For anyone looking for a jazz album perfectly suited to reflection on Good Friday, check out Hank Jones and Charlie Haden, Steal Away: Spirituals, Hymns, and Folk Songs. Just piano and bass, this beautiful album is a must have.
I had the amazing opportunity to hear Hank Jones in New York and have written about it in the chapter on faith, arts, and culture in my new book, Faith as a Way of LIfe: A Vision for Pastoral Leadership (Eerdmans, forthcoming). Here is a bit from the beginning of that chapter.
Chapter Seven: Leisure and the Arts
As we headed across mid-town Manhattan packed in our taxi, I tried to imagine what Dizzy’s club would be like. Broadway Avenue, New York, New York. Jazz at the Lincoln Center. The Time Warner building. This was the big time in the Big Apple and I could hardly wait. As we hopped out of our taxi and paid the driver a handsome amount for the few blocks we’d traveled from our hotel near Grand Central Station, I looked at the busy street, the lights shining through the large glass doors and the huge atrium beyond. We were swept in, following people up the elevators to a velvet-roped line outside the fifth-floor room. Posters of jazz luminaries and the hushed tones of those already in line gave the atmosphere a sort of reverence. With a group of colleagues from the Faith as a Way of Life project, I was going to hear a sax player named Joe Lavano. While he seemed to be a big name, I didn’t know his work. It didn’t matter—that he was playing this show at Dizzy’s was enough for me.
Soon enough we were led into a dark room, already buzzing with activity. We were seated at two long tables just to the left of the stage, but the intimacy of the room seemed to make every seat good. Before long, to raucous applause, the slightly chubby Joe Lavano walked out with his elderly piano accompanist. I didn’t know this pianist’s name, but he seemed frail and nearly fell as he ascended the steps to the stage. Upon recovery, he smiled and waved, gingerly, before taking his seat. While this beginning worried me, as he began to play his age melted away and the nimble magic of his fingers leapt into action.
We watched over the next hour as our imagined luminary, Joe Lovano, sought ways to step back and highlight this stoop-shouldered pianist whose subtle tones and energetic playing had captured the room. The real luminary, it seemed, was the one unknown to me, and the crowd rallied to the moment. Sure we were seeing something special, we later found out that this venerable man was Hank Jones, a true jazz legend who was 89 when we saw him play. During one particularly stunning moment, Joe Lovano simply stopped playing and walked to the back of the stage, giving over the music to this joyful and soulful man. As the song wound to its end, a man two tables to the right of us shot up, shouting, clapping, as if his life depended on the tribute he was offering.
I should have known that something deep and moving might happen. Yet caught up in the excitement, I simply let myself expect good music at an exciting venue in exchange for my ticket price. This was no church experience, and so what business did I have expecting a transcendent moment? If good, then the experience would be a thrill—an uncommon experience of musical excellence in a classy setting. That was the bargain I was expecting, and the three shows played that night offered many others that same possibility. Yet the sphere of arts and culture is the realm of imagination, the realm where one can commonly hear terms such as “spirited” or “soulful” and where fans show “religious” devotion to their favorites. People whose art is extraordinary are often described as “inspired”. This should point those of us who believe that everything that is comes from God to believe that the Spirit of our Lord breathes through a saxophone just as much as through the sighs of pious prayers. What a believer like me saw as Joe Lovano stepped back to let Hank Jones soar was nothing less than the very power and glory of God made flesh. Incarnational moments are not simply or strictly defined by the historical life of Jesus or by his presence in the Eucharistic elements on this or that congregation’s altar table.
In the poetic prologue to John’s gospel, an incarnational vision of life—including the arts—carries echoes of God’s original creation of the world (John 1:1-3, 14).
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
All things, the text says, came into being through him. Not one thing—not Joe Lovano’s saxophone, nor Hank Jones’ piano, nor even Dizzy’s club full of jazz lovers on that late October evening—came into being without him. In this sense, as Luther memorably put it, “Christ fills all creation like wheat fills a sack.” This is a powerful vision, and it sees the world through bifocal vision—what things appear to be and what they are in their fullness as they come from and belong to God.
Anon, and +Peace,