Thanks to the incredible support and guidance of Dr. David Belcastro and Prof. Stan Smith, I have been able to study independently this semester the topic of “Jazz and Spirituality.” My study has consisted of weekly meetings with Dr. Belcastro and Prof. Smith, a lot of reading, a lot of listening, and a lot of composing and playing music. I am mainly studying saxophonist John Coltrane and pianist Mary Lou William’s lives, as well as some of the work of the monk Thomas Merton. But when you’re in the same room with people like Dr. Belcastro and Prof. Smith, ideas shoot back and forth, filling the place with a kind of wisdom that goes beyond intellectual knowledge. The ebb and flow of the conversation takes us through topics like the blues, the ineffable, the meaning of numbers, the role of the jazz musician, and a myriad of other topics that together create a composition worth paying attention to.
Dr. Belcastro doesn’t like the term “spirituality.” Prof. Smith doesn’t like the term “jazz.” Yet here we are, trying to make sense of the labels we have assigned to things that cannot be labeled. Our focus lies on taking Coltrane and Mary Lou William’s experiences and music and trying to figure out how it all played out in their lives. Coltrane saw in the marriage of spirituality and jazz a never ending quest. A quest for what? We don’t know. Perhaps Coltrane didn’t know either. A quest for God? A quest for the ineffable? Perhaps he did know. And perhaps I will know by the end of the semester. But in knowing and not knowing we find Coltrane’s never ending solos, his scale runs and his squeaks, his beautiful compositions and his willingness to share a piece of his soul with us. And who would be a better companion to Coltrane on this journey than Mary Lou Williams? Even though her conversion to Roman Catholicism didn’t come till later in her life, ever since she was born she had an inclination for the spiritual, seeing ghosts and having visions and premonitions from a really young age. In Mary Lou we see the story of jazz unfold, from its era as popular dance music all the way down to avant-garde and beyond. In her we see a devout Christian “praying” through her music. In her we see a musician who wrote music that came from her soul and that is able to reach our own souls.
So why should you care about any of this? If you’re a musician, and specially if you consider yourself a “jazz" musician, I believe that thinking about the depth that can be attached to your music is as important as the notes and licks you play. Only by speaking from our hearts we can connect to our audience in a way that will pull them into the music and speak to their inner selves. In this era of entertainment, it is harder and harder to create real connections between the audience and the musicians. Let us therefore not distance ourselves even further by ignoring the depth of the experience that music can create. If you’re part of the audience, then realize that there is an experience of music that can point out to something deeper. An experience of music that can draw us out from the anxious, fast-paced lives we live into a moment of peaceful existence.
These are only some initial thoughts that I have drawn out from the few weeks I’ve been studying this topic, but I believe that already there is much to be learned from what I have studied. If you’re interested in the topic, don’t hesitate to reach out! I’ll be having a recital on November 29th at 8 pm as the final project for my study of “Jazz and Spirituality” in which I will be playing solo and group material written by Coltrane, by Mary Lou and by myself, along with the recitation of poems by Thomas Merton with tied to some of the music.