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EPISODE 40: Christianity and Jazz

The unique art form of jazz, especially because of its essence of improvisation, has some powerful implications for our spiritual growth. Chip Hammond is both a Presbyterian pastor and a jazz drummer. We discuss the intersection of the world of jazz and faith.

Go Deeper:

Chip’s church’s website:

Read about Spirituality in a Minor Key

Recommended Reading:

A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel by William Edgar

No More Faking Fine: Ending the Pretending by Esther Fleece Allen


Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and today my conversation partner is Chip Hammond. Chip is the pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Leesburg, Virginia. He's also a jazz drummer, which is probably driving some of you crazy right now. How can someone be a pastor of a Presbyterian church, of all things, and a jazz drummer? We're going to talk about jazz. We're going to talk about Christianity's influence on jazz, and jazz's influence on Christians. And Chip, welcome to Questions That Matter. It's great to have you.

It's great to be here, Randy. Thanks.

Music Genre

Chip, you and I met several years ago. You're a senior fellow also for us at the institute, and you've written some articles for us, a couple of different resources that have been very, very helpful. But it was soon after we first met that I was visiting your church, and I saw a set of drums and I thought, “Oh, well, that looks interesting.” And then you told me they were your drums. I thought, “Oh, that's even more interesting.” And so, we've gotten to know each other a little bit through this world of jazz.

I was a music major back 150 years ago when I was an undergraduate student. I would say that, before I became a Christian, jazz was actually my god. A very disappointing god, by the way. It's a really beautiful art form, but it's not a very good god. And the Lord delivered me from that. But I still enjoy jazz. And when you don't make it a god, it's a wonderful gift, like so many, many things. But first, tell our listeners a little bit about how it is that you came to faith, because I believe your story is worth some good reflection on.

Well, yeah, I think that when I was young, Randy, I was really into music, but it wasn't jazz. It was the popular music of the time, which was in the ’70s. And I grew up in a nominally Roman Catholic home, but my family really had no faith. We didn't really go to church. And I suppose it was probably around when I was about twelve years old, I remember asking my mom. I said to her, “Mom, why is it wrong to steal?” And she was a little taken aback, and she said, “Well, you weren't raised that way.” And I said to her, “Well, if I had been raised that way, would it be okay?”

Good question.

And she said no. She said, “You’d get in trouble and go to jail.” I said, “So things that you can go to jail for, those things are wrong.” And she said yes. I said, “So people aiding the Jews in Germany and the Netherlands and France in the 1940s, that was wrong?” And she said no. And what I was really asking is what is at the basis of right and wrong. Well, my mom, a wonderful person, became a follower of Jesus later in life, but wasn't really a follower of Jesus, I don't think, then, but was a believer in God. She really had no answer for me.

And the result of that was that, from about the time I was twelve years old, I decided that I was an atheist. And it was very soon after that that a thought occurred to me. I think that most atheists, thankfully are not really consistent, and thankfully I wasn't as consistent as I could have been. But what I realized is that, if there is no God, there's no right and wrong. That we're just here for a time. The planet's here for a time. Everything is going to pass away. And once it does, it won't matter anymore. And so there really is nothing that is right or wrong. And I lived somewhat consistently with that through my teenage years. I think that God preserved me from the worst of it and preserved me from getting caught in things that I probably could have gone to prison for. But I think about the time that I was entering college, I began to think about that question: If there is no God, then there's no right and wrong. And the weight of that “if” really began to weigh on me.

Well, at about that time, my brother became a Christian, and his life just dramatically changed. It really caught my attention. And I began to talk to some of his Christian friends. I didn't really like what I was hearing, but I was really intrigued, and I began to become attracted to that. I think I still had that kind of intellectual question. And interestingly, I went to a state university, and the first semester there I had a class, Introduction to Philosophy. I think the professor was probably a Christian, though he never said. And he had us read, just ping ponging back and forth throughout the whole semester, arguments for and against the existence of God. And we did some paper on that, as I recall. I don't recall the paper. I remember, as we were coming up to the date of the final, I asked the professor, “What’s the final going to be on?” And he said, “Well, if you've done the reading, don't worry about it. You’ll do fine with it.” And when I walked into that class, there was one question on the final exam. The question was does God exist or not? And I walked out of that class, after reading those things, walked out of that class realizing that I was not an atheist anymore.

But then I had the question of so who is this God I believe in? And through a series of things, I think that, when I look back on it now, I can see God's tremendous providence that the people I met, the people that I came in contact with, all were my pathway to coming to Christ.

Wow! So, a philosophy final exam is a crucial component in your testimony. Amazing! Can God work in a philosophy classroom? I love it. Man!

So, I wanted people to hear a little bit of that background, just that story. But when did playing the drums come along, and when and how did it lead toward jazz drumming?

Yeah, well, I began playing the drums probably about the same time I became an atheist, at about twelve years old.

A lot of people think those two go together, by the way.

Yeah, yeah. But I had an interest in it. My sister, who's about ten years older than me, the fellow that she was dating, who's now her husband and has been for the last many decades, was a drummer in a band. And so, I became interested in the drums through him. And he was playing the popular music at the time, but he really liked the drummers that pioneered the way, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich and Dave Tough, and there's a whole bunch of others.

And so, I began taking private lessons with a fellow by the name of Carl Wolf in Bloomfield, New Jersey. Carl Wolf was a very well-known jazz session player, and so all my lessons were jazz oriented. I think that caused me to play a little bit differently than a lot of the other contemporary drummers that I was playing with. So that's how I got interested in music.


I think the same thing—what you said, that for me music was kind of a god. And after I came to faith in Jesus, I just let that go for a very long time. And probably about 8, 10 years ago, became interested again. I'd always had a practice pad, always had drumsticks out. I just found it very relaxing. But I began to… you approach jazz differently the way you play. You just approach it differently than you approach rock. And there were things about it that were subtler. Dynamics matter more. There were things that I just liked about it, that I found challenging. And so, I began to study that, make a study of it in my spare time.

And I started going to jazz jams, everywhere from on the border of West Virginia out to Washington, DC. And have met a lot of great musicians, good people, and have started playing again. So, I have really enjoyed it.

All right, so I'm going to jump way ahead, because I know that your church just sponsored an event a month or so ago about jazz. Was it called Faith in a Minor Key or something like that?

It was called Spirituality in a Minor Key.

There we go. Yeah. And so, what prompted that? And how did all that go?

Well, when I was at Westminster Seminary, there's a fellow, he still teaches there. He's probably getting close to retirement, but his name is Bill Edgar, and Bill Edgar, William Edgar, has written a number of things on music. He actually has a degree in ethnomusicology from Harvard, and he went to Westminster, and then he went to France to Aix-en-Provence, where he got his doctorate theology degree. And he taught at the seminary there in Aix-en-Provence, was involved with Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri, and the whole kind of cultural transformation thing.

But Bill is an unbelievably gifted jazz pianist, and I think that, while he was in France, he played some jazz to help support himself there while he was a student. And when I was at Westminster, I played with him a few times. We played on a few occasions together. That was a fun thing to do. And Bill does this lecture series, called “Heaven in a Nightclub.” And in that lecture series, he just talks about the kind of the symbiosis between jazz and spirituality, particularly Christian spirituality.

And I got hold of his bibliography. I've read his books. But besides that, just the bibliography that he had recommended. And I've read most of those things, and I just kind of took a deep dive into it, and I got this idea to do this thing. So, I asked a bunch of my musician friends, “Hey, I want to do this presentation called Spirituality in a Minor Key. It's a kind of a story and song event. It's going to have talked, and then that talking is going to be underscored or accented or illustrated with music. Would you help me do that?”

And so, I got a number of people who agreed to do that. Most of these people are not church people, but they were glad to come and help me with that. And in that, it was really not hard to bear witness, to bear testimony to the gospel, to the death and resurrection of Jesus and the hope that it gives. I think one of the things that was really gratifying to me is one of the musicians after that, because they had no idea what I was going to say, said to me, “Hey, that stuff that you said while we were doing this,” and I thought, “Oh, boy, here it comes.” He said, “That was really great.” He said, “If you ever do this again, would you please call me?”

How about that?

And this is a guy who doesn't… he's not churched. He doesn't go to church.

All right, so there's so many different directions we could go here with this conversation. We could talk about… So, your love and interest in jazz connects you to non-Christians who also love jazz. And so, you're going to jam sessions, and you do gigs and stuff. And so, we could go, but we're not going to… We could go in the direction of, I want to say to our listeners, what are some of these interests that you have that could be common ground with your non-Christian neighbors or coworkers or people? Maybe you love going to art museums. I mean, there's a million topics, and very often we do those things with fellow Christians. Well, why not invite some non-Christians along? So that's what you're doing with your jazz drumming. So, we could talk about that, but we're not going to.

Jazz Concept

So, I want to explore the unique thing about jazz, because this is something that I've been thinking about a bunch, and I've tried to teach it in some different settings, and even for people who have no interest in jazz or no experience with jazz, I think they can get this concept. One of the essences of jazz is improvisation within a structure. So, what I mean is, jazz musicians, they decide they're going to play a certain song, “How High the Moon,” and they play it, the drummer plays it, the piano player plays it, the saxophone player plays it, the bass player plays it. They’re all playing. They're moving through the same set of chord progressions, and a soloist will play the melody, but then they'll play the song again, only this time the soloist doesn't play the melody. He improvises a whole new melody, but it's still within the structure of that same chord progression. And you listen to great jazz musicians, it seems like they can play the tune over ten, twenty times and they don't seem to run out of ideas. And they're improvising and creating new melodies. But again, that all fits within the sequence of the chord progression. And it seems to me that a great deal of the Christian life has to be improvising within the chord progression or the structure of the Christian faith.

This is only an audio podcast, but we're recording where we can see each other, and you're nodding, you're in agreement with me, which I'm very encouraged by. But isn't this a picture of… We live out the Christian life needing to improvise within the structure of the gospel and of Biblical theology?

Well, yeah. First of all, I think that's a great characterization. Wynton Marsalis has characterized jazz as a conversation. He said that, whereas other forms of music are like a poetry reading or a recitation, where you memorize things, that jazz is really a conversation. And very much within the parameters, as you said, of the structure of the song, the form of the song, what anybody plays is going to be dependent on what anybody else plays. It really is a back and forth kind of conversation thing. I think that one of the things that's beneficial about that, as I think of it from the standpoint of somebody who plays the music, is you're always thinking about, “What can I do to support and encourage and help the person who's soloing?”

I think that one of the problems sometimes in the Christian faith is that we're so eager to—or I should say not in the Christian faith, but among Christians, —that we're so eager to convince people that they're sinners that a lot of times Christians don't do anything that's encouraging to anyone. They just want to tell people how awful they are.

And I have just found that, as I go into these situations, not just musically, but get to know people, open up to them, make myself vulnerable, tell people things about them that I appreciate, that those things, whereas I think some Christians would think, “Oh, no! You don't want to do that because people will think they're good in themselves,” or whatnot. I've found a lot of times that those are really just kind of foundational to having an open relationship with people that facilitates the gospel. And because people are made in the image of God, all people have good things about them that are reflected and all redeemed, even redeemed people, still have remnants of sin.

So human beings, just by virtue of being made in the image of God, fallen though we are, this kind of conglomeration of goodness that has taint to it.

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Yeah. And it does seem to me that music touches people in a way that makes them think there is something more to life. There’s something… I'm reluctant to say supernatural, but maybe I shouldn't be reluctant. There is something divine or something transcendent about it. I'm always intrigued with the fact that so many people will say, when they're listening to a piece of music, and music must occur in time, they will say that, “When I listen to this piece of music, it's as if time stands still.” So, it's this thing that occurs in time, and yet it points to a timelessness, and that's true of any kind of music.

Again, coming back to the uniqueness’s of jazz, I want to be careful that we're not saying negative things about other kinds of music. On my car ride into the office, the C.S. Lewis Institute office this morning, I listened to Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, and oh my, was it just delightful! But classical music, and again, classical musicians need to listen. It's also a kind of conversation. They need to listen, but they're playing prescribed notes that have been decided beforehand, whereas in jazz they're improvising. They’re making things up. And so perhaps it's more of a spontaneous conversation, and it does require more listening. Well, I shouldn't say more, but it requires a listening, and like you said, a supporting of.

I read an interview that you did about this whole thing. Let's kind of point it in a different direction. You commented in this interview about Christianity's influence on jazz. So, we've been talking about jazz influence on the Christian, that living a jazz kind of shaped life can help in our spiritual growth. But how about coming from the other direction? How did Christianity influence and shape jazz?

Yeah. I think that it's kind of an interesting story, I think, because jazz grows out of blues, which is an earlier music, the Jim Crow era, post-Civil War, probably just before the turn of the 20th century. Blues was not really known to white audiences. A jazz musician by the name of W.C. Handy was the one who introduced it to audiences, when he had heard it. But blues is an earlier form.

And so, what is the blues? Well, the blues, I think, really puts its finger on what the problems, the difficulties in life are. Now, I think I pointed out in that interview that you're referring to that early on churches, neither white nor black, really liked the blues or jazz. And that was largely because of the associations of places where it was played. That could be in some kind of rough places or keep people out late Saturday night, so they weren't paying attention on Sunday morning. And there are some, what I would call dirty blues, that are kind of like bawdy or racy.

But if you listen to most blues songs, most blues songs are a lamentation of sin. And it's really putting its finger on what the problems are. In a way, sometimes, I think that the Christian faith wants, particularly the American Christian faith, wants to rush past. We like triumphal things. We don't like suffering, and we don't like to sit there in suffering.

But as I've pointed out in other places, really the Bible is full of blues. The writer of Ecclesiastes begins that book with, “Meaningless, meaningless. All is meaningless.” And the book goes on, and at the end of it, there's an encouragement to trust in God. But there's no answer to the difficult questions it’s given. It’s not, “Here’s your intellectual satisfaction.” Nor are things remedied. People still die. Life still seems unfair.

Psalm 88 is a psalm of lament that closes, it closes, the psalm ends with the really cheery line: “My closest friend is darkness.” Those are the blues. That's the blues. Psalm 34 says, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.” Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” And so, this was not jazz related, but there's a woman by the name of Esther Fleece who wrote a book called No More Faking Fine, and in it, she had this quote. I think it's really meaningful to this topic. She said, “Spiritual maturity does not mean living a lament-less life. The songs of lament are the very songs we need for healing, but these are not the songs that we sing in church. We often call worship music praise songs. And these are good and necessary songs guiding us to praise God. But where are the songs expressing the harsh realities of the world we live in? If we begin to believe that God only accepts happy songs, our perception of God and the life of faith will be skewed. There were times when I had to awkwardly walk out of church in the middle of a service because I could not honestly sing. ‘I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart.’”

And the purpose of the blues, as anybody who has really played them will tell you—that's not me, but people who really play the blues, that the purpose of singing the blues was not to be blue. It was to face the blues, to deal with the blues. And interestingly, I think, you know, Randy, that about a year ago, my youngest daughter passed away suddenly, and it was a devastating blow, and I had a friend of mine, very well meaning, who said, “Well, you should listen to praise music.” Well, I wouldn't have found much solace in praise music, but where I did find a lot of solace was in listening to blues.

Thank you for sharing that.

Because the blues, like the book of Ecclesiastes, says, “You’re not crazy for feeling the way you do.”

Yes. Oh, that's right! And look at how many of the Psalms are lament psalms. They start out with things like, “How long, oh, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” I don't think I've ever sung a song in a worship service that began with those words. But there are so many times when that is where we begin. And you're right. The blues and jazz, they help us feel those laments more deeply. And if you can feel those laments or those regrets for personal sin or ache for a world to be made right in a world filled with injustice, and we could go on and on and on. If you feel those laments deeply, profoundly, then the good news of the gospel is so rich and full and meaningful. So, we're not just staying in, you know, lamenting all the time.

Other than Psalm 88, all of the other lament psalms do turn the corner, but they take a while to turn the corner. And some of them have that great Hebrew word Selah, and that means to kind of pause and reflect. And I've heard a number of people say, sometimes Selah takes several days. Let's not turn that corner so quickly. We do need to turn the corner, for sure, but we don't want to short circuit the process. And again, for me, listening to blues and jazz can help me. Like you just said, it means to face the blues or to face the lament, face the difficulties. What was the name of that book again by Esther Fleece?

Oh. It's called No More Faking Fine.

And you recommend it?

I haven't read the whole thing yet, but I've enjoyed it. I don't know exactly what she faced, but she went through a difficult time in her life and tried to deal with that by the typical Christian response, that I'm supposed to be okay.

Yeah, yeah. And so, from what you know, she's a Christian?

Oh, she is. Yeah.

Yeah, yeah. Okay. Well, I want to touch a little bit on Duke Ellington because I also saw that you mentioned him in the interview. And what a complex figure, but a brilliant genius and a great composer. And I really do mean a composer, not just a songwriter. I think sometimes we think, “Oh, he just wrote songs.” Well, he really, I think, aspired to be a classical composer and writing of things like symphonies and tone poems and things like that. Speak a little bit about Duke Ellington and how you've grown in appreciation for him.

Yeah, he really was a very complex figure. If you've seen pictures of him when he was young, a very dapper man. He had a great fondness for women, and they apparently for him. And as I said-

That was nicely said. Very good. Let's keep this podcast for a broad audience. Thank you.

I think I said, one other time, when I was speaking on it, Randy, that he had a King David like appreciation for women and had those weaknesses. But his mother, when he was growing up, took him to two churches every Sunday, to Sunday school and took him to those two church services, two different churches, one in the morning and one in the evening, an AME Church and a Baptist church.

And Duke Ellington said later that he got three educations. He said that, “I got an education at school, I got an education at the pool hall, and I got an education from the Bible, and the other two educations would make no sense if it weren't for the education from the Bible.” Kind of a complex figure, I think, because he played jazz, and jazz was on the outs. I think it's complicated as to why that was. But certainly, in the dominant white culture at the time, there was a lot of fear that jazz would cause a kind of acceptance of African-Americans and African-American culture.
And so, it was on the outs with white churches and white culture that, for good or bad, a lot of times, churches, once they get ingrained in the society, become the defenders of the status quo.

And then, of course, the black churches are fighting for kind of an acceptance. And having a music that's so disliked was not probably a way to get there, so disliked by the white churches. And so, I think that Ellington felt unwelcome at churches because of what he did. And yet the members of his band—I think it was a trombone player. I cannot remember the fellow’s name, actually later became a Roman Catholic priest. And people have said that they would at times walk in on Duke and find him kneeling in prayer or see him sitting reading his Bible. I think that, toward the end of his life, that he wrote, if you know Duke Ellington wrote three sacred concerts at different places, and it seems to me…. There's a book by, I think her name is Janna Tull Steed. I think it's called Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography, and that’s a book worth reading to see the kind of complexity of Edward Ellington and his kind of an unorthodox, off the beaten path, but seemed to be sincere spirituality.

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Yeah. And I might want to say, for any of our listeners who have never listened to jazz, have very little interest, Duke Ellington is a good way to start, because he does have a whole lot of songs that are relatively short and really beautiful songs. A lot of them are a lot of fun. “It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” I find his “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” to be a really great, fun song. So, he’s a good one to enter. We don't have to be saying that we're approving of everything about Duke Ellington's life. No. I mean, there are some terrible things about his life, but music, I believe, is a gift from God, even if it comes through very, very imperfect composers. And they all are.

Well, like Mozart.

Yeah, that's right. I read a collection of short bios of all of these different composers, and the vast majority of them are just a mess, and they made a wreck of their lives. There was one chapter about Bach and Dvorak and Haydn, I think it was, and he said, “These are the only three that seem close to sane.” And the others were just… you know. So yes. So, all of these are imperfect ones.

But the experience of allowing jazz to help us lament and regret sin more, I think, is one of the greatest things in my own experience. And also listening to great improvisers. It creates or it helps stimulate a kind of creativity that is not all that different from biblical meditation. You take a phrase in the Bible, and you meditate on it, and you improvise on it, and you start exploring, “Okay, where does this truth of God's word apply for me in my family, in my job, in my community?” And there's something about listening to the way musicians improvise and expand that I think can be a very helpful stimulus for us.

But anyway, we should bring this to a closer a little bit. But say, any other comments you want to make about the unique ways jazz has shaped you in your own faith?

Well, I think that those things that you had said, of sometimes really just sort of… I think that there's a tendency sometimes in our Christian circles to sort of whitewash sin. My sins are acceptable, the other guys are not so much, right? That we have a whole host of culturally, maybe even ecclesiastically, acceptable sin. I think that that kind of transcendent connection that music brings, when you can appreciate the artistry of somebody, also I think it helps you see your own flaws in that.

My mom… And I've told this story to some people before. My mom, I told you, later in her life she became a Christian, and that was really great. Well, she ended up joining a church. She had read the New Testament several times. She had never read the Old Testament before. And she told me one time, a couple of years before her death, she said, “I'm going to read the Old Testament.” And I said, “Well, that's great, Mom.” I said, “Don’t be put off if there are things that you don't understand. It's a very different culture than the Greco-Roman world. It's more removed. The language is translated from is different than the languages we're used to.”  And she said, “Okay.” So, I talked to her a few weeks later about it. I’d spoken with her in the intervening time but didn't talk to her about that. And I said, “Hey, how's your reading in the Old Testament coming?” And she said, “Oh, that.” She said, “I gave that up,” like it was tobacco or something.

And I said, “Why? Was it too hard to understand?” She said no. She wasn't hard to understand at all. She said, “Those people were horrible. Daughters sleeping with their father. People murdering one another, stealing things from one another.” She said, “I couldn't take it. They were horrible people.” Well, it's not just that they had those problems. We have those problems. And what I said, which I think is really true, that the New Testament highlights the Savior that God sent to us. The Old Testament tells us why we needed Him.

Well said, well said. Yeah. Well, thanks so much, Chip. This has been a fun discussion for me. I hope it has been for our listeners as well. I hope there aren't too many people just rolling their eyes thinking, “Jazz? I wasn't into it before.” No, I hope you'll check it out. I hope that there'll be some blues singing that leads you to greater rejoicing and singing of those praise songs. Well, we hope that this podcast, like all of our podcasts, have been helpful for you as you seek to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Please visit the different links that I'll put in the show notes below this. And please visit our Website for lots of different resources and articles and other materials that can help you grow in discipleship of deep, deep heart and mind. Thanks.

Brought to you by the C.S. Lewis Institute and the Questions That Matter Podcast with Randy Newman.

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