The Jazz Theologian

Ralph Ellison shows us that jazz is more than music.  His novel, "Invisible Man," is a jazz text.  As a jazz musician, he decided to see if jazz could exist in another medium–Eureka! 


Most jazz compositions begin with an opening set of notes that set the theme for the song.  This, Bass Line, serves as the guide to the song and the improvisers.  Know the Bass Line, know the song.  If you get lost, just find the Bass Line.  Just think of the theme song to the old sit-com, Barney Miller…can you hear it’s opening notes…that’s a classic Bass Line.

Ellison does the same thing with literature. 

In the prologue to "Invisible Man," he sets up the Bass Line…Red, White and Blues.  That is his description of life in America.  He plays it as an opening chord–arpeggio style (where the notes are played one at a time instead of simultaneously).


Since the chord was in his dessert, he then spends the next few scenes playing the notes one at a time…red…white…blues.  (If you are not fully tracking, you need to get a copy of this book and read this, for it is brilliant!)  Next, in chapter one, he plays the chord again as he describes a woman with red cheeks, white skin, blue eyes…to drive the point home she has an American flag tattooed on her stomach.  Then he begins to improvise.  The joy of the chapter is trying to figure out how he is going to play these notes.  He plays them forwards, backwards and forward…Red, white, blue, white, red white, blue.  Then on the last time through red, white and he leaves the blue note out.  You are left wondering where it is, is it in the next chapter?  No, its in your gut, for after reading chapter one, you feel, blue.  Like I said it is brilliant, and my description is so inadequate.  Once he sets the Bass Line, he is free to bring it back when needed but also free to improvise on the source of the blues in America–Black and White.

All of this to say–Jazz is more than music!  This being the case, what would a jazz theology look like in America?  Before one can ask that question, we must first discover what the Bass Lines are…

(my friend, Pete Gall, once gave me some great advice–don’t just read this book, get the audio version–you can actually hear the jazz in the literature)

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