Jazz and prayer are acts of communion. Whether we are praying or playing the saxophone, we are communicating the longings of our hearts to something more than us, seeking to establish rapport with it. We are seeking harmony. Even if we do not believe in God - even if we are atheists - we can sense the something more. We call it the listening audience. We call it the soul. We call it the universe.
Please understand: We know that many jazz artists do believe in God. But we want to say that even those who don't believe in God or anything like God are in touch with what we call “God.” For us God is the soul of the universe and the universe is the body of God. Within each of us this soul becomes incarnate in our own acts of listening, especially when we listen with compassion to the voices of creation. And within each of us there is an impulse to share with others and, in the absence of others, the universe itself. We have a good friend who doesn't believe in God but who writes in diary in order, as she puts it, “to share my feelings with universe.” In our mind she is praying.
Jazz and prayer are also acts of exploration. In playing and praying we are exploring the landscapes of our souls and the worlds around us. Or perhaps better soundscapes. The western world privileges visual experience as normative for humanity. Seeing is believing, so many say. But we propose that hearing is believing, too. Music is what feelings sound like and when we listen to music we are hearing truths of human subjectivity and, perhaps, divine subjectivity, too. We are knowing what feelings sound like.
Some of these feelings are cognitive. They are ideas or lures for feeling. And in exploring them we are also exploring matters of importance to us: faith, the absence of faith, identity, spirituality, worship, poverty, justice, community, alienation, and healing. Thus jazz and prayer are forms of poetics. They are seeking wisdom for daily life. They are philosophy and theology with heart.
The Pasture for Gazelles
In the Western traditions we hear the first sounds of jazz in the Psalms of the Bible. The Psalms are musical prayers communicating array of emotions to the unity of the universe. Whitehead speaks of this unity as the consequent nature of God. We will call it the Deep Listening.
The Deep Listening is like the sky: a witness to all that happens. But the Listening does not have a face of its own. It is not located anywhere in space because it is everywhere. The universe is its body. If things are located in space then the Listening is a No-Thing.
But this Listening is not merely absence. It is also the presence of Love without boundaries. The Deep Listening is described by the Muslim mystic - Ibn Arabi - when he writes:
"My heart is opened unto every form. It is a pasture for gazelles, a cloister for Christian monks, a temple for idols, the Ka'ba of the pilgrim, the tables of the Torah and the book of the Qur'an. I practice the religion of love; in whatsoever directions its caravans advance, the religion of Love shall be my religion and my faith."
The Deep Listening is like the heart of Ibn Arabi. It is a pasture for gazelles.
The Psalms were sung by people who believed in this sky-like Listening. They were prayerful folk songs which released a wide array of emotions into the wideness of the sky-like mind: awe, sadness, anger, tenderness, resentment, and peace.
We continue their spirit when we write our own psalms with our minds, hearts, and bodies. When we dance barefoot in the moonlight, we are writing a psalm. When we shake our ﬁst at destiny or fate or God, we are writing a psalm. We are praying, even if we do not believe in prayer and even if we do not believe in the Listening.
Sometimes we feel anger at the Listening itself. Something has happened in our lives, and we are angry at the universe, at fate, at God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22) Even these emotions are a kind of love. We would not express our anger did we not feel a sense of connection with the Listening. We need for something to hear us.
The emotions we share with the Listening are like the waters of a deep river or a waterfall. They are similar to the emotions of a blues singer lamenting the loss of her lover, or a rap artist who is ﬁlled with a lure toward intensity and protest against the anesthetizing effects of social alienation. They are the deep calling to the Deep. But here a question emerges. Does the Deep call back to the deep? Does God respond to prayers?
The Deep calls to the Deep
We think so. Along with Whitehead, we think the love of heaven passes back into the world. This calling back does not change the way the world works; but it provides a sense of companionship and courage. It is God's praying. God's prayers in us and to us take the form of hope, or courage, or peace of mind, or invitation, or challenge. This is the way God works. God is not an omnipotent puppeteer who can alter the circumstances history; God is the poet who helps us make poetry of our lives, whatever circumstances we face.
What of the silence of God? This is one of the most powerful of voices. Sometimes the Deep responds to the deep with a thunderous silence which says, “I must leave this up to you, but I will be with you. I give you the courage to make a way out of no way.” Divine silence is a form of prayer, too. If we are atheists we are quite sensitive to this silence. That's why we pray so well.
Sometimes the silence of God can be frightening but sometimes it is transforming. When we feel heard by the Deep Listening we are often gentled in our souls. The Listening invites us into a kind of mindfulness, helping transform our anger into clarity; our jealousy into compassion; our resentment into courage. The quietness of the Listening yields a quietness within our own hearts. ”But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.”(Psalm 131:2). When the weaned child is truly quiet at the breasts of her mother, it is what some people call “Buddhist meditation.” The meditation is a kind of prayer, too. And also a kind of jazz.
The Beauty of the World is the Glory of God
The experience of listening to music provides one way of understanding the kind of prayer we have just described. This became clear to us when one of us heard the British saxophonist Evan Parker played in Ottawa (Ontario).
Parker is inspired by John Coltrane's commitment to innovation. He plays Coltrane's own instruments, tenor and soprano, and growing up he made frequent trips to New York to hear his mentor. When you listen to him, you hear that his tone sounds a great deal like Coltrane's, and his phrasing recalls some of the last words from the master: the twilight pyrotechnics of interstellar space and expression.
Parker reminds us that prayer can be a very creative process in its own right. It is not simply a sharing with the Listening; it is also a joyful addition to this listening. It adds to the glory of God. Put in Whiteheadian terms, Parker's playing affirms the role of novelty, showing how each individual adds to the creative advance -new occasions of experience that never existed before. The glory of the Listening is the novelty of its creatures. The glory of God is the creativity of the musician.
While art-making is often an individual act it does rest in the world as a community, of shared history, and creative advance. Art offers remarkable possibilities for realizing the fundamentally communal nature of the religious activity ...expanding our awareness and experience of the sacred, the lure of God, in all things. The arts are an experience of transcending time and space. Arts help us to open up our imaginations, experience and wonder. Art is a form of prayer and preaching when honored for what it is - an aesthetic experience. This is a re-enchantment of the world. For the arts connect us to something deeper than this moment, calling us into depth experiences. Art is a Deep calling to the Deep. All art is prayer.
Creating New Perfections
This does not mean that all artists are the same. Each prayer is unique, just as each person is unique, and each blade of grass. Some jazz players are intent upon asserting a style or set of styles. But Parker's aim is to communicate a frame of mind that has little use for codiﬁed rules. “My understanding of that (jazz) tradition was it was dynamic one and your creative imperative was to ﬁnd something new.” As Whitehead put it “Adventure is essential, namely, the search for new perfections.”
New perfections: What an interesting idea! The perfections in human life are not changeless and they are not of a limited number. Old perfections can grow stale and new perfections are needed. And so it is with the Listening. The Listening needs new perfections, explorations that emerge from the human heart without preconceived ends. The glory of God is enriched by improvisation. These, too, are the Deep calling to the Deep. They are not exactly aimed at companionship or comfort, but rather at adventure. Wisdom, compassion, and creativity: These are what God loves.
It seems that God loves uniqueness, too. No one hearing Evan Parker playing either tenor or soprano will mistake him for John Coltrane. Or anyone else! Evan Parker is that rare bird of contemporary playing: a thoroughly individual voice. He has inﬂuenced a growing crowd of younger saxophonists, but his playing in indefatigably free settings has limited his fame and inﬂuence. Parker is emphatically not an "entertainer," but a true artist who has developed an entirely new way to play the saxophone.
Prayer as the Courage to be Different
Here, too, there is a lesson about prayer. Prayer can be a way of ﬁnding one's voice and thus becoming different. His playing demands listening, deep listening. The listener has to be attentive, creating open space so the music can slide into a Love Supreme. As in all transformative experiences there is also a shared particularity. Parker's music is not for everyone. “We play to the informed listener. We don't play to the person who's tumbled in for the ﬁrst time. We're not making to make it easy. There are plenty of people out there playing music like that.” (in Eyles interview in allaboutjazzz.com )
This is not to say it is elitist. It is like all rewarding activity. He says: “We want listeners to do half the work.” As in all transforming events we are participants who inﬂuence what is happening. Our experience is built on our listening of that which proceeded and the novel explorations in front of us. Things that move us, like Parker's jazz, are extremely exciting and impressive. He begins as a listener, for in his playing with others, he does not rehearse. He wants to experience the others in the group. For he is one of the ﬁnest musical listeners, which is a reminder of how each of us can access others in a transformative way. At the core of all experience is deep listening, says Whitehead: a listening to the feelings of others. Parker through his music reminds that communication develops organically from the smallest (musical in this case) detail into interpersonal dialogue in as open and as creative way as possible.
Let's say that God is a Deep Listening who is attentive to all the voices of our universe. Let's say that these voices include the voices of people, but also of animals and plants, atoms and molecules, spirits and ancestors. If this is the case then perhaps one way to pray is not to pray to God, but rather to listen with God. Listening not only to what others are saying, but listening to what others are trying to say. Listening to their explorations. Listening to their uniqueness. Listening to the music they play. “Consider the lilies of the ﬁeld and the jazz of the heart.” Didn't Jesus say this? Or something close?