The Common Good

Jazz Fusion — Like It Or Not

One of the attributes that I really dig about my husband Jose is that he’s quite the Renaissance man. He curiously discovers opportunities to creatively express himself. In the last few years he’s taken up photography, gardening, the djembe drum, and jazz. 

Musical notes, graph / Shutterstock.com
Musical notes, graph / Shutterstock.com

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I am admittedly more of a consumer of artistic expression; in other words I religiously watch Project Runway and The Voice. However, in an effort of solidarity I agreed to attend a jazz concert — correction, a jazz-fusion concert — with my other half. Let me preface by saying that I am probably going to offend some jazz aficionados, and it’s embarrassing given that Jose and I live in the neighborhood of jazz, Harlem, New York. But as I sat and tried to listen in the NYU Skirball Center, I have never felt so taunted and trapped by musical notes. And I really did try to listen. 

Before I attended the concert, I dutifully did my homework and listened to jazz pianists Vijay Iyer and Robert Glasper because I really don’t understand the point of going to a concert if you can’t sing along with the songs. If anyone has watched the critically acclaimed concert movie Katie Perry: A Part of Me, you understand what I am saying. So therein laid my first problem with the concert: none of the songs had words. What is the point? What is the message? 

I am a lexis person; if you don’t verbally explain to me what you mean, I’m lost. So in the opening act, Vijay Iyer began to play a rendition of “Human Nature by Michael Jackson, and I was so excited because I am a huge MJ fan. I know the song and the words! I happily mouthed the words: “If they say, why, why? Tell 'em that is human nature Why, why does he do me that way? ”.. 

Then, out of nowhere ,in the middle of MJ’s Human Nature, the band breaks into improv session. Not a bridge, not a small musical riff — it’s an all out digression from my song, fusion jazz in its truest form. And this is the second thing that drives me crazy about jazz: it never sounds exactly the same way you heard it on your iPod. These jazz folks, God love 'em, are in the habit of creating on the spot, so you can’t predict or anticipate the same song; you’re expected to enjoy what is newly emerging from the familiar.

Jazz is an embodiment of creative tension; it is essentially a medium that is expressed through creativity and change. It’s also a wonderful metaphor for what my life often feels like. There is beauty that often emerges from the tensions of life’s unpredictable rhythms. I have never resonated so deeply with this idea than in the last five years since I became a parent. 

When I was pregnant with my son Javier, I read stacks and stacks of books on parenting: nurturing your child, building your child’s faith, raising a baby in the city, saving for college, and organic cooking — you name it, I read it. I conducted informal focus groups with all of my parent friends. I was prepared (I think you already know where this is going…). I was so proud of myself, I gave birth to this beautiful boy and I even graduated with (informal) honors from the nursing class at the hospital. So there I am, confidently pushing my newborn in his new stroller out of the Lenox Hill hospital, when I see the nurse smiling at me.  I naturally think she is just as smitten with this beautiful baby boy of mine. But then she stops me and with a tone superiority tells me that my baby is backwards in the stroller: “you need to turn him around.”  And it was at that moment that I realized I had no idea of what I was doing and that this creative process of raising a child was going to also going to involve a lot of not knowing, unlearning, and a surrendering of what I could not control or anticipate. 

Out of all the books, I obsessively, often uselessly read, one has a title I love: Your Child Will Raise You. The book has the following to say about the resistance we often have to the pushes and pulls of parenting:

“It’s the American way to think that every problem has a solution and that every obstacle can be overcome. When things get tough we try harder, make new plans, think positively and bootstrap our way to success. Everything that goes wrong can be fixed, if not by us, then surely some over-priced professional. Much of the pain and grief that mothers feel stems from the belief that we should have control over every facet of our children’s lives, when it is hard enough to have control of our own lives. Parenting children inevitably teaches us to surrender to forces greater than ourselves.”

There are many tensions in life that push and pull us in unpredictable directions. We may not like the melody of jazz fusion, but it’s a big part of life’s musical score. But not all tension is creative. What makes tension creative is the beauty that emerges when we listen — really listen — and the love that is inspired within the push and pull of process. 

Do we allow the spirit to inspire us to act in love when we are on unfamiliar ground? Do we release what cannot easily emerge from clenched fists? Can we trust God with what we don’t know? Can we find beauty in the song that our life is currently playing even if we haven’t heard it played quite this way before?

Dr. Mayra Lopez-Humphreys, part of the Emerging Voices Project, is a native New Yorker, professor, and pastor with more than 16 years of community engagement. She is also the associate pastor at Metro Hope Covenant Church, a multiethnic church that meets in Harlem’s historic National Black Theater.

Image: Musical notes, graph / Shutterstock.com

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