift from group affiliation to public affiliation. By that I mean I see a migration away from being one brother among many - towards a sense of paternal obligation. It's not a brother's keeper thing - it's a parental thing.

There's a lyric from Arrested Development: "does shoutin' bring about change? I doubt it. All shoutin' does is make you lose your voice."

In my family, whoever got mad first lost. Anger was a display of lost control, of weakness, and therein was found defeat. And complaints were seen as weakness too - I was taught to interact with errors or flaws with "okay, now I know that about you." It was "fool me once, shame on you - fool me twice, shame on me."

Man, you start with that and then add in requests for justice from people who have been wronged (where the "right" thing to do is to make note of it and go around the enemy), and it's no surprise that what emerges is a distance and a patronization, and an indolent "I'm not doing anything to stop you" offered up from a taunting sort of posture.

I'm spinning way off track. I think the real leap - the hard part - is choosing to learn jazz and to develop a rapport with people my "home" people don't value, without rejecting my home people because that's still very much a part of who I am. There must be some reciprocal pressures on you for your engagement of the emergent discourse, isn't there?

You're invited to draw from what I've shared to help me see more. Again - thank you for your time and effort.

9:09 AM  
Anonymous lightskinned negro said...

Your Cool Daddy,

Jack Teagarden famously sang "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues."

Did he?

-lightskinned

10:20 AM  
Blogger Pete Gall said...

Jack Teagarden singing "I gotta right to sing the blues."

http://www.redhotjazz.com/teao.html

11:44 AM  
Anonymous lightskinned negro said...

Your Cool Daddy,

Nice link from North Dakota.

It seems to me that if Big T's "gotta right to sing the blues," then so does North Dakota.

But does he?

-lightskinned

3:55 PM  
Anonymous lightskinned negro said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:55 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

lightskinned...,

Convergence, jazz is all about convergence.

7:44 AM  
Blogger postmodernegro said...

Brother, brother. Your thoughts here ignite my soul. I don't know what to say except AMEN!

5:51 PM  
Blogger bardseyeview said...

I really enjoyed reading the post and comments. Thanks!

9:19 PM  
Blogger Andre Daley said...

I think you are dead on with this post. One of the problems I have had with the emergent conversation is that many of the folks involved in it seem happy to just emerge and feel put off when it is suggested that this is not enough. They have difficulty seeing that emergence to be healthy must move toward convergence especially around the issues of race and poverty.

Thanks for your insightful and inspiring thoughts.

4:53 PM  

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