Devotion: Jambalaya and Jazz

This devotion was given by NLC bass section member, Dave Michel. Dave shared this prior to rehearsal last week, as the choir prepared for their trip to New Orleans (which is where they are now!). Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @NLChoir or #myNLC to see what the choir has been up to in the Big Easy.

This is Philosophy of Music 107. I am your instructor, Mr. Michel (M-I-no T-C-H-E-one L).

Many of you have taken my Philosophy of Music 101 class, which was about paradox - paradox in music, spirituality and life. You might recall that the concept of "now" is a beautiful paradox ("now" - oops, its already in the past), and Martin Luther's statement "simul justus et peccator" - "simultaneously saint and sinner"- which illustrates our inherent Christian contradiction condition (sounds like an episode title from Big Bang Theory).

But now we're heading South. New Orleans is full of paradox, as well as paradox's close sibling, creativity. I'm fired up and ready to go, because I love jazz and jambalaya, and I've never been to Nawlins before. In August.

From Wikipedia: "New Orleans is world-famous for its food. The indigenous cuisine is distinctive and influential.  Local ingredients, French, Spanish, Italian, African, Native American, Cajun (French Canadian), Chinese, and a hint of Cuban traditions combine to produce a truly unique and easily recognizable Louisiana flavor." How can a cuisine so distinctive be made from an amalgam of so many different cultures? Jambalaya, gumbo, shrimp and grits, oysters, étouffée, red beans and rice, and beignets. Mmm-mmmmm.

Highway 61 and the Big Muddy connect Minnesota and New Orleans, and music anchors both the river and the road. From Dylan in Duluth, Elvis and Isaac Hayes in Memphis, Miles Davis and Clark Terry in St. Louis, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson in Mississippi, and Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and the Nevilles and Marsalises in New Orleans, all are part of the creativity that the river seems to feed.

What makes New Orleans music so distinctive? Here's what I think.

There's a deep spirituality in New Orleans, and also a celebration of the carnal. Mardi Gras is the big month-long party you get out of your system before Lent begins. There is much fun (and yes, debauchery and bawdiness) right before the road to Jerusalem. Damn you, Paradox!

The gospel, blues and jazz traditions in New Orleans started as an expression of faith that is firmly rooted in this world. Slavery figures prominently in the spirituality that developed these musical forms. This music inspires hope, while acknowledging the direness of our current existence. We are broken people, but God is the Healer. And we know and trust in God in our brokenness.

There's a special sense of community in New Orleans, and that is reflected in improvisation. When jazz players are really cooking, there is an amazing cohesiveness and communication to their playing, even with the most "outside" playing ("outside" as in "drawing outside the lines"). Jazz is the art of making things up on the spot, and having them fit in with the structure of the music and whatever else the other musicians are making up on the spot. Individual freedom within the context of a commonly-understood structure (chordal or otherwise) is the essence of jazz.

In the same way, New Orleans has been shaped by an incredible wealth of cultural and ethnic diversity. While often creating friction, this diversity has informed the New Orleans culture and inspired music that celebrates both individual (improvisatory) contributions, as well as providing a grounding of tradition.

And that's the last thing in my list. New Orleans has a deep sense of tradition and its place in the world. If you've ever heard Wynton Marsalis or Harry Connick, Jr. talk about music education (especially jazz education), you will get a glimpse of how seriously New Orleans takes its role as a cultural center.

So, take in some indigenous food and music during our short stay in New Orleans, and remember - a paradox lurks behind every corner.

The Lord be with you...

Gracious God, you have blessed us to be a blessing. Be with us as we prepare for and participate in the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, and help us to reflect your light through music. Give us the strength to celebrate your whole creation, show the joy of community and be ambassadors of a great musical tradition. In your Name we pray,


DevotionsAdam Reinwald