Rev. Bret Lortie
Many have noticed the powerful effects of jazz. Sharon Welch, a pro-essor of religion at the University of Missouri, says that she has learned from jazz how to work with limits and opportunities, possibilities and ambiguity, obstacles and challenges. She says it reveals a new model for resolving conflict, even globally. "In jazz," she says, there is a model of "responsiveness without progress or repetition, without self-abnegation or self-righteousness. As part of the cultural resources of Americans, it can lead us into a new way of resolving conflict."
Avant guard composer Jonathan Harvey says that "music is both emotionally intense and possessed of a deep sense of harmony." He points to how music disproves Aristotle's Law of the Excluded Middle, which says that a thing cannot be two things at once—The Law of the Excluded Middle, which says a thing must either be this thing or that thing and cannot exist in ambiguity. Think of how many times this dualistic notion has gotten our world into trouble. Right versus wrong. Us versus them. Evil doers versus, well, who? But music offers us an alternative, for as Harvey says, if music is to be meaningful, it must be more than one thing at a time. Beautiful and abrasive. Harmonious and dissonant. It must exist in ambiguity, or as poet John Keats put it, it must be full of "contradictions... uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."
When Harvey composes music, he says he pulls "together these dark conflicts and contradictions in an intuitive drive toward the promised land of unity."
Risk. When they play, musicians risk their individuality, their sense of autonomy, even their egos. Conflict is inherent in the fabric of what they are doing. In fact, the greater the risk, one might argue, the more powerful the outcome. Think of the John Coltrane piece, A Love Supreme. When that re-ording was released it blew people's minds. They just hadn't heard anything like it—a fusion of bee bop intellectualism, Coletrane's own drive toward unity and healing, and love. A Love Supreme, a more powerful and spiritual piece of music I've never heard.
What if we could approach all conflict with this in mind? What if we could approach all conflict with the same drive toward healing and unity and love?
Creating music takes commitment. It is more than thinking things through—it's delving into the midst of a complex tradition and feeling your way through a lifetime of accumulated stories and feelings. I attended a conference led by Sharon Welch, titled Being Good Neighbors in a Brave New World: Truth, Justice, and Jazz. Welch's work is foundational to what I'm talking about. Of course, at this conference were the requisite periods of lecture and workshop discussion groups. But at one point in the weekend we were treated to a demonstration by jazz pianist James Williams, one of Art Blakey's former Jazz Messengers.
The concert was an optional evening session, and after eight hours of sitting in a hotel chair I didn't feel like climbing onto a rented school bus and being carted across town to where the concert was being held. In fact, probably two-thirds of the conference participants didn't get on that bus. It was such an intellectual thing to do: dive into the theory without going to a place of risk; absorb the intellectualism of the conference while missing the heart that was behind it. The concert was a place of risk: what kind of jazz would be played? aren't I too hungry and tired to go? do I even like jazz?
Actually the jazz I listened to that night wasn't easy for me to get into at first. I'm a fan of bee-bop and free jazz forms where combinations of instruments throw ideas back and forth, build on each other's ideas and references, engage in an intricate challenge and response that ultimately resolves into the great "AH!"—the awesome, "OH YEAH." Here was a single guy sitting at a piano playing from the American song-book. (He later told me he was playing what he thought Unitarians would like.) As the evening progressed, however, I watched this lone piano man start to shift things up a little, respond to us. It all came unglued for me when he played Old Man River, with a syncopated on-the-edge-of-the-piano conclusion that pushed right into our zones of risk and said "listen to my history, where I'm coming from."
Let's push a little more at Sharon Welch's metaphor of jazz music as it relates to conflict resolution. What does it take to improvise? First, a respect for the tradition, one we can learn and practice without falling into repetition. Next, a respect for other players. As James Collier once said, the worst that can be said of a jazz player is that he or she doesn't listen. Finally, an openness to learning, working with difference and novelty, and practice—lots of practice.
If we look at the chord progressions that are written into every jazz score as that which binds musicians in community, the logic of jazz teaches us something else about transformation: that the social fabric is not held together by our intellectual ideals, but through the reality, and proximity, of people interacting with each other. That is, the ground of social transformation is not the ideal versus the real—but the real versus the real.
I think the world deserves to hear our song. If we believe in peace, if we are against war, the world deserves to hear our song! If we are in consensus that violence is not the only answer, then the world deserves to hear that song.
Go now and sing.
excerpt from Music and Mediation: Resolving Conflict in a Warring World, http://www.uua.org/worship/words/sermon/8786.shtml