Summer 2006 CJA Network Featured Article

What Is A "Christian Jazz Artist" Anyway?

(By CJA Network Founder David Arivett)

So what is a "Christian Jazz Artist" anyway?  Is a Christian jazz artist a musical cat that only hangs and blows with other Christian musicians...that only plays hymns and gospel tunes and hands out salvation tracks to people......or only plays at churches (doesn't do "secular" gigs)...or thinks that he should only play jazz as a, "tool for evangelism"? The answer is a resounding no!

Although the Christian jazz artist may be involved in some of the above activities at various times, they are not the only options for Christian jazz artists.  There is much confusion about just what it means to be a Christian jazz artist today. Many Christian artists wrestle with the tension of the sacred/secular, 'tug’o war' that can seem to pull them in opposite directions in their artistic and career decisions. In this article I would like to address key issues, present, "food for thought", and hopefully shed some light on what it means to be a Christian jazz artist today.

I would like to start with a simple definition: A Christian jazz artist is a Christian who plays, writes, and records jazz to the glory of God! Whether at a jazz worship service, in a church or concert setting, or even in a club or studio, a Christian jazz artist plays his/her music to the glory of God and delights in doing so! In this way, the Christian jazz artist can celebrate his/her musical gifts and offer them up with thanksgiving and joy, while sharing joy, jazz, and faith with others! Notice in the definition above it states that the Christian jazz artist plays his/her music to the glory of God. Moreover, the Bible says "Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (I Cor. 10:31). This means as a Christian no matter what you do you should do it to the glory of God.

What does this mean in practice for us as Christian jazzers? It means that with a thankful heart you continually recognize the source of your musical gifts and give God the credit due him. Not out of duty, but out of love. Celebrating and enjoying your musical gifts is a spiritual act in itself and God is glorified. God is delighted when we enjoy and use our musical gifts!!

But we must further define what, "to the glory of God" means! Unfortunately for many, glorifying God has been narrowed down to mean only doing something religious! This type of thinking has had a devastating effect upon the manner in which Christians view the arts in general. This outlook implies that the arts must be used only as a vehicle for evangelism - not art for arts sake. This leads to ignoring all art that isn't specifically designated as, "Christian Music" or at least created by Christians.

Jazz Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon is a deeply spiritual man who has struggled with the sacred/secular musical dichotomy that exists today - especially the old school of thinking about music from many church folks. Wycliffe shares that while growing up, "If you weren't playing church music you were playing the, 'devil's' music! It presented a challenge for me because I'd grown up in the church and I didn't want to go against what I’d been taught."  Wycliffe went on to discover in time that, "it's all music and it's all from the same source." Wow! That is a most profound insight because we as Christians believe that the Creator is the source of all creativity!

You see, this "old school" thinking unfortunately has had a very negative effect upon the aspiring Christian jazz musician. Christian musicians are made to feel obligated to play, "only for the Lord" in church and usually without pay because again its music, "for the Lord". And then they are totally forbidden to play at clubs because its the, 'devils music' so they can't make a living playing at church or anywhere else and are forced to get a, 'real' job.  Unfortunately I have seen this scenario repeated too many times, and my heart goes out to those all those who have had to struggle with this.

In truth, there isn't a secular or Christian world; there is only the one world our Creator has made. These terms are mere words and not valid realities. The entire world is God's world and God loves the world He has made (John 3:16!) and the whole earth is filled with his glory (or presence). And that means that the earth, nature, and our very existence is holy. Why? Because His presence is holy and His presence is everywhere. "Bidden or not bidden, God is present". The Psalmist expressed it this way, " Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?... "Even if I make my bed in hell you are there". (Psalm 139 )The Psalmist has discovered something very striking; no matter where you or I go God is there!

Additionally,  since the Creator, source, and giver of all musical gifts and creativity is God,  and since we are all made equally in His image, even the person who isn't a Christian who plays jazz does so to the glory of God whether he/she likes it or not!  How is this possible? Because everyone is created in the image of God, and consequently everyone, Christian or not reflects the glory of God! That means I can worship and praise God when listening to jazz played by anyone, thankful for the fact that God's gifts are abundant to all who are made in His image! I can give God the credit as the source of these musical gifts, and as I stand in awe give God the glory! When a Christian listens to so called, "secular" jazz they can do so to the glory of God, confident that God is the creative source behind it! (Of course this wouldn't include questionable lyrics or any content that detracts from God's glory!)

In the Bible the apostle Paul declared that God has revealed himself to everyone in the entire world whether they are Christian or not.  Paul argued that there is no excuse for anyone not believing in Him! (see the book of Romans chapter one).  In the Romans passage, Paul underlines the fact that it is clear from what's been created, that there is a Creator, and every human being can clearly recognize this fact.  He also points out that those who choose not to give Him credit and bow before Him are simply living in denial! Paul then points out all the dangers involved in not giving God the credit and glory that is due Him. 

This denial reverses giving God the glory and instead says, "look what I can do!"  Failure to give God the credit and honor due Him basically leads to, "upstaging" God! If you as a Christian jazz artist are off, "ego tripping" and playing your music only to pump up your own ego, you are missing out on the blessings and peace that come from doing your music for God's glory. Don't get me is perfectly normal to have a healthy ego! It is when it leads to arrogance and excessive pride that an artist’s ego becomes unhealthy.

Feeding off your own ego may seem temporarily satisfying...inflated sense of self-importance and send your self esteem sky-rocketing. But that brief momentary reward pales in comparison with the rewards, (both psychological and spiritually) you receive when you do it for God's glory!  The old Quaker hymn contains the following profound and appropriate lyrics:

"It's a gift to be simple, it's a gift to be free;

It’s a gift to come down to where you ought to be."

I believe a primary characteristic of being a Christian jazz artist is that we have an attitude of acceptance and tolerance for one another, regardless of color, race, denomination, or what styles of jazz are played. Learning to “accept one another as Christ has accepted you” can be very challenging. But it is love and acceptance that should characterize our attitude and outlook on others because Christ taught and modeled love, acceptance, and equality for every human being. There are of course many pitfalls and obstacles that can prevent this from happening! Chief among them is the danger of getting caught up in the game of "spiritual one-upmanship"... you know the “I'm more spiritual than you are,"  thinking that is being implied by many, subtly or not. Persons caught in this trap tend to think that their church, their music, or their group is more spiritual than everyone else's. Additionally, this can become a treadmill to an endless cycle, where one always has to keep coming up with something that will prove that they are more spiritual than everyone else! This thinking promotes pride, which always leads to much pain and division, and destroys the unity which should exist among brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. Jazz pianist Mulgrew Miller once said "We all need to reach out to one another and become we are all here and blessed to be in each others presence". That is a remarkable statement that we all should pay close attention to and it implies having and attitude of equality and acceptance for others.

Another major stumbling block in the way is the fact that there is simply way too much division in the jazz world today!  Specifically, about what is “pure jazz” and what isn’t! Do we really have to choose and take sides? Does jazz have to be played only in a “straight ahead” jazz style or only in a “smooth” jazz offering? Could it be funk jazz, Latin jazz, or fusion? Do you have to play the “standards“ to be considered a legit jazz artist? More importantly, is my acceptance of my fellow Christian jazz musician based on what kind of music he/she likes or plays? All these are valid questions worthy of further consideration.

This is not to imply that we as Christian jazzers won’t have stylistic differences or deep opinions about what jazz is or isn’t. All though it is vitally important that we promote and preserve the heritage and history of jazz music, and support jazz education itself, remember that jazz music itself continues to evolve. The very nature of the gift of creativity guarantees the continual evolution of jazz in an infinite variety of ways. There is no way to stop the creative flow! In the “Post-modern” jazz age jazz we live in Jazz historian Joachim E. Berendt in his book “The Jazz Book” offers the following observation about how jazz has changed since the 1980’s. “Postmodern jazz creates unity amid the multiplicity of differing and disparate stylistic elements… Postmodern jazz doesn’t say either/or it advocates both/and! The freedom of postmodern jazz is the freedom of choice."  Real freedom, Berendt states "is only possible for someone who can apply over and decide between everything offered: between free meter and playing with beat, open form and the standard 32 bar form, free tonality and major-minor triads, free jazz and world music, bebop, minimal music, rock, New Orleans jazz, tango, and hip hop”. Today, the jazz musician must be fluent in many styles, not just one. Freedom to choose, freedom to play, and freedom to improvise...freedom is what jazz is all about! 

Berendt also goes on to say that, "one of the main reasons why rock elements could be so smoothly integrated into jazz is that, conversely, rock has drawn nearly all its elements from jazz - especially from the blues, spirituals, gospel songs, and the popular music of the black ghetto, rhythm and blues and soul music. Drummer Shelley Manne once said, "If jazz borrows from rock, it only borrows from itself"!! If that's the case then we can rejoice that jazz continues to have a major impact on many styles of music.

But we will also need to preserve the integrity of jazz, including its roots! After all, Classical artists have been performing a standard body of works using composers from hundreds of years ago and it is still what the majority of Universities use for material to teach and perform Classical with!  Why can't there be a body of "standards" that jazzers use to teach and perform with? Not that we need to be locked into, "only playing jazz standards" but the jazz standards represent an incredible body of great material that teaches much about composition and improvisation. To ignore this material is to miss out on untold riches.

The challenge is for Christian Jazz artists to be an example and a model for others in the jazz community. This is not always easy to do and will take constant prayer and efforts. When others see how us Christian jazzers dwell together in unity, even though there are creative differences and artistic diversity, others will definitely take notice.

We as Christian jazzers must also have an attitude of acceptance and love for those who aren't Christians. There is a very disturbing statistic that shows that after a person becomes a Christian within two years he has basically cut himself off from any, "non- Christian friends"!!! How can we as Christians be the, 'salt' and, 'light' to our generation if we always hang or play music with only Christians???

Furthermore, If we only show acceptance to those who believe, think, and play music like us then we will not be able to reach out to others with our music or our faith. We will be nothing more than mere “rabbit hole” Christians who only stick our necks out once in a while! We will find ourselves asking the question, "aren't we just playing and talking to ourselves"? Remember, Jesus said that the sunshine and rain fall on both the good and the bad. God loves everyone, and not just “us Christians"!!

Jazz can be used as an evangelistic tool and is being done so in churches and other venues every week!  There are many Christian Jazz artists who go from church to church playing and spreading the good news! Others play secular gigs or coffee houses and use their jazz music as an evangelistic tool! Many others are session musicians for studios and let their lights shine in that area. We rejoice that the message of Christ is being shared in so many creative ways!

One of the evangelistic approaches used by the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, IL is called, "throwing a Matthew Party". A, "Matthew Party" in the Bible, was a gathering at one of the disciples homes, (in the Bible story it was the tax collector Matthew).  Matthew decided to invite all his tax collector friends and mix them in with the other disciples for a party! Of course with Jesus being there I can imagine very lively and spirited conversations taking place!  (And a great starting place in conversations with others who might not be Christian is the connection between jazz music and spirituality).

Ever thought about throwing a "jazz" party and you or your group provide the music, "live" and invite both Christians and those that aren't? Then play music, eat, and engage in conversations to become better acquainted before trying to make any attempts to share your faith, ect.

One of the slogans from the Willow Creek program was "barbecue first" and I think it is a very valid point when attempting to evangelize anyone. Taking the time to get to know them takes time!! And one must also guard carefully against copping a "holier than thou" judgmental type attitude. Instead, one's attitude should be more like "one human telling another human where to find spiritual food."  

On Mars Hill in Athens the Apostle Paul quoted a modern day poet as a starting point for his evangelistic sermon to them: The quote Paul used was, “In Him we live, move, and have our being”. Paul started his approach to sharing Christ with others here by underlining what we all have in common…that we are human beings created equally in God’s image. And that is another tremendous starting place when we begin to share our faith with others.

So if you find an opportunity to do so I encourage you to throw a, "jazz party", get out your instruments or CD’s and play some jazz , get with some Christian musicians and invite non-Christians friends and share your music and lives with them. Celebrate your musical gifts and be ready to discuss the spiritual connection between God and music when you get a chance. And don't forget to celebrate!

Unfortunately, there are many, "party poopers" who have made the decision not to enjoy “the ride” and don't want others to be jazzed either!  Many Christians have been taught that while in the sanctuary during worship congregants must totally deny or ignore their emotions or the ecstatic in their gatherings. You know, "Get a grip on your emotions and control it!" type attitude... or, “none of that spirited singing in here!” Biblical Scholar Abraham Heschel's insights are most appropriate here, "It is as non-biblical to separate emotion or passion from spirit as it is to disparage emotion or passion...Emotion is inseparable from being filled with the spirit, which is above all a state of being moved".

Also, our culture has helped to develop a, 'heartless' passivity and distaste for any experiences that may disturb the surface of our lives. Music does tend to soften and open up the heart, but not if you're carrying around a sign that says, "Do Not Disturb"!  Jazz music can be a great antidote for many people and church congregations if you can get them to loosen up and enjoy themselves at a jazz vespers or jazz concert. Hopefully some of it will spill over into the Sunday morning worship.

I have to confess that this tendency to stiffen up and not enjoy yourself during music and worship times at many churches has always been a real puzzle to me! Certainly, the Biblical example of the Hebrew people and the way they worshipped has not for the most part been followed! The Hebrew people were a lively bunch who danced, sang, played musical instruments, and celebrated, all in a very spirited manner. Many Biblical examples show that these were passionate, exuberant, and ecstatic experiences... check out the Book of Psalms for multitudes of examples.

But if you take a careful look at Church History you can clearly see how that Greek, "platonic" thought crept into the thinking of the church and we are still fighting the effects from it today!  Basically, platonic thinking says that the soul or spirit is all important. Physical things like the body are sinful, un-important, and to be neglected. Promoting escape from the, "world", and all things sensual, God becomes the epitome of the immaterial and asensual. In other words, if you  enjoy or find pleasure in anything it's probably sinful! This is the antithesis of what the Hebrews believed about God and life itself! (who viewed and defined God as, spirit, wind, or Divine energy!) They believed that God was the most, "alive", spirited, or passionate being that exists. (" In His presence is fullness of joy; At His right hand there are pleasures forevermore". (Book of Psalms)

This, 'platonic' thinking is responsible for many grievous misconceptions, including just what is considered, "proper reverence" in a worship service. Some feel that clapping hands or any loud music is irreverent in the Sanctuary. Others feel very uncomfortable if there is silence for any period of time, while still others have periods of silent prayer in every worship service. Others dance a jig, while still others won't allow musical instruments to be played in the church - all supposedly because it is or isn't spiritual! Why does church have to be the only place in the world where you can't enjoy and respond to music? Once again, platonic thinking is to blame!

We clearly recognize and respect the diversity of different forms of worship, and sacred traditions that exists today in all of our social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual lives. But to consciously turn off your emotions in a worship setting is to turn off the spiritual flow and blessings that God wants you to enjoy! Indeed, I feel that the whole gamut of emotions can and should be experienced during the singing, playing or listening to music during church or anywhere.  There are appropriate quiet times as well as times of celebration. Time for tears and time for joy…. Time for the music to resonate very deep within and speak to you. Time to laugh, cry, dance, quiet yourself, or get funky! All this comes gift-wrapped from the God of diversity!

Christians who play jazz should be aware of the spiritual nature of the music they are playing and its effect on other listeners, knowing that God can speak to hearts through music. They should play from the depths of their hearts, totally engaged intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.  Whether the mood or style is serious, somber, humorous, frivolous, nonsensical,  or just to jam or blow off some steam, the Christian jazz artist recognizes that music can transform you and carry away from your environment.

There are many who while playing jazz have experienced what’s been called, “break throughs” or, “ecstatic” experiences! Let me define the word ecstatic because the word gets a bad rap especially amongst some Christians! The word ecstatic is derived from the word ecstasy and can be defined as… something outside the realm of normal experience…something incomprehensible or foreign to our ordinary understanding and experiences. An ecstatic experience is one of forgetting ourselves for the moment, of getting outside yourself for the moment. The ecstatic nature of music and the effects it has on the performers and listeners cannot be denied. It is something that all humans experience and not only in music but in many other arenas in life.

I as a composer, keyboardist, and singer have on many occasions personally experienced many such ecstatic moments while playing and listening to music and consider these among the great moments I have had in my life. I believe that these experiences are the energizing presence of God. Also there can be a sense that something else has taken over! Time is on hold, notes fly, ideas flow, all in a very creative and exhilarating manner. Some call this the, "anointing", others a fresh filling of the "Spirit ". There are also varying levels of intensities when dealing with such ecstatic experiences. Obviously there is also an element of mystery involved when attempting to explain these breakthroughs to others. But they are real nonetheless.

Whatever you choose to call these experiences, they can be most energizing and joyful ones that you never forget! These refreshings have come to me while listening to music, they have come while singing, playing, and leading worship playing jazz as well. These ecstatic experiences are not to be confused with the normal emotional responses that you have when playing or listening to music. During these ecstatic experiences time can seem to be temporarily suspended and the intensity is overwhelming.

But those who have played jazz in the, “secular” field who aren’t Christians have also had ecstatic experiences as well! Is it possible for non-Christians to feel the presence of God in the music and have ecstatic experiences? Without hesitation the answer is, yes, of course!. King Saul is described in the Bible as having an evil spirit come over him. David, a Hebrew musician, was called to play and sing for King Saul to soothe and calm his tormented spirit.  So David went and played his music to the glory of God even in an, "evil” atmosphere!  The results of David’s music were therapeutic and beneficial to Saul… God blessed Saul using David's music to do so. Remember, everyone is important to God! God’s gracious Spirit flows to all!

There are many examples in the history of jazz that document the ecstatic nature and its effects on jazzers. New Orleans old timer Jim Robinson once shared how the ecstatic used to flow on the bandstand on certain nights:  “If everyone is frisky the spirit gets to me and I can make my trombone sing!”  Singer Ethel Waters testified that certain stride pianists, "stirred you into joy and wild ecstasy". Drummer Billy Higgins once said ”Music doesn’t come from you, it goes through you”! Saxophonist Ornette Coleman believed that a great jazz performance could be explained as “just showing that God exists”. The audiences that have attended these concerts have been equally touched by the ecstatic, as untold millions have described being touched in an extraordinary way while attending a jazz concert or listening to jazz or (other types of music.)

The fact that many who are not Christians have had these experiences might seem to be a contradiction or confusing to some. This is quite understandable, given the personal and subjective nature of the subject. I recall when I was a young teenager struggling over this very issue. I would be listening to the Rolling Stones, (the 'devils music!') on my record player at home and sometimes I would be overwhelmed by the chills and thrills that I received from the music. Then I would go to church and the music, choir, Hammond organ, and band would get in a swinging groove and I would feel the exact same feelings as I had felt in my room at home! I remember at the time saying, "Lord, are you trying to tell me that Mick Jagger also has the, "anointing"? Ha- Ha... This story is hilarious but true!!!  Many other Christians have become confused when listening to secular music or vice- versa. Too many times a, 'secular' song has touched a Christian down deep and he/she doesn't know exactly how to deal with it...was it the Holy Spirit that touched him/her or a, "worldly" spirit?

Trombonist Bob Brookmeyer once claimed that no form of music is as intense emotionally as jazz music and I agree wholeheartedly. And when it is played in a, "spirited" fashion it can stimulate feelings of exultation and affirmation.  This is communication between the artist and the hearer on the highest level. You and your listeners can be lifted to a much higher place and energized by the entire experience. John Coltrane once said, "It seems to me that the audience in listening is in an act of participation, you know. And when somebody is a moved as you's just like having another member of the group". This provides a sense of mutual ecstatic understanding for both the performer and listeners.

The challenge for Christian jazz artists is to play and record music with spirit and conviction, totally engaging hearts, minds, and emotions to respond to the music. The results will overflow to everyone, both Christians and non-Christians. This doesn't mean for a moment that we should try to put up a, "false front" or put on a phony facade for the, "world" to see! Instead it means that in the midst of our everyday existence, with our struggles, weakness, and frequent shortcomings, that our lives are still characterized by integrity as we seek to live out our lives to the glory of God.

 So as Christians who play jazz let us never forget to be thankful for the gift of jazz. Let us make every effort to stay connected to the spiritual source and nature of this wonderful music. Jazz music is a gift from God who wants us to enjoy listening, playing, and even dancing to the beat of it! May we as Christian artists continue to go forward with our jazz music and enjoy and savor it. This is all to the glory of God who loves to see his gifts being enjoyed and used by those to whom He gives them!

 David Arivett is a pianist/composer and founder of the Christian Jazz Artists Network. Other articles by David can be found here!  More information on David Arivett's music, CD's, and other resources can be found here: