Julian Davis Reid Teaches Us to Rest in Jazz | Sojourners

Julian Davis Reid Teaches Us to Rest in Jazz

Image of Julian Davis Reid. Photo credit: René Marban. Illustration by Tiarra Lucas.

The moniker “artist-theologian” perfectly describes Julian Davis Reid. He currently lives in Chicago, where he is a keyboardist and producer for the jazz and electronic fusion band The JuJu Exchange. In 2021, Reid started Notes of Rest a ministry of retreats, concerts, and lectures that helps communities move from the restlessness of our society, toward the restfulness that God intends; Reid used music from Notes of Rest to create his debut solo album, Rest Assured.

Sojourners’ associate opinion editor, Josiah R. Daniels, sat down with Julian to talk about the theology of jazz, the Black church, the spiritual practice of rest, and the late Mr. Fred Rogers. If you’re weary, this interview is for you.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: So I figure we’ll start with you telling me a little bit about yourself and your love of jazz.

Julian Davis Reid: So I hail from Chicago’s South Side and I've been playing piano since before I can remember.

I started when I was three. I’ve also been studying the Bible since before I can remember. My mom says I did a Bible study when I was a toddler. Karl Barth [talked about preaching with] the Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other; for me, it was the Bible in one hand, the keyboard in the other.

I got into jazz years later; I was classically trained at Merit School of Music here in town, with various private instructors. I also was church trained — Black church trained — at St. Mark United Methodist Church on the South Side.

In high school, my band teacher, Anthony Lanzino, started the jazz band, asked me if I wanted to play keys for it, and I said, “Sure. Why not?” And that was it.

In high school jazz band, I met a future bandmate and friend, Nico Segal (trumpet and production).

And then I kept playing afterward in college in New Haven, Conn. I went to Yale for undergrad, and then I was playing jazz in Atlanta during graduate school. And that’s when The JuJu Exchange — my jazz, electronic fusion band — started. The other member of the band is Everett Reid (drums and production), also known as Nova Zaii, my blood brother.

Why should people know and care about jazz?

One salutary reason for listening to jazz is that it gives you space to explore this relationship between freedom and unfreedom.

This is a core idea to jazz that goes deep into the Harlem Renaissance with all kinds of thinkers like Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and others who are contending with the following question: What does it mean for the Black, who’s at the center of jazz, to create in life writ large and to create freely while still being unfree?

In this sense, jazz is deeply American music because it puts together the freedom that we can have, the improvisation we can have, with sorrow songs that come from the spirituals, which come from the blues. It brings together the feeling of the pathos of that unfreedom.

The improvisational solo very much captures America’s spirit of being enterprising, of being innovating, of being intrepid. But on the other hand, what’s also deeply American about the music is the blues note that you hear, the crack tones that you hear, the in-between sounds trumpets and saxophones get at.

Jazz is a prophetic genre of music. Even if it doesn’t have words, jazz speaks to the beauty that can come from ashes.

What do jazz and theology have to say to one another?

For my seminary thesis at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, I was thinking about what it means for music that doesn’t have words to have theological meaning. There’s a text that’s also been helpful called Finding the Groove by Robert Gelinas. Part of what Gelinas is asking is how can we live lives of faith in a jazz-shaped way.

There are these aesthetic elements of music we pick up on and naturally respond to that are instructive for us. One element that’s core to jazz, which can speak heavily to theology, is syncopation.

And when Gelinas talks about syncopation and how our faith can be one that allows us to attend not only to the strong, noticeable downbeats — one, two, three, four — but also the beats in between, the beats between one and two, between two and three.

So be it marginalized people, because they live between the beats, or be it matters that are unnoticed because they live between the beats, our faith encourages us to be aware of the world and our surroundings.

As a keyboardist, I’m tasked in a jazz combo (jazz ensemble) with being the accompanist for everybody else. It’s called “compin.’” Compin’ is the responding to a soloist by an accompanist. So, my instrument being a chordal instrument, I do this with the chords. I play with the rhythms.

Core to Christianity is this notion of hospitality and trying hard to hear your neighbor, hear what they’re trying to say, and even giving voice to what they’re trying to say. And you may not always agree with the melody. But part of what we see Jesus do is pay attention to the fact that every person in front of him has a melody that God’s given them.

We’re shaped in the image of God’s melody. Accompanying the soloist then equips me, as a Christian, to have a theological viewpoint where I’m seeking to accompany the person in front of me. So, the jazz combo opens into the combo of life.

Sometimes when I pray, I just hear the ride cymbal of jazz drummer Tony Williams. I have no idea what his theology was or if he even had a theology. But when I pray, it’s often in the rhythm of his syncopation.

Jazz has such incredible potential for forming us to be curious about exploration, to be open, to receive the gift of having the tension between exploration and structure.

It’s not that jazz is limitless. Jazz very much has structure and limits, but those structures and limits are always in conversation with the question of, “What is the freedom made possible by this music?” And I think that’s how doctrine works. There are structures and systems, but the question of liberation must be central.

Jesus intersects with jazz as it pertains to freedom insofar as the freedom that Christ exemplified was oriented toward loving the neighbor. In Galatians 5, Paul explains the freedom Christ gives us ain’t just for us to do whatever we want. Rather, the question becomes: How do we serve our neighbor with the freedom we have?

The formative power of music can actually then help churches see the formative power of theology. We relate to each other through systems and structures but look to make something beautiful — be it through doctrine, congregation life, pastoral care, etc.

Who are some of your favorite jazz musicians that you’d recommend?

Miles Davis’ record Kind of Blue is one of the best records of all time.

Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, he’s an amazing alto saxophonist. John Coltrane is really seeking out the sound of God. Duke Ellington understands the sacredness of jazz.

Robert Glasper is a contemporary. I love Herbie Hancock who is part of an older generation but is alive today and an important crossover figure. I love the bassist Thundercat.

Lastly, Mary Lou Williams, who’s just a deep artist theologian who did a lot of work on faith and jazz after she became Catholic. A record that speaks to this marriage of jazz and faith is Black Christ of the Andes.

Jazz is something that grew out of the Black church tradition. And I wonder if you’d be willing to talk about that connection?

A lot of the well-known jazz musicians have roots in the Black church.

A lot of jazz rhythms are similar to what you hear in the Pentecostal church. A lot of the rhythms, syncopation, improvisation, the African retentions that define jazz are very prominent in that kind of church music.

Again, the sorrow songs were being sung in all kinds of churches. A lot of the cats who were showing up on Sunday morning were playing the blues rhythms in church. Thomas Dorsey, who wrote “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” is a great example of a church musician who was playing blues circuits in the 1920s.

Another example of a jazz musician who was influenced by the Black church is John Coltrane who, after having this transcendent experience with God, kicked his drug habit.

During his withdrawal, he has this encounter with God where he hears God’s sound. And after that, his whole career is dedicated to playing that sound. And the record that emerges out of his spiritual striving is A Love Supreme, which is one of the most seminal records ever created. So influential was Coltrane that there is an African Orthodox Church founded in his honor in 1982.

Considering the Black origins of jazz, who gets to participate in this tradition today?

One tension that’s always been present in the history of jazz is that it’s not all that controllable. In some of the early literature around jazz and its reception by the wider public, particularly among white folk, there was this fear of Black derelict music running amok and being the sound of anarchy or worse, being the sound of threatening white life, threatening white women.

You couldn’t come up in the Chicago jazz scene without going through Black elders. But nowadays there are no Black kids coming up playing.

In many churches young folk aren’t being encouraged to learn instruments. You combine that with a lack of Black folk being exposed to the music, or the gutting of music programs in CPS schools. So, if you don’t have the funds, you don’t have the sensibilities, you don’t have the community, why would you go out and buy a trumpet?

When it comes to jazz music in the university setting, the institutions are steeped in whiteness and a lot of students who can afford to attend these schools are white. And so those who have the means for the lessons go to these schools; those schools that have professionalized and institutionalized jazz are now producing a certain kind of jazz musician.

So, can a white person or a non-Black person of color participate in the jazz tradition without seizing hold of it or being guilty of cultural appropriation?

I don’t have to look any further for the answer than to Nico. Nico epitomizes what it means to show up as a guest at the table and sit and eat and even bring your own meal. What Nico does as a white person, as the white person in The JuJu Exchange, is he comes with a deep reverence for experiences he knows not of but wants to listen for.

So, in a sense, Nico “comps” for the solo of me, the solo of Nova Zaii, the solo of Black folk, who’ve been singing this melody now for more than a century.

Jazz is deeply American music because white folks have been involved in creating interracial spaces since the beginning: listening, learning, and joining in with Black folks. But we also know there's this deeply checkered history of white monopoly, of taking over, of segregation in clubs.

Modern-day white musicians that I know understand where the respect needs to be, where reverence needs to be. So even though jazz is so irreverent, there remains this deep legacy of reverence and understanding of who the elders are.

At Yale, when I was studying political philosophy, I wrote about what we could learn about politics from the jazz combo.

I wrote about the jazz combo in relationship to John Locke’s classical liberalism as a political theory that would’ve been served to undergird the American project, and then G.W.F. Hegel’s communitarian theory, which spoke to various ways European societies were functioning at the time when he was writing. Central to Hegel’s thinking is his notion of the dialectic of thesis and antithesis, which then gives you this synthesis.

One thing I was noting that the jazz combo seeks to offer to this conversation about political relations is that musicians who don't play the instrument of another are still expected to learn the sound of another instrument so as to learn about history from that perspective.

So too is a pianist expected to learn Charlie Parker sax solos. When you get into the tradition — I don’t care what instrument you play — you’re gonna spend some time with Charlie Parker. So for me, as a keyboardist, to play these lines that are faster than what I can play, he cracks in ways I can’t crack with my keys — so it requires me to look at things from someone else’s perspective.

That kind of reverence is what I see from folks who aren’t Black as they are sitting and learning about the sound of other instruments, the sound of other melodies, and then adding their own sound.

You have a new solo album titled Rest Assured and then you’ve also started a ministry called Notes of Rest. Tell me about these projects.

The album came around, in part, because of the encouragement of my good friend, Nico. In the midst of all this creating with him, he hears my sound, my growth as a soloist; he's seen my progression since high school. And so several times he said, “Julian, you should come out with a solo album.”

It also helped that my dad said the same thing and encouraged me to record hymns. My grandma loved hymns. I would play them for her. I have a vivid memory of being 12 or 13-years-old and her sitting on the radiator and one time I was playing, I had just finished “How Great Thou Art” or “Be Thou My Vision,” and she looked up to the heavens and said, “Thank you God!”

So the solo record is an album of sacred hymns and spirituals that I give my own interpretation to and have been playing all my life. Part of this was a homegoing, or … that’s not the right term — it sounds like I’m dying!

[Both laughing.]

But on the album, I take you through a set of prompts and prayers and at the end of select songs, I ask what rest means to you. What does it mean to trust that God will give you rest? And what does it mean to live out rest in our everyday lives?

I play with these songs that are age-old: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” “Oh Freedom.” I’m playing all kinds of songs from across the canopy of Western music and also Negro sorrow songs, spirituals — I’m playing those in service to those who need to hear these songs and find rest.

I started to really think about how badly our society needed rest during the COVID-19 pandemic. There was so much confusion, so much uncertainty, so much restlessness. But when I did online concerts for people, they consistently said, “your music is restful.” So I thought, “Nico has told me to record, I have this beautiful musical lineage from my parents and my grandparents, people are bereft of rest, I should do something!”

Because of the album, I started to imagine this retreat called Notes of Rest where, through a series of hymns, lectio divina examen style questions, time for reflection, and space for creativity, I point participants to the fact that God gives us shade to rest. The purpose of the retreat is to give people space to rest, to have stillness, introspection, and creativity, to rest amidst God’s shade despite the restless heat beating down on us.

These are ancient, spiritual disciplines. I’m not creating anything. All I’m doing is bringing these practices together in my own way to help you identify the restlessness that’s in and around you. And then invite you to embrace the possibility of God’s rest, moving from restlessness toward restfulness.

Ultimately, the album and Notes of Rest retreat are my way of trying to embody Galatians 5. This is the way I am living out the freedom to serve my neighbor which has been given to us by Christ.

What does rest look like to you?

There are five different ways to rest: One way to talk about rest is pause from work, that’s Sabbath rest. But rest is also used to talk about sleep and not only as it relates to Sabbath, but as it relates to Jesus sleeping in the boat (Mark 4:38-40).

There is also rest from war. In the book of Joshua, the writer notes that the land will have rest from war (Joshua 11:23). Conversely, the United States of America has been at war since its founding — whether it has been Indigenous people, enslaved people, other countries — we have not taken a rest from war.

This violence is often purposeless. That is to say, violence obscures our ultimate purpose which is to rest and live in community. So the purposefulness of us living peaceably also offers rest because if you have a defined purpose, then you are able to experience rest.

Lastly, there is the final rest that we have in God after death. But death is not something we should be afraid of as we are able to rest assured that Christ has ultimately defeated death. So, on the flip side, while we have the assurance that Christ has defeated death, we should also work toward ensuring that others do not experience a premature death because of our culture of restlessness.

One of the greatest philosophical and theological questions was asked by the late Mr. Fred Rogers: What do you do with the mad that you feel?

What a question, man. Well, my knee jerk was to say that I play it. Fred Rogers did it on screen and I do it with music. I play my anger.

But then there’s another answer: I really try hard to deal with the log in my own eye. That keeps me humble. What I also try to do is recognize that anger is a secondary emotion. So what’s the primary one? Is it fear? Is it sorrow? Is it jealousy? Is it disappointment? What’s at the root of my anger?

I use anger to energize me toward the good work of God. They say that Ralph Ellison was a very poised man. And you can see this in his interviews, always very calm and collected. But James Baldwin said that Ellison was “as angry as anybody can be and still live.”

I have a deep rage about the ongoing injustices of racial capitalism that I see ravage people of all colors.