As mentioned in my previous blog, the performance of jazz requires much discipline and perseverance from the aspiring jazz musician. Although it sounds like they’re making it up as they go along, improvisation is built on exhaustive confidence in the ability to play jazz scales, patterns and chords in all twelve keys.
This is the reason I love jazz and admire jazz musicians. Their mastery of jazz theory is such a joy to experience, both in live performance and on a recording. I think this also helps to explain why jazz didn’t catch on as a musical style in mainstream Catholic liturgy.
Folk music was assimilated into sacred music because it is so accessible. True to its name, folk music is the music of the people, played on a popular and ubiquitous instrument (guitar) whose music theory is basic and easily learned.
Jazz is similar to classical music in the way its effective performance requires the musician to have advanced knowledge of the respective discipline’s theory. This limits the pool of musicians who are skilled enough to perform jazz at liturgy. (Sidebar: Sadly enough, this also means that there are fewer qualified organists today.)
Another consideration is that the structure of jazz doesn’t fit tidily into the structure of Roman Catholic liturgy, where the primary musical instrument is the voice of the gathered assembly, praising God in song. For example, the music for the liturgical processions has a specific ministerial function to fulfill at the Entrance, the Gospel, the Preparation of the Gifts, and Communion. At a typical parish liturgy, priest, ministers and assembly cannot stand around idly at these processions, waiting for musicians to finish a variation on a hymn tune. Having said that, the Prelude before liturgy and the post-Communion Song of Praise certainly lend themselves well to prayerful improvisation.
But jazz is not limited to improv. Jazz theory can be expressed beautifully in chords and harmonization, in the bending blues notes of a hymn melody, in the rhythm and dynamics. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council’s reformed liturgy, there are a handful of songs that have effectively utilized elements of jazz theory:
- The music of the late Father Clarence Rivers and the late Leon C. Roberts, inspired by the motifs of the African-American spiritual and gospel music;
- Ernest Sands’ “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness,” with its 5/4 rhythm that invokes Dave Brubeck;
- James E. Moore, Jr.'s “Taste and See”;
- Mass of Glory, with its blues-influenced melodies;
- and several other compositions.
There have been examples of jazz liturgies that hearken more to the “high art” approach of the Mass settings composed by Bach, Mozart and Palestrina. These fall under the umbrella of performance art rather than liturgy, but they certainly lift the listeners’ minds and hearts to God:
As a working Catholic composer and musician, I welcome and incorporate elements of jazz theory at liturgy whenever appropriate. For example, in the aforementioned “Taste and See,” composer James Moore left a lot of space between the lines in the verses and the refrain for tasteful improvisation on the piano. Whenever we sing this contemporary classic at my parish I enter into it in a prayerful manner that allows me to improvise without being distracting. That is the key element to successfully utilizing jazz in mainstream liturgy. The music must serve the Eucharist and not the other way around. Let jazz be a humble servant at worship and it will shine all the more brightly.
There is a “mystery” to jazz that can help us to enter into the mystery of the divine. To the non-musician, jazz is an adventurous music that leads the listener to anticipate where it is going. Jazz can lead us to God. That makes jazz both cool and holy.
(With thanks to Peter Ostlund for his thoughts and insights.)