May 5 – What Jazz Taught Me About the Gospel

Music and I have a difficult relationship.  On the one hand, I like music very much. Hymns and psalms and spiritual songs speak to my heart as they tell of God’s love and sing of his grace. Hardly a highbrow, I appreciate the works of Bach and Handel.  And while I may not be able to tell a Chopin from a Schubert, I think I like them both. I am all but illiterate when it comes to contemporary pop music, but I’d probably be able to name that Simon and Garfunkel or Beatles tune from the 60s or 70s.

As for jazz, I’ve never cared much for jazz.  I don’t think I get it.

The fact of the matter is that music and I have a difficult relationship. I need to take responsibility for a lot of the difficulty. I haven’t spent much time developing my friendship with music. The presets on my car radio aren’t preset, and the CD player is rarely used. I don’t worry much about the storage used by the music library on my smart phone; it’s not a large library.  I find the sounds of silence often to be more soothing than music on my playlists.

There’s not a single piece of jazz on any of my playlists.

I won’t take all the blame for my difficult relationship with music, however. Music seems to have passed me by when it comes to being able to carry a tune or feel a beat. As for jazz, I don’t really get it.

All that is to say that I wasn’t as impressed as I might have been last Saturday afternoon when my brother and I met Chucho Valdés. Chucho is one of Cuba’s best, if not the best, jazz pianists, and he was staying with one of my brother’s neighbors in Sausalito during his visit to the San Francisco Bay Area. We had stopped at the neighbor’s house on a quick errand and met Chucho, the houseguest. That’s when we were invited to drop by the tiny restaurant and bar that evening to hear Chucho in an all but unannounced concert.

It was a beautiful evening in the Bay Area, so, why not, we walked over to the bar and listened for a while. Just a cajon player, bass cellist, and Chucho and his piano. Mostly Chucho and his piano.

I was amazed. I watched his hands and their mastery over every key. I could feel in my heart and bones the rhythm and melody underneath the jazz.  The noisy crowd was hushed as Chucho played.

I’ve hardly become a jazz aficionado in the week since we heard Chucho at the restaurant in Sausalito, but if you ask me now if I care much for jazz, I’d probably tell you I like Chucho Valdés, the great Cuban jazz pianist.

My guess is that Chucho Valdés is introduced to more people than he possibly can remember, but when my brother’s neighbor introduced us, he smiled, looked us in the eye, and made a human connection, even if he’ll never remember our names or the Saturday afternoon in Sausalito when we met him.

The music we heard Saturday evening seemed simple, despite its obvious complexity. Just the piano and cajon and bass cello in the background. A jazz aficionado might have wanted more. I was glad they kept it simple. I imagine the hushed crowd was glad for that complicated simplicity, as well.

Like me and jazz, many people in our world and in our time don’t care much for the gospel. Maybe it is that they just don’t get it. Or maybe they have a complicated relationship with the church.

Chucho Valdés has something to teach the church and her people and me. Like Chucho, we need to learn to make a human, Christian, connection with everyone we meet, even if we’ll never know their names or remember when we met them. Something good happens when eyes and smiles meet.

To be sure, the gospel is complicated because it is about God’s redeeming love in a very complicated world. It is complicated because in it love and mercy, holiness and righteousness pour incessant from above.  As one of my favorite hymns says, “heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.”

But the melody of the gospel need not be complicated. No matter where the gospel plays, those who are unsure of it and those who love it must be able to hear a simple message of faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these abiding truths is love. The gospel is, afterall, the story of a love, Christ’s love, to hush the noisy crowd.

See you Sunday