Monday, January 16, 2012

Jazz & Freedom

This morning, my friend Jared sent me a link to a superb folk song – Hymn #101 by Joe Pug. Yesterday, he had heard a sermon on the perplexing verses of James 5:1-3, and as he wrestled with the question of “What is the testimony of my stuff?” he couldn’t seem to get this song out of his head. I clicked on the link again and again – and with each listen, I too began to wrestle. “Oh they say I come with less / than I should rightfully possess / Isay the more I buy the more I’m bought.” Certainly music has the power to convict.

In 1964, the city of Berlin, Germany, held its very first Jazz Days, and the organizer of the concert asked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to write the forward for the program. As expected, Dr. King had some brilliant words to share about jazz and its ability to help man overcome. “Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from the music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down." 

The Berlin Wall was constructed just a few years before Dr. King wrote these words, and I believe MLK knew that the power of jazz wasn’t limited to fighting for civil rights in America. Surely, God intended music to comfort all of the oppressed, from those suffering under the thumb of Jim Crow to those clawing desperately to tear open the Iron Curtain.

For me, 2011 was the year of Otis Redding. I simply couldn’t get enough of the King of Soul – I must have listened to “Cigarettes& Coffee” at least 130 times. “Try a Little Tenderness” was probably the best piece of marriage advice I received all year. I spouted out Otis Redding trivia at every opportunity: did you know that Aretha Franklin’s hit “Respect” is actually an Otis Redding cover? She never would have been crowned the Queen of Soul if it wasn’t first for the King.

As I was shaving this morning, Redding’s cover of Sam Cooke’s classic “A Change Is Gonna Come” randomly played on my iPod. Already reflecting on the MLK holiday, I paused and prayed for those who are oppressed yet continue to cry out with hope “It’s been a long time coming, but I know, a change is gonna come.”

Tonight, I had dinner with a colleague at a little Italian joint in Stockholm called Ciao Ciao. I had a bourbon straight while he drank wine, and we joked about the differences between Swedish and American cultures. “How much fun would it be to hold our next team meeting in the States?” I proposed. He agreed that he’d love to try all the fun things the US has to offer that are outlawed in Sweden – handguns, low taxes, and beer that costs less than $20 a pint – but that he didn’t think it would be possible.

You see, one of the colleagues on our team is based in a country that has its own Berlin Wall of sorts. There, unless you’re related to some sort of dignitary, it takes a miracle for one of its male citizens under the age of 40 to get a visa to the USA. Even if the US granted him one, his country wouldn’t let him use it – they’re afraid that if he tastes just a bit of freedom, he wouldn’t come back.

“God has wrought many things out of oppression,” Dr. King wrote in that Berlin jazz program, continuing: “Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all these.”

I’m still wrestling with that Joe Pug song. But I know this – I want my stuff to shout a testimony of freedom. Perhaps I’ll start by sending my colleague a CD of Otis Redding tunes. It’s been a long time coming, but I know, a change is gonna come.

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