Arts & Culture & At Work

Coltrane and Calling: A Faith and Work Message for Jazz Appreciation Month

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April in the District of Columbia is a magical time of year. Washington welcomes a cloud of pink petals amidst the blooming cherry trees at the tidal basin.

Signs of spring aside, April also holds another reason to celebrate. The month is commemorated as Jazz Appreciation Month. This singularly American genre of music originated in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century. Just a few notes of the genre’s distinctive rhythms evoke the smell of beignets and coffee in the French Quarter and the warm spice of Cajun gumbo in a crowed sidewalk café.

Just as New Orleans would not be the same without the lilting tones of a jazz melody on the saxophone, jazz itself would not be the same without saxophonist John Coltrane. In his book The Call, Os Guinness tells the story of the jazz giant.

Guinness recounts the early success of “Trane,” who played in combos headed up by jazz greats Dizzie Gillespie and Miles Davis. While success was sweet, it did not satisfy.

In the early years of the 1950’s, Coltrane’s life teetered close to a tragic end due to a near-fatal drug overdose in San Francisco.  The traumatic experience proved transformative, as the brush with death ultimately led Coltrane to an encounter with God.

Guinness writes that Coltrane’s finest work came after this divine appointment, including his famous piece A Love Supreme, in which he responded musically to his experience of the power of God’s love.

Guinness recounts that after a particularly superb live performance of A Love Supreme, Coltrane left the stage with the words “Nunc dimittis” (“Now you dismiss). This Latin phrase was part of a common evening prayer referencing the prayer of Simeon in Luke chapter 2:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.  And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

Right there in the heat of the stage lights, John Coltrane connected with the experience of a Jewish man thousands of years ago in the Jerusalem temple courtyard. Both men, worlds and ages apart, felt a calling fulfilled.

Like Coltrane, we too are working towards the consummation of a calling.

Our own stories follow the arc of the scriptures, as we were first created in God’s image to work and now feel the effects of the Fall in our vocations even as we experience moments of redemption.

Yet, consummation awaits. As John writes in Revelation 21:3-5a,

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

This world and our work ache with the curse of sin. We may never experience fulfillment to the same extent as Simeon and Coltrane. Yet we can wait with sure hope for the restoration of all things when we will one day say with Coltrane, “Nunc dimittis.”

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