The Spiritual Side of Jazz

There’s a wonderful series that’s been airing on NPR for a few years called This I Believe. It’s not a show per se; it is a collection of brief personal essays chosen and recorded for broadcast during All Things Considered. I heard an essay a while back that struck a chord (no pun intended) with me. Entitled The Holy Life of the Intellect, it was written and delivered aloud by Canadian poet George Bowering.

Even though I am a devoted secularist, his essay reminded me of an aspect of jazz that I sometimes forget. Bowering states:

“I believe that the human intellect is the closest thing we have to the divine. It is the way we can join one another in spirit.

Sometimes when you are listening to a great jazz musician performing a long solo, you are experiencing his mind, moment by moment, as it shifts and decides, as it adds and reminds. This happens whether the player is a saxophone player or a bass player or a pianist. You are in there, where that other mind is. His mind is coming through your ears and inside your mind.”

This is a wonderfully succinct way of describing the ultimate goal of those of us who choose to express ourselves through the language of jazz improvisation. We desire to make this spiritual and emotional connection with our listeners, without which art does not exist. Musicians begin this process in our minds. We hear, we respond, we recall, we send impulses to our muscles to create certain sounds in the physical realm that express the inner workings of our minds.

Listeners process these sounds through the apparatus of their ears and brains; those “instruments” receive and decode the sounds we produce. The “intellect”, for lack of a better term, is intimately involved in this process. Before anything can move us at our emotional/spiritual core it has to pass through the mind. Bowering goes on to say:

The first time I heard Charlie Parker playing “Ornithology” I was delighted. I was about 11 years old. You are so much alone with your mind as a kid, so when you hear someone else’s mind improvising, you feel an excitement you will never get from some music that just wants to keep a steady beat…

I believe that if there is a god, this is what he wanted us to do. It is the holy life of the intellect.

At the highest level of jazz as art, this is what it is all about. At this point in the essay I started thinking about John Coltrane, specifically his masterpiece A Love Supreme. I don’t believe anyone can remain unmoved by this music; it is sublime and beautiful in the truest sense of that word. Not a moment later Bowering mentioned this album as a shining example of intellect and spirit in jazz. I was not surprised.

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