Peter Goodwin Heltzel is associate professor of theology and director of the Micah Institute at New York Theological Seminary and author of Resurrection City: A Theology of Improvisation.
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Smalls Jazz Club is a Greenwich Village dive with a mysterious past — it’s a late-night hangout with a history of bringing jazz musicians together across generations. Its walls are covered with photos of jazz icons, including one of Louis Armstrong behind the musicians, and jazz lovers of all races and ethnicities pack into every nook and cranny of this basement venue to encounter new songs of the soul.
On May 28, 2010, I found myself also crammed inside (not for the first or last time) with a coterie of good friends: Josef, Larry, Millard, and Sekou. The band featured a virtuoso saxophone player backed by a rhythm section of drums, piano, and bass. They played jazz standards, but they also improvised, soloing and showing off their chops, riffing on the familiar melodies and making that night a space of hope and inspiration. It was a one-of-a-kind experience. Something went down. Something happened. There was an encounter with transcendence.
Jazz is music, multiplicity, and magic all in one. It is a multilayered experience of the musical dimension of our humanity. It touches the blue note in our heart, and it offers a new way of experiencing life — life together. Making music together gives each musician the chance to sing his or her song. Listening to others’ songs propels us to sing our own. We inspire and are inspired by each other. When our life songs are infused with faith, they bear witness to the jazz-like Creator, whose Spirit continues to hover over, under, in, and above the creation. Jazz energizes us to move with the Spirit.
I am so “jazzed” to share my new book Resurrection City. It grows out of ten years of living in New York City during the post 9/11 milieu, teaching and learning from hundreds of bright students at New York Theological Seminary, many of whom are baptized in the Jazz culture of Harlem. It also grows out of my childhood in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where I was raised with the rhythm of Delta Blues and the improvisational spirit of New Orleans Jazz in my ears and in my heart.
I see this improvisational spirit as vital to the renewal of the prophetic church today. Just as jazz musicians improvise in musical ensembles, members of the church need to improvise as we seek to proclaim and embody the love and justice of God. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a jazzman for justice. King’s vision of “the beloved community” inspires the church to press onward to pursue the resurrection-shalom of the cities of today.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the civil rights movement stopped in shock. Shaken and confused, seeking and searching, its leaders decided to continue King’s Poor People’s Campaign by building a tent city on the National Mall in Washington DC. People from around the country converged on the nation’s capital to bear communal witness to the ravages of poverty and homelessness. They called it “Resurrection City,” a physical parable of a loving, equal, and just community.
With its bold reconfiguring of a symbolic American space, Resurrection City represented an important moment in the movement for justice. Thousands of poor and homeless converged on the National Mall in the space between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, pitching tents on the grassy knoll and playing in the reflection pool. This was a critical moment when the movement’s struggle for racial and economic justice was dramatized for the whole nation to see.
Resurrection City was a mystical-prophetic epiphany, a burning bush, a tender shoot of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign which was quickly crushed by crazy politics and stormy weather. But its roots were deep. Like the roots of jazz, which sink down into our ears and wrap themselves around our hearts, its roots remain healthy and strong, finding new and creative ways to dig in and renew the soil of our cities today, to perform in the face of oppression a theatrical pre-enactment of the inevitable victory of Justice and Mercy in all creation.
Inspired both by the improvisational spirit of jazz and the memory of Resurrection City, this book traces the roots of Justice and Mercy from deep in the biblical narrative, following them through the rough soil of ante-bellum America and into the civil rights era, when the tender shoots springing from them burst finally into a glorious tangle of jazz riffs, solos, and arpeggios of freedom and equality. The book closes with a theological riff on musical icon John Coltrane’s Love Supreme.
I am excited to have been able to launch the book in Washington, D.C. this past weekend, 44 years after the Poor People’s Campaign built the first Resurrection City out along the National Mall.
May the Improvisational-Spirit of God open us all to new music, to songs of Jubilee-Justice that burst out from the roots of our being, so that we might all sing and scat, laying down riff upon riff — with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven — for the shalom of our cities the world around.