What learning to play jazz can tell us about the need for a liberal religious discipline

My double-bass ready for action in the manse in Cambridge

You can hear a recorded podcast of the following piece by clicking this link

Every so often I get asked about the last line in a paragraph that appears towards the end of the liturgy surrounding the time of mindfulness meditation I currently lead every Sunday morning on Zoom. I originally put together this religious naturalist liturgy some six years ago for use in the Cambridge Unitarian Church’s evening service and the words in question were written by a friend, co-author and colleague of mine, the now-retired American Unitarian Universalist minister, John Morgan. They read as follows:

And, in the end, it will not matter how much we have, rather how much we have given. It will not matter how much we know, but rather how much we love. And it will not matter how much we profess to believe, but rather how deeply we live the few enduring truths we claim as ultimate. All the rest is discipline.

That last line, “All the rest is discipline”, can puzzle or even disturb many modern liberals because “discipline” has become narrowly understood only to mean something externally imposed upon a person which will severely limit their freedom and openness to the world. This painfully attenuated understanding of the word is, I think, well illustrated by the fact that on the website of the American Unitarian Universalist Association, John Morgan’s paragraph has not only been significantly re-arranged overall but it has also lost the last line altogether. Hmmm.

All this serves to remind me that, as far as I’m concerned, one of the great tragedies of the, alas ever-declining, liberal religious tradition is that it has forgotten that the freedom and openness to the world it desires for its members, and bring about for others, is not something fully formed and accessible at a person’s birth, nor is it something which can immediately be possessed after merely intellectually adopting certain, off-the-shelf, liberal beliefs but, instead, it is something only very slowly made and then daily embodied over the course of a whole lifetime by following some liberal religious discipline. The best way I have of illustrating this in accessible, non-religious and, perhaps, even attractive terms, is through music. 

As many of you will know before I entered the ministry I worked professionally as a jazz and rock bassist and, at least before the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit decimated the British music scene, I still occasionally found the time and opportunity to play, record and teach music. 

My two key, early role models in learning how to play jazz — a music characterised, remember, by its own kind of freedom and openness to the world — were, on the double bass, Chuck Israels (especially his bass playing in the trios led by the pianist Bill Evans between 1961 and 1966) and, on the electric bass, Steve Swallow (especially his playing with the John Schofield trio in the very early 1980s). 

The moment I heard Israels’ and Swallow’s playing, a passion was ignited within me and I finally had in sight — or rather in ear-shot — clear models I wanted to imitate which would eventually help me to become a jazz bass player myself. 

Following his time with Bill Evans, Israels went on to become a respected teacher and, in an essay called “An Unpopular Perspective on Jazz Education”, he summarised an experience many of us working in the field of jazz education have had:

Over the years, as I have assumed the role of “Jazz Educator”, both within and outside of “institutions of higher learning” . . . I have learned to ask [of students] a revealing question. “Who is your favourite musician?” It is remarkable that more often than not, I get no clear answer. There is sometimes a period of uncomfortable silence broken by occasional throat-clearing noises, while the prospective student searches for a name or perhaps tries to guess what name might create the most effective impression. Sometimes an embarrassed silence yields nothing and occasionally there is an equally uncommitted claim to have listened to and liked “everything”.

Like Israels, every year I would find a number of such students standing before me. So what was going on here? Well, despite the obvious negative aspects of this state of affairs, Israels believes (and I agree with him) that most students are at least motivated by something very worthwhile, namely, the “idea of the potential pleasures of performing with and for other people, with the attendant rewards of attention and shared activity” and, of course, with the desire to experience a certain kind of musical freedom and openness through improvisation. These are, he notes:

. . . worthwhile values and have served as a part of the motivation of many artists. But this is a broad image which is insufficiently concrete to serve as a focus for attainment. There is no clear place to begin and the mentor is reduced to helping the applicant to find something to love. Get a model. Find a prototype. Without this there is no image and no passion (ibid).

After twenty-one years of ministerial experience, I know intimately that most people who find their way to the Cambridge Unitarian Church are also motivated by many worthwhile things. For example, the belief that here they might be able to gain a certain sense of mental and spiritual stability and insight, a sense of belonging to a liberal religious community with a venerable, four-hundred-and-fifty-year-old radical and progressive history and lastly, but not leastly, the hope that here they will be helped to develop, in conversation and exploration with others, a personal, creative, confident and improvisational religious freedom and openness towards our wonderful, plural, complex and contingent world. 

But, as good as all these things are they form such a broad canvas that, alone they are wholly “insufficient to serve as a focus for attainment.” Consequently, as a liberal religious minister, I quickly came to realise my primary role was simply to offer up to people certain liberal religious images, prototypes or models whom they could love and about whose example they could become passionate.

In the case of my music students I introduce them to some classic jazz or rock recordings and then, when they finally find a particular bass player they actually like, we can begin to get going by imitating that model in a disciplined way so as to figure out how he or she is playing the things they are. To the disappointment of many of my students this discipline turns out to be harder work than they imagined and so, every so often, I had gently to remind them that this is why they needed role models about whose playing they were truly excited because, without such an energising or motivational image and genuine passion, what was already a hugely challenging task quickly becomes far too difficult to see through to the end. Again and again, I saw that when they remained without an image and a passion my students continued to be directionless players who could get no deep or substantial grip on how actually to play jazz or rock themselves. At best they went on to become mediocre players or, at worst, to become players who only experienced constant feelings of frustration, disappointment and failure. 

Now, it seems to me that all that I have just said about jazz is also true in liberal religious circles. Any person who enters into a liberal religious community but who then, either due to the fault of the community itself or their own personal unwillingness, fails to find, follow and imitate in a disciplined and passionate way a liberal religious prototype or model of what that faith in action looks and feels like, will never get a real grip on what it is actually to become a liberal religious person themselves. In short, everything will remain for them terribly unfocused and unfulfilling; there will be no attainment and no progression. At best they will be mediocre in the matter of living a liberal religious life; at worst they will experience feelings of utter frustration, disappointment and failure. 

In the liberal religious context of the Cambridge Unitarian Church — and, indeed, the Unitarian tradition more widely — the two classic, overlapping models or prototypes unashamedly on offer are, as this blog/podcast series has made clear in various ways, the human Jesus and Socrates. As I’m sure you realise I stress the adjective “human” attached to the name of Jesus because it’s important for me to be clear I am not talking about the God-man of Christianity but, as the contemporary atheist Julian Baggini says in his new book “The Godless Gospel”, I’m talking about a fully human, moral teacher whose “words amount to a purposeful and powerful philosophy, which has much to teach us today.”

Of course, it is true that there are other religious and philosophical models or prototypes a person might follow other than Jesus and Socrates, and it’s important to say here that I’m not making some claim for their absolute uniqueness and value over all other great religious and philosophical teachers — that would be nonsense. All I’m saying is that one has to start somewhere and the liberal religion and philosophy on offer in the context of the Cambridge Unitarian Church where I am minister simply starts with the human Jesus and Socrates. However, in the same way that, after seriously imitating Chuck Israels and Steve Swallow for a few years I began to explore aspects of the playing of dozens of other bass players, it is both possible, and highly desirable, that a person who has actually got going as a liberal religious person by imitating the human Jesus and Socrates then goes on to explore something of the work and examples of other religious and philosophical teachers.   

Nevertheless, despite all the foregoing words, I am fully aware that some religious liberals will continue to seek to resist the basic message of this piece because of a fear that such a disciplined, concentrated process of imitation of one or two primary religious and philosophical figures is actually illiberal and, in the end, will only serve to tie a person down and dangerously limit their freedom and openness to the world. 

But I hope you can intuit — and perhaps even directly glimpse — that the disciplined and passionate imitation of a model only ties down and represses when the model followed is understood as being something merely slavishly to be repeated ad infinitum, without any variation or play according to certain orthodox rules, creeds, beliefs and pre-determined endpoints. But, as Gilles Deleuze realised, in truth, repetition always produces difference. The disciplined, repeated imitation of role models is always potentially capable of radically freeing us because it is only through this process of firstly imitating something tangible that a person is enabled genuinely to push out into the world in the first place. Only then, with increasing confidence at the basic efficacy of the models being imitated, can a person slowly begin to take the risk of going beyond the models to test and experience reality themselves at first-hand. And then, miracle of miracles, in certain special moments, a person can discover genuinely new possibilities of being and acting in the world that help them become the unique, nuanced beings they are and ever wish still to become as they walk the pathway of life. To pick up a line of the poet A. R. Ammons from the regular introduction to this podcast, it is precisely this discipline that ensures that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.

To my music students, I try to make it clear that it was only by, in the first instance, engaging in a repeated, disciplined imitation of Chuck Israels and Steve Swallow that I was able to learn how to move from a vague idea or theory about how to play jazz to actually playing jazz myself, as me. By extension, when I then go on to play for my students I can also show that, despite all my disciplined attempts at imitating Chuck Israels and Steve Swallow, I don’t — and never could — sound exactly like them but only like me, Andrew Brown — whose double bass-playing you hear a snippet of in the theme tune to this podcast. 

What is true in the world of jazz is also true in the world of liberal religion. And, in my ministry here in Cambridge I try to make it clear that it is only by, in the first instance, engaging in a disciplined imitation of some basic liberal religious models, that people who belong to this community have been, and I hope still are, able to learn how to move from a vague idea or theory about how to be a liberal religious person to actually being a genuinely free and open liberal religious person themselves with all their own distinctive, individual demeanours and styles of walking the liberal religious path of life.

As I have already indicated, in my opinion, liberal religion’s tragedy has been to forget this and to have started thinking that the freedom and openness to the world valued by it is either something which passively and “naturally” flourishes without any kind of educational discipline and repetition in play (either in our own lives or those of our children) or, alternatively, it is some kind of off-the-shelf, one-time purchasable lifestyle product that requires no life-long discipline to come into, and remain in, being.

Because of this modern liberal religion has all too often become fatally shallow, sloppy and ill-disciplined and it is no wonder it is declining because, for the most part, it simply doesn’t any longer offer people a life-long religious and philosophical discipline to follow that will actually gift a person with a sense of attainment and so help lead them into the living of an actual, confident, liberal religious life characterised by genuine freedom and openness to the world. 

So, my final plea to any liberal religious listeners out there is please, please, please heed Chuck Israels’ words to his students and make sure you, and your local religious community, has on offer basic models and prototypes and that you are prepared to encourage and embody a passionate imitation of them. Because, without offering ourselves or the world such a living, liberal religious discipline, it’s really all over bar the shouting — or, what is more likely, all over bar the long, sullen, silence of disappointment and failure.

So, let me now end where I began with the words of my friend, John Morgan:  

And, in the end, it will not matter how much we have, rather how much we have given. It will not matter how much we know, but rather how much we love. And it will not matter how much we profess to believe, but rather how deeply we live the few enduring truths we claim as ultimate. All the rest is discipline.

—o0o—

If you would like to join a conversation about this podcast then our next Wednesday Evening Zoom meeting will take place on 10th March at 19.30 GMT. Details in the next blog/episode.



Comments

Gergiev and Temirkanov were/are passionate devotees of their conducting teacher, the late Ilya Musin, yet both have only vestiges of his technique remaining. I myself, who also studied under the maestro, decided at the end of the first year of study to perform in a lesson "the way I would naturally conduct, rather than the way he would expect me to conduct." Fearfully, I awaited his judgement. "Well, Stephen, I think we have seen you really conducting for the first time!". QED. All the rest (of the first year) had presumably been discipline.

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