Dave Brubeck is my favorite jazz pianist. Some of his best-loved tunes are some of my favorite songs, of any genre. When Dave went to college, he couldn’t read music. Because of that, he almost didn’t graduate from the school of music. The dean told him, “You’re a disgrace to the college.” He only made it through because the faculty recognized his talent, and went to bat for him. Years later, that same school recognized his genius – and gave Dave an honorary doctorate.
Of course, Dave Brubeck isn’t alone. Many geniuses, visionaries and unique voices get overlooked or unappreciated – only to have their talent and hard work recognized later. As it turns out, the guy who was a musical “disgrace” happens to be the same guy whose quartet put out what some consider the best jazz album of all time.
That album, Time Out, is known best for one song, Take 5 – which, on its own, is one of jazz’s most recognizable tunes. In an interview released in 1999, at the age of 78, Dave noted that he never played Take 5 the same way twice. A jazz composer writes a theme, he said, and then uses it as the structure for a song. The structure is very important, Dave points out; it’s what the musicians use as the foundation for their improvisational work as the song unfolds.
So, jazz is two key elements, working together. A foundational tune, and improvisational work with that tune. That’s what jazz is all about. Jazz, by nature, is improvisation on a theme.
Isn’t that exactly like life? All of us choose a foundation to build upon. Each life is lived based on some foundational belief, whether it is rooted in the God of Jesus Christ, or some other god of my choosing, or just my own sense of personal meaning.
So, every life is based on some kind of structure. But then, life happens. It always does – and often in a way that we haven’t planned. That’s where we improvise – and we improvise based on whatever foundation we have chosen. Improvisation is simply what we choose when our structure meets the unstructure of the world around us. Journalist Kathryn Schulz says that one way to describe life is: And then something else happened. Our lives are full of “something else” – and that’s exactly the place where we learn to improvise. Who you are and what you believe is revealed in those something elses – especially ones where you don’t have much time to think, only react. And it’s likely that your reactions – your improvisations – end up revealing more about your structure than just about anything else.
And so, each of us takes the structure of our lives and plays it out, day by day. So, if my structure is my reputation, I improvise in such a way as to trumpet my name and my brand. If my theme is success, then I’ll always be looking for an opportunity to toot my own horn – or use false modesty to get others to recognize how amazingly humble I am. If the foundation of my life is safety, than I’ll make sure never to play notes that are risky or challenging. But if the underlying theme of my life is confident faith that God is the foundation of life – past, present, and future – then I will play the tune of my life with humble confidence and gracious love. That may play itself out in surprisingly improvisational ways – but ways that are based on the unchanging foundation of faith we have.
So, life is jazz. Write your melody well – write it true. Then go play it as only you can, improvising faithfully in the face of all the something elses that come your way.