Aligned by the Melody

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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I love jazz. When I hear it I think of Louis Armstrong: “Won’t you come along with me/down the Mississippi . . .” I can close my eyes right now and hear Satchmo’s gravely voice as he mops his brow and growls out Basin Street Blues.

What is jazz, anyway? In Ken Burns’ recent PBS documentary, hours and hours of actual footage of well-known and lesser-known singers and musicians prove jazz’s diversity. From the streets of Harlem to the French Quarter in New Orleans, instrumentalists and vocalists demonstrate something unique and personal. Not all the musicians could read a musical score, and the sounds that came forth more often reflected inner feelings than written notes. They knew how the tune was supposed to sound, but expressed it in their own ways. This leads me to conclude that jazz is not a musical genre or class so much as a musician’s expression of any music. You can “jazz up” a ballad or classical piece, even “jazz up” a hymn. It’s all the way you express.

An Episcopal priest friend of mine gave me another perspective. Whenever he wants a taste of real jazz, he heads down to Preservation Hall in New Orleans. “There you notice three things,” he says. “First, most of the musicians are older; second, no one uses electronic amplification; and third, no one plays the melody line, but everyone is aligned by the melody.” They may play all around it, but they stay true to the original melody.

Take my friend’s comment for a moment and use jazz as a metaphor for Christian faith. The melody line is: Jesus Christ is Lord. The essence of our faith is that God loves you and me, and we are family. Not everyone plays a clarinet, trombone, cornet, drums, piano or bass. Or to put it another way, not everyone is a Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Lutheran. Not all of us are in mainline denominations. Some of us don’t even belong to the institutional church. But the idea of Christian community is that we are a band if we can all agree on the melody line. Instead of telling each other that the way someone is expressing notes is discordant and does not sound like the old familiar tune we’ve played or heard for years, we should give each other the time and space to express our unique parts. We should encourage and appreciate the diversity. A coronet played by itself sounds okay, but with other instruments, it soars.

I played clarinet in high school, and I loved Dixieland and Swing. Haven’t played any of it in decades, but you know what? I still know the melody lines. Maybe I’ll get my clarinet out and dust it off and learn to play it again. If I close my eyes, I’m playing in the band with Louis Armstrong. Guess what we’re playing? “Oh, when the saints go marching in . . . Lord, I want to be in that number.” I bet you remember the melody line. See, you’re part of the band, too!