Jazz is the big brother of Revolution. Revolution follows it around – Miles Davis
Playing jazz is like being on fire: you can’t grasp the flames – you can only try to contain the panic, the notes spilling frantically everywhere from your fingers; and it also eventually kills you. There is something sacred in the art of jazz improvisation.
If you’re performing jazz right, with the right intentions, the right audience and the right inclinations, then the universe contracts, time expands, boundaries melt, identities become fluid. Chord progressions still have meaning in the strictest sense, but are no longer definitive and without the forceful authority that they wield in the classical paradigm. In jazz, in Christ, and in the absence of hierarchical force, sub-cultures hidden beneath the institutional artifice of meter and mode are allowed to emerge; new harmonics are discovered and the soloist overcomes the hierarchies of human functionality. In the deep waters of the fluid and prophetic will, where the holy spirit moves intently, jazz is theology, it is philosophy, it is critical theory, nothing is off-limits. When the spirit of the lord is upon me, my trumpet and all things are created good, even (arguably) inspired in the spirit. Jazz, or what is the essence of artful jazz form, is the existential function of the Psalmist, the dharma, the Dao. Also, most important to our purpose: it is a form of anarchy. From the top.
The teachings of Jesus contain kernels of radical truth with the power to destroy human institutions, human thoughts and even human self-perceptions. There is a way to read the Gospel where every teaching of Jesus is a self-contained deconstructive event, an anarchist mind-bomb, a Miles Davis free-form solo (“If I play one new thing in a show, it was worth it.”)
What is Jesus doing in the temple?
He’s singing a new song, playing something that’s not there, blowing a solo against the walls, watching the crowd with the crazed eyes of a jazz improviser. (Improvisation is, after all, a deeply-relational form.) Someone asks Jesus a question, throws him a minor curveball: Jesus babbles a melodic minor, a parable – don’t you know who is your neighbor? A Pharisee is angry now; Jesus blurts a diminished 9th, wails on the raised seventh: woe to you, Pharisee. Peter always wants to play the blues, but man, don’t you know, white people took the blues, so let them have it to themselves. Paul is like Coltrane to Miles Davis’ Jesus: “ Trane, you can’t play everything at once!” But Paul tries to get every note in edge-wise,
“I’m all things to all people…”
Following Paul, following Jesus, we don’t need doctrine – not foundational doctrine at least – in order to embody the Christ. Truth is to be found in the ensemble, relational and plural. It is to be found in the audience, in the melding of flesh, brass, reed and breath. Jesus drawing in the dirt, a living melody with an earthy unpolished tone.
It is not that the law is no longer adequate, but that the precepts of the law are so alien to the real and relational form of authentic human life, that they would sound like a baroque instrumental solo on top of a moody Thelonius Monk featurette. Both Paul and Jesus were well-educated enough that they didn’t need to always be reading the notes from a page. The appreciation of Christian Anarchism is that of the inherent chord progression of the universe – a long-form where there is room enough for improvisational genius to assert itself without being pushy. If we stop asserting the law for a minute, maybe we can “catch as catch can.”
Lastly, jazz is plural in truth-claims: no real jazz player can deny the connection, relationality, revolutionary potentiality or virtuosity of non-jazz figures, like Jerry Garcia or Andres Segovia, for instance. Wynton Marsalis and many others before him were classical as well as jazz musicians.
Real jazz is all about plural commitments, personality and performance and politics and lust and love and wonder and race relations and spiritual renewal. Sentimentality be damned: real jazz is not what you hear on a record, but what you do in your life-mission.
Revolution in the anarchist framework is improvisational. There is no formula that can free the human perception from its dependence on formulaic thinking. Overthrow can happen in a moment, or can linger too long. Formulaic thought tries and fails to account for the revolutionary principles. This is also what happens when “culturally white” people – those unfortunate people who have locked themselves into the mindset of imperialism – try to play jazz: what comes out is distasteful approximation. The truth of revolution is only understood experientially: you’ve got to pay your dues before you can play the blues. Experiential suffering purges us of the desire to lock our perceptions inside the imperial mindset. We must divest ourselves from imperial desires and give ourselves over to the art of authenticity: jazz and revolution come from within. The other commonality that we are missing here is the veteran-identity: many of the great anarchists and jazz originators experienced war as soldiers. Much could be said about this, perhaps at another time. Revolution will happen in this empire, we are assured, not because of the power of anarchist endeavors but because it is the natural and authentic way of engaging in life. We must continue to improvise our arts, despite the mindless roar of stupid crowds drunk on Facebook, television, sexual entitlement, videogames, high on drugs, rich from corruption and mean with violence. The art itself lives, the long (cosmically-long!) form continues, even if nobody seems to be listening.
Although, historically, philosophical anarchism precedes the jazz art form there is a comic (transcendental?) dimension to revolutionary jazz that predates classical political anarchism. I speak in the sense that the ontologically-real is itself a work of improvisation, given over to imperfection and reiteration; self-referential ideas and poor taste also appear in the theogenic solo. Musical jazz has perhaps gotten ahead of its intellectual counterparts; jazz begs for a theological counterpart in the pluralist tradition. Brother ecclesiology is especially late to the jazz party, the revolutionary Christian party, the New Jerusalem party. When we see the creation in terms of order and chaos, we often want to see in it our baroque exactitude, our classical imperialism, our colonial romanticism, our sentimental triumphalism. Only rarely do we see the ragtime truth of the relational principle at the heart of order (Buber’s “Thou”).
Only rarely do we see the repurposing beebop truth, the relational blues truth, the urgent necessity of the bulging-cheeked-bug-eyed trumpeter, the calm tenacity of the steady bassist, the sweaty pressure of the hardy saxophonist. There is also a Kerouac and a Cassidy in the crowd, rubbing their empty bellies, yelling, “blow!” We miss these things, and the cosmic form, when the analytic machine of abstraction starts processing away categorical-essentialist meanings. Just as there is no reduction (death) that can hold the cosmic Christ, there is no reduction (theology) that can hold the cosmic Word, no reduction (hierarchical authority) that can limit the cosmic form, no reduction (musical shortcut) that can simplify the cosmic chord changes. There is only one general rule to all these things, and that is revealed in Jesus, in relational theopoetics, in anarchist ecclesiology, in the love and nonviolence scale-system. It appears to us as magic, then, when Jesus rises from the dead, when scripture is fulfilled, when nonviolent revolution suddenly succeeds, when the melody clicks and the harmonic tension starts to make sense. Live rightly, relate faithfully, trust fully and play the long form. All these things will be added unto you. Go in peace.
— Evan Kyrie Knappenberger is a radical Iraq war veteran and jazz musician at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia.
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