Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Worship as Jazz: Fake It ‘till You Make It

Teaching the art of jazz improvisation is a skill that I do not have but can admire and appreciate because I know how difficult the art of improvisation is and because teaching such an art to another is just as difficult.    

When a young musician begins to learn jazz and, especially, improvisation, there is a certain amount of “un-learning” that needs to happen.  Perfection in tonal and rhythmic accuracy has been the standard since the first day of band lessons.  But, when learning jazz and solo improvisation, some of those expectations are modified.  Sometimes a player is urged to “play behind the beat” not on it.  Attacking notes with a “scoop” or ending them with a “doit” or “fall” were embellishments shunned in band lessons but encouraged in jazz.  Accurate intonation perfected by hours of practice is replaced by an invitation to occasionally “play in the cracks” or to find the “blue note.”  

One of my daughters had the privilege of playing sax in one of the leading jazz programs in the Midwest. She had one great obstacle to overcome: she was/is a perfectionist. Breaking these rules, which had, heretofore, brought her recognition as an excellent band musician, did not come easily.  Her instructor had a mantra that was offered to fledgling jazz musicians who struggled with this relationship between improvisation and perfectionism: “Fake it ‘till you make it.” 

In that one phrase was contained a plethora of wisdom.  For the young musician fearful of a “wrong” note in the midst of an improvised riff, it was permission to keep going and not try to fix or even think about that “wrong” note.  For the musician handcuffed by an addiction to perfect intonation and/or rhythmic alignment, it was permission to understand “imperfection” as musical expression.  For all, it was an invitation to experience the instantaneous combination of musical creation and musical performance  that is improvisation.

As a parent and perennial audience member, it was rewarding to watch the young jazz musicians learn to let go and experience the music in the moment as they simultaneously experienced and expressed a musicality that inspired both other players and the audience.  And though the best of these growing jazz musicians still retained the passion for and ability to perform with “perfection,” after months and years of hearing, “Fake it ‘till you make it,” they knew the perfection of “imperfection.”

This past Sunday, the two congregations I serve with my colleague Jenny Smith, experienced, in a small way, what it was like to “fake it ‘till you make it.”  We had no printed worship bulletin.  As pastors, we had no pre-set order of worship in our minds.  I purposely limited our pre-worship conversations concerning the flow of the service so that there would be little opportunity for a subliminal order to the service to be implanted through conversation.

There were several moments in the service in which I felt like a musician standing up to play a solo…I had an outline of the general “melody” and “chord progression” appropriate to the moment, but the exact way in which they would be expressed at that exact moment, was about to be experienced by all of us together.  Here are some reflections/observations from our “worship as jazz” experience:
·         There are some for whom a bulletin and the planning/control it represents is very important and "un-learning" the security of control is difficult.
·         When a leader asks the congregation, with no warning, “Is there someone who would feel led to offer an opening prayer this morning?” someone will actually pray;  and, be prepared for an awesome prayer!
·         Contrary to what one worship professor told me years ago – “The phrase ‘creative liturgy’ is an oxymoronic phrase.” – creative improvisation in worship, as in jazz, is a collective experience that calls us all to a level of alertness rarely achieved when every “note” of worship is scripted and posted ahead of time.
·         It is absolutely essential for the leaders of such a worship experience to listen to each other.  Like jazz musicians “trading fours” in a joint solo while building and expanding upon the ideas of the previous player, worship as jazz is best when the melody and rhythm of the previous “player” become the basis for the next solo.
·         This final observation may, in the minds of some, undermine my whole argument…but hang with me.  In good jazz, the solo is an expression of the “head” (the main melody).  In other words, the improvisation never leaves the overall melodic/harmonic structure of the tune itself.  A knowledge of and appreciation for the original un-improvised melody only heightens the meaning of the improvisation.  The meaning of worship as jazz improvisation is heightened by a certain knowledge of and appreciation for the original un-improvised elements of worship.  Simply put, I believe doing this weekly will transform worship from the creative interaction around an agreed key, melody and chord progression into a chaotic “jam session” where players rarely listen to or interact with one another, but merely do their own thing.

This may say more about me than it does about the reality of God…but, outside of worship, rarely do I encounter God working in the world with perfect intonation and rhythm.  In fact, God seems to play “behind the beat” a lot…allowing me a chance to step out in faith.  God seems to be in the “blue notes” as well…those notes, when sounded by themselves seem out of tune, but when taken in a larger context, bend a moment in such a way that speaks right to my soul.  Perhaps, once in awhile, our worship should reflect a God with such great improvisational skills.


P.S. I can’t close without giving a tip of my porkpie hat to Darkwood Brew…jazz, theology and coffee are found here.


  1. I would love to try this in worship sometime! I'm curious, did you prepare the congregation at all for the morning? Was the decision to improvise based off of a text you were using in scripture? A happy accident? Or the inclusion of jazz music in worship?

  2. Thanks Katie.
    Did we prepare congregation? No. The only people who knew ahead of time were the folks who usually prepare the bulletins each week.
    Was the decisions to improvise based on the pericope used? Yes - in a way. Jenny and I had been considering this for awhile and when I decided to preach a sermon on the 4 lepers in 2 Kings 7 - who kind of improvised their way out of a situation - it seemed the time.
    We did not include any jazz music...this time. We will do it again and will probably do so then. The jazz metaphor is more a reflection on the experience than it was formative to it.