How Jazz Can Shape Apologetics

by Douglas Groothuis

Jazz is a national treasure, but is no longer a common pastime. First rock and then hip hop eclipsed its popularity long ago. Historian Gerald Early claims that three things uniquely define America: the Constitution, baseball, and jazz. Yet the sale of jazz records accounts for only a small fraction the music market. The last time I checked, it was 4%. Many of my students at Denver Seminary and at other institutions where I teach know very little about it, and are a bit puzzled if not flummoxed by my references to it. Others claim they “do not understand jazz,” perhaps with a twinge of guilt that they should. Last summer, a very intelligent and godly campus minister and long-time friend attended a jazz concert with me. Afterward he said, “The music has a center, but I cannot find it.” I humbly told him that I had found it and that I loved it. I love it for many reasons. One outstanding reason is that it can help inform and reform our apologetics engagements through its distinctive genius. All that is needed is a bit of transposition from the sensibilities of jazz to the skills of apologetics.

My point here is not to evangelize for jazz, or at least not directly. (I do that elsewhere.) Whether or not one likes or understands jazz, the nature of the music is rich in virtues that can be transferred to the art of defending and commending the Christian worldview. By this, I am not arguing that Christians should be jazz musicians or write about jazz. That is true enough, but I am after something else: the essence of jazz itself as an art form and what it tells us about excellence in general and in particular for Christian witness to the truth.

What is Jazz?

The roots of jazz are complex and contested, but all grant that jazz sprung from African American slave songs. These songs of lament and hope were tied to rhythms that aided exhausted workers to rally their strength and cheer each other on. This “call-and-response” is intrinsic to jazz–this musical collaboration and cooperation performed without tightly scripted parts.

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In this tradition, a jazz band performs according to a song structure (or a chart) and solos are taken at the proper places. This requires a deep knowledge of the standards of jazz (the musical canon) and how to play them. (See Ted Gioia, Jazz Standards.) Learning these canonical tunes and mastering one’s instrument means spending “time in the woodshed.” This is a jazz term for practicing, refining one’s skills—also known as “chops,” a term coined by Louis Armstrong, one of the seminal jazz pioneers.

However, a true jazz group will never play the same tune the same way twice. (That leaves out Kenny G and most “smooth jazz.”) My colossal John Coltrane collection sports about twenty versions of his interpretation of “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music.” Each is stand unique and very different from every other performance. Improvisation—the marrow of jazz—is what explains this. Jazz players improvise in two main ways.

First, in a jazz performance, one or more musicians take solos which are created on the spot. No two jazz solos by the same player in the same song sound the same, although they are usually similar. This kind of solo is akin to composing on the spot. Jazz writer Ted Gioia calls jazz “the imperfect art” for this reason. The freedom to fail makes way for the freedom to shine. Jazz musicians, such as guitarist Pat Martino, often refer to this as “being in the moment.” We can also think of it as performing without a net (but not without skill).

Second, jazz musicians improvise together, not only during solos. This is known as “group improvisation.” Even as the drummer, pianist, and bass player—the rhythm section—back up a soloist, they adapt their accompaniment by what they hear the soloist playing, whether it be trumpet, saxophone, vibes, or another instrument. Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock is, perhaps, the greatest living master of this skill. Group improvisation is rare and probably unique to jazz or at least to jazz-inflected and jazz-infected music.

Jazz Speaks to Apologetics

What, then, could this emphasis on mastering material and improvising (in both senses above) have to do with apologetics? Just as jazz musicians, apologists need to “know their charts” by having spent much “time in the woodshed.” That is, they need to master the standard apologetic arguments on the nature of truth and faith, the arguments for God’s existence (natural theology), the reliability of the Bible, the deity and resurrection of Christ, the case against rival worldviews (atheism, pantheism, polytheism, Buddhism, Islam) and much more. However, knowing the arguments (the charts) is not the same as offering the arguments in various interpersonal settings. These include one-on-one, in a small group, in a larger group, in a lecture, in a sermon, on line, in a postal card, and more. This demands inventiveness, being prepared “in the moment” to size up the scene, seize the moment, and jam accordingly…

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