Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.
—Elizabeth Barrett Browning
All around us are parables of God’s kingdom. Each of us has only to take a second, deeper look at the commonplace stuff of our own lives to discover pearl-like stories, fraught with significance, that are constantly being told.
Since a huge part of my personal world involves jazz music, I have often thought about the parallels between jazz and what it’s like to live as a disciple of Jesus. Or can be like. His church could learn some lessons from a good jazz combo.
That is the premise of the novel I’m writing. Yes, novel–a fantasy novel, to be precise, or at least a bit more descriptive of what it is that I’m attempting. Really, I’m not sure exactly what to call it other than an enterprise which, until five or six months ago, I had never envisioned for myself. Writing an extended piece of fiction always seemed too august an undertaking for one given to shorter forms. Till now, I have gravitated toward payoffs that can be delivered in a single sitting.
But having recently completed my eleventh chapter, I realize that my project has hit its halfway point and shows every indication of continuing to completion. So it’s probably time I began to offer some advance glimpses. Good marketing, I think. But I hope—this being my first such effort and straight from my heart—that you will find it to be good writing as well.
Written in the spirit of C. S. Lewis’s Great Divorce, Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, and Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, the book takes you inside the growing friendship between Josh, a struggling young saxophonist, and his mentor, an older musician known only by the nickname “T.” Their times together provide glimpses into both the world of jazz and the body of Christ. Josh finds his conversations with T honest, provocative, freeing, and life-giving, helping him shed the cultural trappings of religion as he finds his way toward the heart of his faith.
But the connection between the older and younger musician goes deeper than Josh can possibly imagine. As his abilities on the saxophone flourish under T’s coaching, and as the two men’s conversations about what it means to follow Jesus unfold, the supernatural nature of their friendship becomes increasingly apparent.
Who is T really? More than just a gifted jazz veteran–so much more that only Josh’s ongoing interactions with T can prepare him for the answer.
There you have it: my summary and teaser. And with that, I present to you in its entirety…
Every now and then a clear harmonic cry gave new suggestions of a tune that would someday be the only tune in the world and would raise men’s souls to joy.
—Jack Kerouac, On the Road
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
—Paul the Apostle
His nickname was “T.” Just that simple initial, but it’s what everyone called him—“Hey, T!”—and he liked it well enough. Of course he had a real name, which I’ll tell you later, just like he did me. What’s important to say now is that I had heard he played the saxophone beautifully, so when I learned he was performing at the Biermeister, naturally I wanted to go hear him.
That’s my instrument, the alto sax. I was studying jazz in college—not the most practical of life pursuits, perhaps, but I was following my heart, something I believed in then and still do today. And since listening to the music is a large part of a jazz musician’s education, I listened a lot. Bird, Coltrane, Brecker, Woods, Sanborn … my ears were on a high-protein diet of saxophone heroes as well as many of the other jazz greats. Miles. Chick. Freddy. McCoy. Et al. All in an extensive collection of CDs and MP3s which I consumed as voraciously as a sumo wrestler polishes off a bowl of chankonabe.
But nothing beats listening to live music. When you’ve got standout players, the energy and interaction of a live jazz combo are beyond inspiring. They are eye-opening, an education for a young musician who is learning how it’s done. And I wanted to learn all I could. Because I was zealous for this art form—this sometimes exuberant, sometimes introspective, sometimes melancholy, always spontaneous and intuitive, this a-lot-like-me art form—called jazz.
Yet even as I practiced my instrument devotedly and listened deeply, I also struggled with how my love of jazz seemed to conflict with another, even more powerful passion.
. . . . .
When I first became a Christian, my journey with Jesus had seemed simple enough. My heart was inclined toward him. As much as I knew of him, I loved him, and I wanted to live for him, do everything I could to please him. But with nothing overtly sinful about the life I was living, nothing much about it needed to change. Not that I was aware of, anyway. All I needed to do was talk with God and do my best to get to know him better, and otherwise just go about the business of being me. Just follow my heart. Hang out with my fellow jazz musicians, whom I liked and valued; keep making the music with them that we all loved; and let my faith in Jesus influence them through the organic medium of friendship. It all seemed quite uncomplicated and commonsense.
And that was good, because simple was how I wanted things to be. Jesus said that in order for a person to enter his kingdom, he or she would have to become like a child. I’m not sure how many nuances of meaning he packed into that statement, but this much I knew, that a child has no preconceptions, and that’s how I wanted to approach Jesus. No labels. No Catholic (as I had been raised), no Baptist, no Reformed, no Pentecostal, no -ic, -ist, -ed, -al, or what have you. Just a relationship with a friend, elder brother, Savior, and King whom I had come to love. I knew that I knew him, and he was wonderful, and that was enough. Or so I thought.
But by and by, wiser heads than mine began to set me straight, particularly in regard to my musical gift. Now that I was a Christian, naturally I would devote myself to playing “the Lord’s music.” No more of that secular stuff. Certainly no more playing in clubs—those were no fitting environment for a believer. “Come ye out from among them and be ye separate.” I needed to watch my step. Music was a high calling, a priesthood of praise not to be taken lightly.
One Sunday after church, a couple of other members and I were discussing what lay in store for our afternoon. What were my plans? Well, I said, I intended to get together with some friends and make some music.
Were these friends Christians? No, I said, just fellow musicians.
A frown crossed the woman’s face like a veil. She said nothing, but clearly my response troubled her. So I asked her what she was thinking.
“It just seems to me that you would want to keep your music pure,” she replied.
Wow. This was a woman whom everyone in our church respected for her close walk with the Lord, and in her estimation I was polluting my God-given gift.
How? By hanging out with “worldly” people? By playing worldly music?
Maybe both. Her words took the wind out of me.
Interactions like this affected me deeply, causing a rift in my soul between my nascent journey as a disciple and the music I had been so ardently pursuing for much of my life. There was no doubt in my mind that to call Jesus Lord meant that he had the right to determine what every aspect of my life should look like. But what did he want of me in an area that was so central to the way I was wired?
I loved jazz. I loved Jesus.
But were the two incompatible?
It was a question that troubled me even as I continued to absorb the music of the jazz greats, most of whom were not gleaming icons of Christendom, while also attending church, reading my Bible, and spending time alone conversing with God.
What did God want from me and this musical gift he had given me?
. . . . .
The Biermeister is about what you’d expect to find in many clubs in West Michigan. It’s neither the dive of blues legend nor the zenith of elegance, just a comfortable environment where you’d feel equally good bringing a date or your family. The lighting is neither so dim you feel claustrophobic nor so bright that it kills a romantic mood. The booths are comfortably cushioned with heather-blue padding; the tables are wooden, cloth-covered, and functional; and the bar, situated in the middle of the room like a cherrywood island, is very much just another bar. You’ve seen variations of this theme plenty of times; paint your own picture in your mind and it’ll probably be at least seventy-five percent accurate.
The only distinguishing feature is the presence of a stage at the far end of the room. It has been there a long time. The Biermeister was designed with live music in mind, particularly jazz, and though the ownership has changed who knows how many times since the club was built in the 1950s, the music has endured, securing the Biermeister’s reputation as the place to go for a beerful and an earful. The acoustics are flexible. You can easily enjoy conversation with your date over a meal of Italian and a bottle of wine without being drowned out by the band; but if you want to just sit and listen over a mug of Mad Hatter IPA, then grab yourself a table closer to the stage and you can do that too.
On the Friday night in late May when it all began, the band was just getting started on “Confirmation” as I walked through the black double doors. Now there’s a promising welcome, I thought as I slid into a booth. “Confirmation” is a tune written by alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, aka Bird, foremost gladiator of the 1940s bebop movement in jazz. Characterized by complex harmonies and fast to lightning tempos, bop took everything that had gone before it, reformed it into something brilliantly brand-new, and became both the foundation and the watershed for all that followed.
“Confirmation” is archetypal bebop. It is not for the tenderfoot. But then, these cats were no novices.
In a good jazz combo, each musician possesses several indispensable traits: Superb technical skill on his instrument. An extensive knowledge of the jazz repertoire and vocabulary. Masterful ability as an improviser. A solid grasp of his role in the collective sound. And the ability to listen and respond intuitively to the other musicians.
The result is—well it’s many things, as I think you’ll discover. What counts is the effect. A group of seasoned players can blow you away with their rendering of an up-tempo tune like “Donna Lee,” then in the next minute captivate you with a ballad so exquisitely played it leaves you feeling awestruck and slightly stunned, and then invigorate you with some buoyant Latin number that sets your insides to dancing even if your feet don’t know the moves.
And the miracle of it is, it’s all spontaneous, all happening on the spot. You’ll never hear the same musicians perform the same tune exactly the same way twice.
Now, take everything I’ve just told you and apply it to this band. These were the kind of veteran musicians whom young players like I was admire and aspire to be like. Dave, the bassist, reminded me of Eddie Gomez, whose round, resonant tone I have always loved. The pianist, Grace, was one of those eclectic and immensely inventive players whom I could gladly listen to all night long, all by herself. And Randy—well, the man was remarkable, a complete musician and a legend in West Michigan for his prowess on the drums.
But it was T whom I had come to listen to, and it was T who was presently rendering me slack-jawed with his solo. Let me reemphasize that “Confirmation” is no easy tune to improvise on. But T wasn’t just making the changes—he was flitting over and through them like a hummingbird, dipping and soaring and sideslipping with a lyricism that seemed impossible at that breakneck tempo, toying with the rhythms without ever losing the beat.
The waitress came, and as I ordered a Coke and a Reuben sandwich, the band launched into its next number. This one was a bluesy standard called “Willow, Weep for Me,” and once again I found myself swept away by the alto sax solo. This man had clearly listened to a lot of Phil Woods—some of the licks, and especially that fat tone so full of butter and sunshine, pointed directly to Woods. But this guy was no clone; he had gone through Woods and many other players without fixating on any of them and had incorporated bits and pieces of them in a style that was uniquely his own.
And there was something else besides, some ineffable quality that transcended stylistic influences, virtuosity, and all the other elements of jazz. I became increasingly aware of it as the tunes rolled by and the night progressed. It spoke to something deep within me. This sounds odd, I know, but there were times when the man’s horn seemed to me like a voice in my soul—a voice I knew, a loving voice that made me want to sometimes weep and sometimes laugh and which I found strangely reassuring. I would get this impression often in the weeks to come, but tonight was the first time.
I had to meet this guy. I wanted to tell him how much I loved his playing, how much it touched and inspired me. I wanted to tell him about my own aspirations and struggles to master the instrument we both loved, the alto sax. And I wanted to ask him questions, many questions, so many I didn’t even know what most of them were.
Nor had I an inkling how the answers would shape me as a musician and a man of God.