Chasing the Music That Hasn’t Yet Been Played

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Bill Carter

It was the opening set on Friday night at the jazz club. Blues Alley in Washington D.C. was buzzing with excitement as the famed band The Yellowjackets took the stage. The drummer began an African rhythm, and the bass player quickly joined in. The pianist punctured the air with syncopated chords, playing in a fierce rhythm.

The music was new to my daughter Meg and me, but we could quickly discern the melody as the saxophonist played it. The tune swirled and churned, building toward a climax. Suddenly the band stopped – and the saxophonist leaped into the unknown. He played a flurry of notes by himself before the band entered with precision and surged forward. The whole performance had just become a lot more complicated.

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 10.26.34 AMMeg leaned across the table to ask, “What are they doing?” All I could reply was, “We don’t know yet.”

This moment of adventurous ambiguity can be disconcerting to musicians and music lovers who prefer to have all their notes confined to a page. For them, the performance follows a script. It moves ahead as the composer wanted it to unfold. The music is predictable, always happens on cue, and reveals few surprises. It will be judged later on accuracy and expertise (“How well did they play the pre-arranged notes?”), with the later recognition that a small measure of interpretation can personalize the performance within the limitations of the written score.

But when the jazz musicians take flight, nobody knows what will come next. Even them! The saxophonist begins to compose in motion. The pianist makes instantaneous decisions about supporting him, deciding if she will go where her colleague is leading. The bass player may anchor the exploration with notes and patterns, but he and the drummer are also free to push the music toward more intensity. This could drive the saxophonist to spiral even further into the sky.

This is music-in-the-making, the essence of jazz. It is offered in the face of enormous risks. If the song is evaluated too soon, all creativity will implode. If the co-creators stop listening to one another, the whole performance can dis-integrate. If any of the team members dominate or withhold their input, the enjoyment of true collaboration is lost. At any moment, the tune could devolve into self-indulgent blathering. Or it could unlock fresh insights and lead us into new directions. When it works well, take note of the broad smiles on the musicians’ faces. There can be sheer ecstasy in shared art.

I suppose those involved in transitional ministry may be tempted to play it safe, just like the churches that employ them. What worked in the past? How do we stabilize the chaos or assuage the grief? Can we spackle the financial holes? Tighten down the operations? Empower fresh leadership? The memories of a receding Christendom are strong in many congregations, and it will often feel most comfortable if they can return to an earlier time when all was predictable.

Yet here is where the improvising saxophonist is our prophet. With a strong gust of wind, the jazzer pushes forward. From the precipice of risk, the creative musician steps into a still evolving future. How can this happen? Only from a grounded understanding of what music is and how it works, the seasoned confidence of years of musical practice, and the willingness to midwife something new. Jazz, like transitional ministry, is created by people who know what they are doing, yet are willing to trust that what lies ahead is more satisfying than what used to be. Done with the full engagement of communal mind and spirit, it is authentic and coherent to what is needed here and now.

The saxophonist David Liebman, a mentor in music and ministry, puts it this way: “We do not dust off museum pieces that are bound to the past. Rather we explore what a fresh conversation will unlock for our future.” Is he speaking of church or band stand?  Both.

There is much wisdom for ministry that can be mined from the creative arts. I welcome your reflections as we serve the God who is still creating.

bill carterBill Carter has been practicing congregational ministry for 31 years and hopes to get it right someday. He is also a longtime practitioner of jazz in the church, having founded the Presbybop Quartet in 1993. Find out more about his jazz ministry and the band’s music at