I Could Fly
[J]ust as improvisation encourages a sense of the inexhaustibility of both occasional and cultural constrains, and thus a confidence in the future musical possibilities, so the very fact that traditions have lived on in the Christian community and unlocked unforeseen initiatives in an enormous variety of occasional constraints can produce a confident expectation of the their potential fruitfulness in the Church’s future. Improvisation can instruct us in what J.B. Metz calls a ‘productive non-contemporaneity,’ an engagement of our past with our present for the sake of a future that is not strictly determined by either.-Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music, and Time, p.221
When Charlie Parker was still a very young sideman in a Kansas City orchestra led by Jay McShann, he discovered it was entirely possible to create not just “a solo”, but an entire melodic theme-and-variation over the chordal structure of any song. And not just the notes within the traditional chords; a student of music, Parker knew from modal harmonies. What might sound incongruous at first might well fit as long as one moved between and within the modal chords, not just the traditional notes. Accidentals were no longer accidentals, but “fit” in a way that opened up all sorts of possibilities for composition, for harmony, for melody, even for rhythm. He said of that moment, “I came alive that day. I could fly.”
One of the standards Parker worked and reworked was “Cherokee”. Here’s a recording of Cherokee from 1992, with Wynton Marsalis joining the Modern Jazz Quartet:
Now, here is Parker’s version of “Cherokee”, which he renamed “Koko”. As you listen, remember – the chords underneath are the same. It is, in a very real sense, the same song:
While some might argue whether this is, in fact, improvisation but rather composition, it was in fact a combination of both. Along with musical partner Dizzy Gillespie, who takes the first solo, Parker was well aware of the traditions of jazz that had, already by the mid-1940’s, codified and solidified what was and was not acceptable. Working within these traditions, he felt himself free precisely because those traditions and constraints gave him the freedom to make something new from something old, firmly within both the rules of music in general, and the particular idiom within which he moved.
So, too, we contemporary Christians are free, yet bounded by the constraints of Scripture, tradition, reason, and the experiences of the great cloud of witnesses to the faith who have passed before us and live among us. True freedom, then, is not “anything goes”, as our contemporary libertarians insist; nor it is either overcoming tradition (a la Martin Heidegger) in an attempt at primitivism. Rather, it is taking it all in, being cognizant of the contingent circumstances of our particular historical moment, and being able to fly free on the wings of the Spirit, who bears us up, granting us new life, bringing new life to others in ways never seen before.
It’s all there for us, to accept or reject as we will, as worthy of granting life or restricting freedom in turn. It is up to us to make it up as we go along, taking stock of what has gone before, yet willing to reformulate it in new ways, believing this is the birth of the New Creation in a new day.
The freedom we too often hear bandied about, freedom not only from communal, moral, and even legal constraints, isn’t freedom. It’s chaos, the primordial reality prior to the Creation ordered by God. We cannot escape the traditions, mores, practices, or examples of the past. What we can do is learn from them in order to make, for out moment, something alive. Something that gives us the power to fly, as on eagle’s wings.