Life at the Improv

Millie RochesterReading, From On the Road, the words of Jack Kerouac:

Dean and I went to see Shearing at Birdland in the midst of the long, mad weekend. The place was deserted, we were the first customers, ten o’clock. Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard. He was a distinguished-looking Englishman with a stiff white collar, slightly beefy, blond, with a delicate English-summer’s-night air about him that came out in the first rippling sweet number he played as the bass-player leaned to him reverently and thrummed the beat. The drummer, Denzil Best, sat motionless except for his wrists snapping the brushes. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to “Go!” Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. “There he is! That’s him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!” And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean’s gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn’t see. “That’s right!” Dean said. “Yes!” Shearing smiled, he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat; these were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial. When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. “God’s empty chair,” he said. On the piano a horn sat; its golden shadow made a strange reflection along the desert caravan painted on the wall behind the drums. God was gone; it was the silence of his departure. It was a rainy night. It was the myth of the rainy night.


We are blessed in this congregation by outstanding musicians. That was true in the congregation I served just before retiring, too. I used to look forward every Sunday to hearing what our gifted pianists offered. But one Sunday, the scheduled musician wasn’t there. Kevin was never late, much less absent, so this was unexpected and disconcerting on more than one level. It turned out that he was in the throes of moving, had lost track of the calendar, and was out of communication with the rest of the world. When we talked about it later, he was very apologetic; and the music he offered the following week was exceptionally beautiful. No hard feelings.

But on that particular winter Sunday, there was more than a little drama before the service began! Another pianist, a church member, graciously filled in at the last minute, even played a song he had never played for us before; and the music was wonderful. When I thanked him, he said it had actually been less intimidating than if he had planned it in advance, because no one expected perfection.

You just never know what will happen on any given Sunday, probably in any congregation!

When the music critic David Hajdu went into a Greenwich Village jazz club one Tuesday night in late August, he had low expectations – summertime was not prime time for the major attractions. He was surprised to see a combo that included Wynton Marsalis. When Marsalis began his trumpet solo, “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You,” Hajdu was as drawn in as the rest of the audience.

Marsalis appeared deeply attuned to its melancholy [Hajdu writes]. He performed the song in murmurs and sighs, at points nearly talking the words in notes. It was a wrenching act of creative expression. When he reached the climax, Marsalis played the final phrase, the title statement, in declarative tones, allowing each successive note to linger in the air a bit longer…The room was silent until, at the most dramatic point, someone’s cell phone went off, blaring a rapid singsong melody in electronic bleeps. People started giggling and picking up their drinks. The moment – the whole performance – unraveled.

Marsalis paused for a beat, motionless, and his eyebrows arched. [Hadju] …scrawled on a sheet of notepaper, MAGIC, RUINED. The cell-phone offender scooted into the hall as the chatter in the room grew louder. Still frozen at the microphone, Marsalis replayed the silly cell-phone melody note for note. Then he repeated it, and began improvising variations on the tune. The audience slowly came back to him. In a few minutes he resolved the improvisation – which had changed keys once or twice and throttled down to a ballad tempo – and ended up exactly where he had left off…The ovation was tremendous.

David Hajdu’s story occurs to me every now and then, when I hear jazz performed, and at other times, too. It came to my mind again and stayed there as I prepared for a certain ministers’ retreat a few years ago. Why was I suddenly thinking about improvisation, I wondered at the time?

And then it came to me. The program component of that particular ministers’ meeting was on how to use some of the emerging technology in ministry. This was – still is, if truth be known – one of my “growing edges.” I think my thoughts turned to improvisation as a means of reframing my approach, of reframing my anxiety.

The characteristically improvisational nature of jazz is a powerful metaphor for community, religion, ministry, and Unitarian Universalism in particular. Improvisation invites diversity, divergence from predetermined structures; and at the same time requires sustained relationship. It’s a challenge to achieve a balance – what I’m describing invites dissonance, in music and in life. If everyone is improvising, where is the order?

It may seem counter-intuitive, but improvisation does rely on rules of a sort. Whether in acting, musical composition, or spiritual growth, it is necessary to enter into the world as it is. Someone offered an example from his days of study in theatre: “Don’t deny the intentions of your fellow performers,” he says. For example: “If your partner started a scene by saying, ‘Hi, Bob! What’s that penguin doing on your head?’ The worst possible response, the one that would kill the scene before it started, [would be], ‘I’m not Bob, that’s not a penguin, and who the hell are you?’ So it’s not just about saying ‘yes,’ but about honoring what your cohorts bring to the table.”

The rules create freedom for maneuvering between the certainty of what is already known and the uncertainty of spontaneity. Improvisation has this in common with life – we don’t always know what’s going to happen. Musicians can agree as to the basic structure or limits of a piece of music. They may have played together many times before, are attuned to one another, anticipate each other. But as to exactly what’s played, the sounds they create together, those elements are of the moment, spontaneous responses in a musical conversation.

Sally Murphy, the music director of a congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, related it to her own experience:

In jazz there is always the openness to move into musical places that haven’t been tried before. I watched this happening during [a] rehearsal [she says]. One of the saxophone players was sick and a major part of a piece would not be able to be played. The conductor suggested something different be tried and suddenly the piece was do-able again…a boundary had been crossed and a fascinating new arrangement was created. Real jazz can’t happen unless the participants are listening to each other. Real religious community can’t happen until we are listening to one another.

And a jazz musician comments,

The classical guys have their scores whether they have them on stands or have them memorized. But we have to be creating, or trying to – anticipating each other, transmuting our feelings into the music, taking chances every…second…It can be exhilarating, but there is always that touch of fear, that feeling of being on a high wire without a net below.

It takes courage and trust – taking a risk, opening oneself to vulnerability, relinquishing control of the situation. But success yields the potential to transcend boundaries, allowing music – and more – to emerge from the spirit, in relationship.

I don’t possess the creativity of a jazz musician, but I can appreciate the end product, the music of that creative interchange. And I can appreciate that the same kind of listening, flexibility, and daring necessary for jazz are present in our faith lives and in our shared ministry. Like musical improvisation, the work we do in the world as we build and share our faith takes both preparation and risk. We bring our skills, experience, and reflection into our faith; then we take chances. We step into uncertainty, and into wonder, and discover something intimate and powerful. We experience ourselves transformed as creators.

As I reflected before that ministers’ retreat, it occurred to me that I might have been having a hard time adjusting to the evolving, sometimes revolutionary change technology brings because I’d forgotten to think of that as part of creation, and of myself as a creator.

A musician supports her fellow musicians, and hopes that they will support her, but finally, she has to take a risk – for there is no certainty, no one way to play. In jazz, improvisation means the spontaneous composition of music in the moment it is played: being open to the unexpected, to music that’s not fully revealed in its rhythms and beats, tones and harmonies.

At that ministers’ retreat, fifteen of us Western Canada ministers explored how to use some of what are probably an infinite number of possibilities that the emerging technology offers; mindful that the technology we used would never replace the relationships we nurture and treasure, but might strengthen those relationships.

Technology is a tool, not an end in itself, and even though the very idea often intimidates me – sometimes I would go so far as to say I feel like an anachronism – I recognize that this is a resource; and I’m blessed by having patient teachers, including family members. Some dissonance is inevitable, but dissonance can also be sublime. When the social philosopher Cornel West described jazz as not just music, but “a mode of being in the world, an improvisational mode,” he was describing life.

The Reverend Cinnamon Daniels tells about coming upon a jazz combo – trumpet, drums and bass – playing to a small but enthusiastic crowd in a New York City park. Some people had gathered around the musicians to listen; some walked on by.

And then, Cinnamon says,

then a little, old lady came up, a little bent over, walking with a cane, carrying some groceries. She stopped and bobbed her head in time to the music. She grinned at the musicians. And then she very slowly and carefully put down her bag of groceries, and she very slowly and carefully put down her cane and she began to dance. She was graceful, dignified, and a little bit funky; she was having such a good time. She was answering YES to life, to truth, and to love. She was laughing and all the listeners began to laugh with her and smile at her. The musicians were charmed and began to play to her, letting her movements guide them and transform their music. We were all there together [Cinnamon says] in a moment of magic, of pure improvisation. The song stopped and so did the dancing lady. We all applauded her. She blew kisses to the musicians, and they bowed to her. And then she slowly and carefully picked up her cane, and slowly and carefully picked up her bags and she walked away. And the music continued.

Such is life. That Sunday when I realized that Kelly, as our stand-in musician, would not have prepared for the Offertory, I suggested he might reprise the music from our second hymn. I was surprised by his response. “Actually,” he said, “I have something else in mind.” And everyone was delighted to hear a serendipitous jazz variation of “Simple Gifts.”

The songs we share, “riffing” off each other, adding our own notes, improvising and always learning, are indeed a gift – not simple at all, but part of life’s unfinished symphony. May it be ever so. Blessed be.