Church of Improvisation

In year eleven I signed up for two years of Jazz classes. I didn’t really know what jazz was. One of my favourite bands in town had gone through the jazz school and they were amazing. Then I found out two of my friends were also studying it so…. Why not? I walked in and sitting around the room were 5 guitarists, 4 horn players, a bass player whose favourite band was tool and two drummers. I think at one stage we had a singer too but not for long. All five guitarists liked post-hardcore bands. Most of us were in or had been in punk bands that were slowly turning “emo”. It was very strange, and for two years we played at jazz festivals. At which a lot of the older people would leave when we played because we weren’t traditional enough.

When you get highly talented musicians into a band that plays a lot of shows, they can easily get bored because they aren’t being stretched. So when one watches the  historical progression of jazz in the early days, the innovative practitioners of the style would slow down, or speed up, or only use certain notes or chords or instruments. Occasionally two genre-benders would get together and redefine each others genre into a third. Most of jazz is all about making stuff up on the spot and so it was only time until a band would get on stage with no preconceptions. Fully improvisational. FREE JAZZ.

Sometimes free jazz bands would also be from the school of thought that wanted to be liberated from keys, in-tune notes, time and structure. Their concept of music being the organized disorganization of sound and silence was at the forefront, but within the context of playing in a group. Communal creation. Sometimes this concept hurts to think about because we think they’d end up just being like a stand up comic. Who delivers his jokes to every crowd, just in a different order so it sounds like he’s making his gags up on the spot. Of course if you play music with 5 others people for years there will be common themes and musical hooks that you revisit. You would also practice knowing when each other wants the group to get louder and faster and completely change. Part instinct, part behavioral tendencies and communal familiarity. In free jazz, participants are free to create however they want. Pouring heart and soul into a musical piece that has never been made before, and never will be repeated. Audience members could be pulled up onto stage to sing a random line. Instruments that don’t exist until that moment – chairs, tables, bubbles –  be used on the spot.



How to be a rockstar. (next post) 


Its like the musical version of improvisational theatre – shows like “who’s line is it anyway” and “thank God you’re here” – pitting comic genius and slapstick against each other in made up hilarity. Actors may use characters they have made in the past but when put in completely new situations with new supporting roles, it becomes new.

Lets go back to traditional jazz – improvising off the familiar and planned. Rhythm sections – bass, drums, keys/guitars – would play preplanned chord cycles. They would play what’s referred to as the “head” which would be a melody line that the crowd would usually know or a singer would sing a chorus and then in between the heads or “common bits”, players would make stuff up over the top of the preplanned chords. Some nights the drummer would organize sections of not playing, or pauses. Sometimes the rhythm section as a whole would play similar but different things to mix it up. But the improviser would usually know a little of what’s happening and would have the ability to push the rest of the band around, quote other songs and impress everyone. Then everyone would come back in, to play the common melody and then finish.

I like the shape of free jazz when I think about corporate and individual worship. Many times I’ve found myself in worship times singing songs with words in them that I have no clue what they are. I have sometimes even researched others knowledge of them. Most are in the same boat I am. We are resigned to sing other peoples songs about other times.

My best friend Evan would sometimes talk about how he wouldn’t learn other peoples songs because he didn’t see the point. He wanted to write songs out of his own experience so that when he sang them it felt right. A lot of the time when we sings songs as a congregation I have no clue of the reason behind a song, the back story. When I know the back story of songs, like amazing grace or how he loves, I sing so much louder knowing. That even in the midst of having his God-fearing friend get killed in a motorcycle accident John Mark Macmillon can still stand there and sing that God loves us. How much more powerful when we write our own songs, when we create our own celebrations, our own poems?

The psalms in the bible are a whole bunch of Davids creative outpourings onto God out of situations he lived. As the Israelites were walking around the desert for forty years I can imagine them singing songs about even in desolation their God leads them. If we sang that song it wouldn’t be truthful. I have never walked around a desert. I’ve never had God lead me with fire at night times.

I feel like sometimes we are merely a cover band. Cover bands learn famous songs to entertain others for money. I’m all about entertaining God. I dance and laugh with him all the time. But do we really come together to sing songs to God for his entertainment? Because if we do, then we should probably choreograph some funky dances and use a lot more flags and streamers. And even in that picture I still feel like God would be more entertained by us creating our own songs for him. How much more entertaining for him would songs about how beautiful we find the children he blessed us with or Jeremy’s funny hair cut from last week or how good sleep is?

We can be like a traditional jazz band. Where we have common elements to our worship times and then free the rest up for praying for each other, or singing different lyrics, or clapping and dancing in celebration. Creating out of familiarity. Creating as entertainment. Creating as response so an amazing living God.

But I feel like familiarity breeds similarity. We get into ‘same same and no different’. We rest on our laurels. We are secure because we hold the keys, because we get to manipulate our services when we want.

What if we were a free jazz band that started from nothing and created epic songs and art and dances. With, because of and for, God. Letting him direct us, as the body of Christ, in the directions he wants us to go. Every meeting we show up to. When people talk of worship times that spanned 24 hours can you really imagine that being organized before hand? And if it was can you really see that, not being boring after twenty minutes? But if we create with and for God, within giving out to others in a cloud of love – we could worship and create for eternity.

The kingdom of God is like a free jazz band. That turns up to gigs with a history, with a common behavioural trend. Whose members play different instruments, play different parts in the band, react differently with the others in the band. But ultimately play and make a beautiful song with not only their love in the moment, but in their lives. From scratch, we paint with our creator.

Our king and father plays with us. He is the ultimate trumpet player and band leader. But how can a perfect band leader lead if no one thinks or trusts that he is any good at leading the band?

2 thoughts on “Church of Improvisation

  1. This was amazing. Love it.

    “I feel like sometimes we are merely a cover band.”

    I’ve been thinking about this sentiment a lot lately. I’ve been reading a lot of theology/whatever books and although it’s great and I have learnt heaps, I need to constantly remind myself to primarily go back to God, rather than living out what pastors/writers say just because they’re wiser than me. If I just accept someone else’s interpretation of the Bible without seeing and living it out for myself, I’ll end up a cover band Christian. I don’t even know if that’s how you meant that statement, haha. But It made me think a lot.

    But yeah, this note was super encouraging man. Also, I want to write with you again.

    1. I was thinking even more yesterday – we can be really good cover bands. and we can entice responses out of people, and even to the point of making everyone feel like God is involved when really they are just responding to the well designed cover band set list. (and God can be in it of course, but we aren’t directly letting him be involved) if that makes sense?
      i dont want to be a cover band christian at all.
      i also want to write with you again, you are incredible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s