Pastor Kaye's Blog

Jazz Theology

The story of Jesus fasting and praying in the wilderness, and then being tempted by the Devil, is read every year just before Lent because Lent has traditionally followed the course of Jesus’ ministry up through the crucifixion. For Matthew, Jesus’ baptism and subsequent time in the wilderness heralded the beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ time in the wilderness invites each of us to reflect on the many times in life we’ve ended up in the wilderness. The wilderness can take many forms. It may look like loss, grief, illness, divorce, depression, addiction, death, or anything that makes you feel lost, alone, afraid, empty, sad, shameful, uncomfortable or out of control.

Given that Mardi Gras lands tomorrow, it seems that a little bit of jazz theology might just help us understand how to get through those wilderness experiences a little bit. Robert Gelinas, known for his writings on jazz theology, encourages us to think about what jazz has to teach us about God. He says,

Jazz theology is what happens when we express the basic elements of jazz in our relationship with God—syncopation, improvisation, and call and response. These allow us to find our own voice within Scripture;jazz experience life in concert with other practicing Christians; truly have time as servant leaders instead of time having us; and sing the blues so as not to waste any pain.

(For the full video version, click here.)

I’d like to focus on three things he talks about in his various writings: improvisation, the ensemble, and singing the blues.


In life we have nice stretches of time when everything seems pretty good, and then suddenly (maybe in a split second) everything changes – an accident, a diagnosis, a job loss, a death – and we find ourselves in a completely foreign landscape. We’ve never been here before, we’re not quite sure how to handle the situation, and so we improvise.

Now, I read somewhere that there is a difference between classical music and jazz music. Classical music is formal music that is performed as written, and is able to be reproduced. The skill of the classical musician is measured by their ability to imitate the original. Jazz music, on the other hand, is dynamic and unable to be reproduced. The skill of the musician is measured by their ability to improvise.

A jazz song has a basic form that the entire ensemble starts out playing, and then the leader calls out to one of the members, “Take a lead!” And off they go. Suddenly they are alone in the spotlight winging it… improvising. To improvise well, I believe, means being highly aware of the moment, deeply absorbed in the music, present to the melody and harmonies, the dynamics, and so forth, so when the call comes that it is your turn, you are grounded in the soul of the music.

So much of life is truly improvisation. If we follow the metaphor, the best improvising comes when we are present to the song of our lives and listen for where the flow is taking us. It’s partially having confidence in our own abilities to get through, and partially listening to intuition – to the Divine melody playing within us.


In order for a musician to improvise a great lead, they need a great jazz ensemble backing them up. The ensemble holds the beat and the chord progression and never leave you. Sometimes in church when we play as a group one of us messes up. I hate to admit it, but we probably make more mistakes than anyone is aware of. Yet, because we are so present to each other, we’re watching each other for cues, we are able to follow and continue to support each other, even when one person makes a mistake. Last week I skipped an entire line at the end of From a Distance, and the whole band just came right along, not letting me fall and make a complete fool of myself.

So, a strong support system is key for those times in the wilderness when we have to improvise. They move with you to the music of your life, they watch you for cues as to how you’re doing, they listen to you, hold you up when you might fall and you can trust them to always be there for you.

This is what our family and good friends do for us. But it works best if we have a support system that we’ve been open and honest with, so they know to keep an eye on us and how to best support our solo lead in the wilderness.


Now, from what I understand, blues music was around before jazz and can be considered a part of jazz (though not the other way around). Regardless, Gelinas says something that completely resonated with me, “sing the blues so as not to waste any pain.”

This reminded me of a conversation we had on our women’s retreat a few weeks ago about unnecessary suffering. Carl Jung said that so much unnecessary suffering comes into the world because people will not accept the “legitimate suffering” that comes from being human.

To flesh this out a bit, we talked about things like burying grief, not crying or not working through it (in other words not accepting the legitimate suffering of grief… not singing the blues when you should), and then realizing many, many years later that you’ve paid for that in other ways. Perhaps by burying your feelings in other ways, or in relationships that you wouldn’t let yourself commit to because you couldn’t let go, maybe that deeply buried grief got triggered at inappropriate times or in inappropriate ways. If only you’d let yourself deal with it at the time, it would have saved much suffering over the years.

If we sing the blues so as not to waste any pain, we live it, we feel it, we process it and then we release it when we are ready.

Here is all is in a nutshell: remember God is with you in the wilderness, flowing through your improve, upholding you through your friends and family (your ensemble), and helping you heal as you sing the blues.

Love & Light!