The Jazz of Preaching: How to Preach with Great Freedom and Joy [NOOK Book]


What if preachers were as contagiously joyful in their preaching as Louis Armstrong was in his playing and singing? As rich in their sermonic renderings as Sarah Vaughan was in her musical vocals? As honest about heartache as Billie Holiday was every time she sang about the blues of life? As alluringly clear as the angelic voice of Ella Fitzgerald? As tenaciously uninhibited in the action of creating as Duke Ellington?

Of course, this is too ...

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The Jazz of Preaching: How to Preach with Great Freedom and Joy

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What if preachers were as contagiously joyful in their preaching as Louis Armstrong was in his playing and singing? As rich in their sermonic renderings as Sarah Vaughan was in her musical vocals? As honest about heartache as Billie Holiday was every time she sang about the blues of life? As alluringly clear as the angelic voice of Ella Fitzgerald? As tenaciously uninhibited in the action of creating as Duke Ellington?

Of course, this is too much to ask of people, even those called by God. However, it is not too much to ask this question: Can preaching be enhanced through the metaphor of jazz? Can an understanding of the inner dynamics of jazz--its particular forms, rules, and styles--inform one's practice of preaching as well? Can jazz's simultaneous structure and spontaneity help preachers better understand their own art? The answer to these questions, says Jones, is an unqualified yes. He explains how one can dramatically improve one's preaching through understanding and applying key elements of the musical art form known as jazz. No musical background is necessary; all examples are well explained and tied in with preaching.

The key elements include innovation (what one commentator refers to as "the experimental disposition of jazz"), improvisation, rhythm, call and response, honesty about heartaches, and delight. After discussing the reality and role of each of these elements in jazz, and how they can be important for preaching as well, each chapter concludes with five exercises for applying the jazz element to preaching preparation and performance.

Drawing on a deep love of jazz and enlivening the discussion with insights drawn from the realities of African American preaching, Jones introduces readers to rich and rewarding possibilities for constructing and delivering the sermon.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781426720680
  • Publisher: Abingdon Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2010
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 1,329,343
  • File size: 865 KB

Meet the Author

Kirk Byron Jones holds a doctor of ministry degree from Emory University and a doctor of philosophy degree from Drew University.  The author of several best-selling books for those seeking to grow spiritually in an every-challenging world.  Jones serves as adjunct professor of ethics, preaching and pastoral ministry at Andover Newton Theological School.  Throughout his thirty-year pastoral ministry, he has also served on various religious and civic committees at the local and national level.
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The Jazz of Preaching

How to Preach with Great Freedom and Joy

By Kirk Byron Jones

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2004 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-2068-0


Let There Be Jazz

Jazz is about finding and sharing who you are.

—Betty Carter

What surprises there are! We are such planners! We decide how God must come into human affairs. We treat it all with a kind of public relations twist. We pick the time and the place. We insure that the right people are there to meet God. We get the news releases out as to what to expect. We even have some prepared quotes. But God has an uncanny way of taking care of times and places and entrances. While we wait at the airport, as it were, with a representative committee of dignitaries, an escort waiting for the coming, God has a way of quietly arriving at the bus station, walking up the side street, and slipping, unnoticed, through the servant's chambers.

—Gene Bartlett

Songs in the Night

It was Saturday night, and I didn't have a clue about what to preach the next day. My situation worsened when I realized that I didn't have it in me to get up a sermon, to at least start one that I could develop and polish a little in the morning. I had been in this place before. Having been a "boy preacher," by this time, I had been preaching for over twenty years. This was not my first time being on "E" (for empty) on a Saturday night. But that night the emptiness was deeper than usual. In that moment, my calling was to get as far as possible from sermon preparation and "the call" to preach itself. I needed a ministry respite, a preaching reprieve. One of the greatest preachers of our time, or any time, once confided to me that there were times during his long ministry when the last thing he felt like doing was preaching. He said that in those moments a job as a sanitation worker seemed more appealing.

I was in as deep a preaching slump as I had ever been in. I found myself turning to music, but not the inspirational, soothing sounds of gospel music. Instead, perhaps as an act of defiance, I placed a jazz CD in the disc player, The Intimate Ella, and began listening to Ella Fitzgerald, accompanied by pianist Paul Smith. I do not recall searching for the disk, or wanting to hear Ella Fitzgerald in particular. I knew she was a noteworthy performer, but that's all I knew. I didn't know that I was listening to a singer commonly referred to as "The First Lady of Song." I had no idea that she was once defined by Duke Ellington as being "beyond category."

If you are a jazz enthusiast or a fan of Ella Fitzgerald, you can probably guess what happened next. As Ella Fitzgerald sang, something happened that was totally unexpected; I began to cry. Her angelic voice was simultaneously soft and piercing. Her singing, soulfully caressed the lyrics of songs like "I Cried for You," "My Melancholy Baby," and "Reach for Tomorrow" melted my misery. This was wonderful and scary at the same time. I had been revived before, but the mode was either gospel music, prayer, or inspirational reading. I had never been delivered by a jazz singer before. An hour later, I felt revived inside. I began preparing the ser-mon with fresh energy, and the next day I ministered with new strength and joy. No joke. Or, holy joke of the highest order.

In Listen to Your Life, Frederick Buechner writes, "Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected ears, it is well to pay close attention."

I became deeply curious about what had happened that Saturday evening. How and why did this person's singing move me so? How could something "worldly" like jazz music wield such spiritual power? Does all jazz music contain such potency?

The seed for The Jazz of Preaching was planted that Saturday night, or maybe many years earlier. Believe it or not, I was born and reared in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Looking back on it all now: New Orleans, preaching, Saturday night blues, Ella, I think I was caught in a sacred setup. In fact, one of my youthful talents was doing a singing impression of Louis Armstrong. But apart from this minimal musical antic, I don't recall any other connection to jazz while growing up in New Orleans. Perhaps this would have been different had I not concluded my drum playing at the end of sixth grade. My jazz roots meant nothing to me until Ella sang to me. I once heard jazz great, and fellow New Orleanean, Wynton Marsalis, say during an awards show, "When you are ready to listen, the music is there to be heard." Unbeknown to me my melancholy mood had placed me in listening mode.

I began purchasing jazz music, mostly classic jazz. The music facilitated my entrance into another world inhabited by assorted musical mages. I began developing favorites, including Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and an unsung sparrow by the name of Jimmy Scott. I became enthralled with their sounds and their stories. Along the way, I learned more about the history and hallmarks of jazz. I became especially interested in certain features of jazz (creativity, improvisation, dialogue, and more) that were common to various styles of jazz, (big band, bebop, free, and more). After about a year, two rivers began to converge. The river of preaching, one of my first passions in life, and the river of jazz, my newest passion. I began to sense that jazz had a good deal more to offer homiletics than a singular uplift to a lone preacher. What if preachers were as contagiously joyful in their preaching as Louis Armstrong was in his playing and singing? As rich in their sermonic renderings as Sarah Vaughan was in her musical vocals? As honest about heartache as Billie Holiday was every time she sang about the blues of life? As alluringly clear as the angelic voice of Ella Fitzgerald? As patient in pacing as the holy, hesitant singing manner of Jimmy Scott? As tenaciously uninhibited in the action of creating as Duke Ellington?

I sat with my curiosities for another year, and then our esteemed preaching professor at Andover Newton Theological School, Eddie O'Neal, announced his retirement after thirty plus years of service. I had been one of his students. Later, as his faculty colleague, I taught social ethics at Andover Newton for several years while pastoring Ebenezer Baptist Church in Boston. My intention was to keep preaching in Boston and teaching ethics at Andover Newton. Though I had been preaching for many years and had earned a Doctor of Ministry in preaching from Candler School of Theology, Emory University, I was reluctant to teach preaching. It was almost as if I felt that I could not handle the holiness of preaching in a classroom context. It was too much to hold; it was too big for me. Talk about preaching with tenured preaching practitioners or aspiring preachers in informal settings, yes. Teach preaching in a for-mal academic setting, no. Perhaps I had been overinfluenced by Howard Thurman's humbling declaration in With Head and Heart: "I don't think homiletics can be taught." (If one is going to be over influenced by anyone, it may as well be Howard Thurman.)

My homiletical reluctance was sabotaged when my preaching mentor, Dr. O'Neal, looked at me during a meeting in which we discussed several persons and classes that would attempt to fill the wide void of his leaving and said, "You do it; you teach a class." Dr. O'Neal's commissioning and the jazz/preaching curiosities and questions rolling around in my head led to a Jazz of Preaching class at Andover Newton. To my knowledge it was the first such class ever, anywhere. Three cheers for Ella!

Over the past four years, during the most enjoyable teaching/learning experiences of my life, my fabulously open and engaging students and I have made this discovery: Preaching may be enhanced by exploring key elements of jazz and learning to apply those elements to the act of preaching. This book is a summary and offering of what we asked, discovered, and taught each other in The Jazz of Preaching.

The Jazz of Preaching Journey

The format for the book is based on my class syllabus which has evolved over the past four years. We will cover themes in the order they are presented in my latest syllabus. Risking the limitation of carefully crafted definition, we will begin with definitions. What do we mean by jazz and preaching? In chapter 2, you may be amazed to discover how much these two realities have in common in terms of fundamental definition. Their most striking shared meaning is that you can use word after word attempting to define them exactly and still be left holding an insufficient definition. When it comes to defining each, both realities remind me of cotton candy: sweet and vanishing. Neither preaching nor jazz can be explained completely. I suspect (and hope) that no one will ever tender a final and conclusive word about them. That having been said, confession will not mute curiosity; we will strain to hear as much as we can hear and say as much as we can say about jazz and preaching, and their sacred intersection.

Chapter 3, "Dreaming a Song, Hearing a Sermon," takes its title from a fascinating clip in Ken Burns's stellar, if necessarily incomplete, documentary, Jazz. Duke Ellington is seen softly touching keys on a piano. An interviewer refers to Ellington's "playing the piano." Ellington, appearing slightly surprised, patiently explains that he is not playing, he is "dreaming." As his fingers touch the keys once again, he reiterates, "That's dreaming." We will savor Ellington's interpretation of the seminal stage of the creative process, and bring it into conversation with Thomas Troeger's understanding of "imagining a sermon." I believe that many contemporary sermons are sabotaged from the start by fastfood imagining and instant dreaming. We usually don't allow nearly enough time for sermon seeding and spreading, for idea forming and framing, for listening, listening, thinking, and listening.

Chapter 4, "A Call to Create," discusses the area of my greatest envy of jazz artists. The best jazz artists possess what Albert Murray refers to as "an experimental disposition." For example, pianist Marc Copland once described his approach to playing as follows: "[My] aesthetic involves making every note count and striving to play notes that I have not played before." I am jolted by these words; I am convicted by them. It is so easy to preach the same themes the same old ways. As a guest preacher in churches and conferences around the county, it is so tempting to rely on road tested stories and sermons. This sort of sermonic sameness may be less deadening to a congregation hearing a sermon for the first time. I can tell you from experience that it is more deadening to the preacher who becomes addicted to the overly favored preaching notes. This chapter is about developing a new-note-disposition, an attitude that smiles on difference and novelty and frowns or is at least suspicious of sameness.

For the jazz artist, sampling and shifting sounds is the point, and there is a sense of expectancy about it all. How can preachers be more freely experimental and more joyfully expectant in preaching? Leaning into preaching as a creative dynamic enterprise can help dampen, or better yet, drench, preaching dryness and dullness. I am convinced that the key to becoming a more creative preacher is becoming a more creative person. As we become persons used to stepping and stretching out of preconceived ways of seeing, we will be more apt to avoid preaching ruts. The challenge is to cultivate a desert thirst for new insights and vision not just for preaching, but for living. If we are creative in life, creativity is more likely to break out in the study and the pulpit.

In chapter 5, we turn our attention to what is for many the definitive hallmark of jazz, improvisation: creating music on the spot. A legendary saxophonist says that he "empties himself" just before each performance. I have heard preachers pray just before preaching. "God, I come to you as an empty pitcher before a full fountain." The same sacred impulse is operative for the saxophonist and the sermonizer. They both understand that all prior preparation must be subjugated because the moment of preaching or playing will demand more than prior preparation. It will demand school-crossing guard alertness to the moment, the crowd, the coparticipants, the mood, the spirit, and the new understandings and combinations of understandings that arrive to a presentation already in flight. Improvisation is attending to all these manifold influences, including prior preparation, during performance. Hearing and feeling these influences and then forging them into some communicative offering is improvisation.

We will discuss formidable barriers to such preaching flexibility and freedom, including self-consciousness and the fear of failure. Finally, I will propose methods for making preaching more improvisational, more open and accepting of life and spirit while preaching.

Rivaling improvisation as the definitive feature of jazz is dialogue, the ability of jazz musicians to play in sync together. Jazz groups, whether they are duos, trios, quartets, sextets, or big bands, must know how to listen as well as play. Through listening a musician knows what notes to play and how to play them, when to rest, and when to enter into the sounding forth again. One must listen well in order to enter well. And when he or she sounds forth, they do so knowing that the contribution is not in vain. Their offering will influence the offerings in waiting. Musicians influence each other in regard to sound and spirit. In much of jazz, musicians call and respond to each other, sometimes overtly and directly, sometimes covertly and more intuitively.

There are dialogical dimensions to preaching. Effective preaching depends on how good a speaker and listener you are. Preaching involves multiple dialogical partners including God, congregation, the text, the sermon, current events, the setting, the mode, intrusions, surprises, pauses, deletions, additions, and, yes, the preacher. The ever growing, never-ever-having-arrived preacher is always developing a widening capacity to be engaged in conversation with these partners, sometimes simultaneously.

Less daunting than it sounds, it is a matter of entering the music and dance of dialogue not just for sermon's sake but for life's sake. As is the case with creativity, our dialogical skills for preaching are greatly enhanced by exercising our dialogical muscles in the natural ebb and flow of everyday life.

I must tell you a story that can't wait for the body of the text. I once asked the late Cynthia Perry Ray, wife of the late Reverend Sandy F. Ray, what made her husband such a great preacher. She smiled and responded, "Sandy loved people." I nodded but felt that she had misheard my question. What she said sounded like a good answer to the question, "What made your husband a great pastor?" I made small talk for a moment, and decided to launch my question again, "I know your husband was a great pastor, but what made him a great preacher?" She smiled again, even more broadly this time and said, "I told you, my husband loved people." I have never forgotten that exchange. What she said in substance was that her husband's effectiveness in the pulpit began in his heart. Having a heart for all the dialogical elements of preaching inspires great preaching more readily and regularly. More about the dialogue of jazz and preaching in chapter 6.

Chapter 7 is about preaching in the valley of heartache, blues preaching. Blues and jazz come from the same root of African American experience. Blues is feeling flung into a sentiment, a sound, a hum, a moan, a song. The essential ingredient of the blues is not sadness, but honesty. The blues song tradition is the moving, magnificent witness that it is possible to be in sorrow's kitchen, endure pain and suffering, and keep on living. This holy honesty is a necessary part of preaching to the hurting, and preaching with and through our own personal pain. We will discuss how preachers can more effectively and soulfully address congregations struggling in grief. For example, in funeral settings, I have heard ministers play to the tender emotions of the congregation through excess volume and sentimentality. Just as objectionable to me are preachers who rush to joy. They start eulogies in heaven, "where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest." Real eulogies are not afraid to wait even a long while in the graveyard with the grieving. Death and suffering are no less real than life and joy; the valley is not an illusion. Blues preaching is not afraid to hold heartache; it is only after holding it that it walks haltingly onward.


Excerpted from The Jazz of Preaching by Kirk Byron Jones. Copyright © 2004 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. Let There Be Jazz,
2. Holy Common Ground,
3. Dreaming a Song, Hearing a Sermon,
4. A Call to Create,
5. The Freedom of Improvisation,
6. Can I Get a Witness? Dialogue in Jazz and Preaching,
7. Blues Preaching,
8. The Swing of Preaching,

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  • Posted March 3, 2012

    Great book!

    Good illustrations (verbal) and insights into developing sermons that teach. People learn in different ways and it's important to try and incorporate differing methods into sermon presentation.

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