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Diversity's Grace Notes

Bach meets blues, white meets black - and find common ground

LAST winter my wife and I attended a concert in Boston by the Handel & Haydn Society. Called "Blues and Bach," it featured the musicians of the Society and the Modern Jazz Quartet, one of the great African-American jazz ensembles.

After each group played its own selections, the performers combined their exceptional musical gifts for one final number, Bach's Fourth Brandenburg Concerto. First the H & H musicians completed the traditional baroque rendition of the piece. Then the Modern Jazz Quartet performed a jazz variation of the concerto.

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It was an extraordinary performance that retold Bach's elemental story in a new musical genre. When the two ensembles joined forces for the final eight bars, the audience knew that it had heard Bach as if for the first time, the traditional and modern variations taking the music into new and surprising realms.

For me the experience had an almost religious quality to it, and I have thought of it many times since the Los Angeles riots. The music I heard in Symphony Hall that night served as an important reminder of what powerful results can emerge from the juxtaposition of two very different and yet compatible traditions. The Bach played by the Modern Jazz Quartet honored the spirit of the 18th-century composer, but brought an unexpected freshness and vitality to the music.

The key, of course, lies in the distinctive improvisational ability of the jazz musicians, the capacity to create imaginative variations on a familiar theme, the ability, if you will, to invoke the spirit and enliven the traditional text. That genius of improvisation is a great gift of African and African-American music to world culture.

It is possible, I believe, to reproduce something of that experience in the more sacred setting of a worship service, and this spring I tried to do that with one of the most gifted of all American church musicians, James Abbington, organist and minister of music at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit. In the chapel of the Harvard Divinity School we combined readings and songs designed to stretch imaginations and allow the spirit to break through the narrowness of our preconceptions - to help us t o hear divine promptings in new and exciting ways.

We chose hymns that set European-American tunes to African-American tempos and combined musical styles from a range of cultural traditions. We began to discover the commonalities that exist between these different and sometimes even opposed traditions. As St. Paul wrote, "Now there are varieties of gifts ... varieties of service ... varieties of working ... but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (I Cor. 12: 4-7). We

offered a service as the gift of two Christians, one white, one black, of different ethnic origins, of diverse worship traditions and varying cultural heritages, but two Christians who share a common faith and hope for both the church and the world.

Perhaps through the medium of music we can begin to glimpse new bonds, even a new unity, that our words have not yet begun to speak or our concepts begun to describe. No task is more important, no effort more urgent, than the attempt to find the common ground among persons of different cultures, heritages, and races. That commonality need not obliterate difference. That unity is not a singular concept but a rich and varied fabric woven of distinctive, colorful threads.

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The moving performance of the Handel & Haydn Society and the Modern Jazz Quartet suggested that we may speak in different voices and in different keys, in manifold languages and with varying words. But our diversity can deepen our grasp of our common faith and hopes, and our varieties of gifts do contribute to our common human future.

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