Monday, November 18, 2013


Duke Ellington,
I should write a symphony
in your memory
a poem of tonality
to express the beauty
and sublimity of your
sonic personality.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Here and Now

Here and Now: The Autobiography of Pat Martino

  • Pat Martino, Bill Milkowski
  • Feb 12, 2013
  • Series: Denver Journal Volume 16 - 2013
Pat Martino with Bill Milkowski, Here and Now: The Autobiography of Pat Martino.Monclair, NJ: Backbeat Books, 2011. 192 pages. ISBN-10: 1617130273; ISBN-13: 978-1617130274. Hardback.
Here&NowAutobiographies of jazz musicians are often a bit difficult to bring about in a suitable literary form. This is simply because most jazz musicians are gifted in the language of music, but not necessarily in written language. Some, like John Coltrane, are quite laconic (although one can read Coltrane on Coltrane, culled from interviews). Others, like Duke Ellington, were oratorically nimble and mellifluous in speaking (listen to his dazzling spoken introduction to “Afro-Eurasian Eclipse” on the recording of the same name), but a bit idiosyncratic (if not factually errant) in writing. Ellington’s autobiography, Music is My Mistress is wonderfully entertaining, but not the most thorough or literate account of the maestro’s life and music. (For that, see Harvey Cohen, Duke Ellington’s America [University of Chicago Press, 2010].) A fair number of jazz autobiographies are joint productions, as is Here and Now. Pat Martino, arguably—and I will argue it—the greatest living jazz guitarist, teams up with jazz writer Bill Milkowski (author of Jaco, the biography of jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius) to produce a brief but satisfying story of Martino’s life and music. Short interviews with other admiring musicians—such as guitarists Carlos Santana, Pete Townshend, and George Benson—are sprinkled throughout the book and make up Appendix I: Guitar Players Testimony.
Besides Martino’s long and distinguished career as a pioneering guitarist with a tremendous knowledge of musical theory is the remarkable story of his catastrophic brain injury and his slow but complete comeback, against the odds. After supporting various organ-saxophone groups in Philadelphia as a mere teenager (beginning his professional career at age sixteen), Martino established himself as a unique and virtuoso voice in jazz guitar, known for his laser-sharp precision, tasteful speed (no narcissistic shedding here), relentless swing, and pure fire. (He soon changed his name from Pat Azzara to Pat Martino.) Then, after various seizures and other mental difficulties, a congenital brain defect (arteriovenous malformation) caused Martino to lose nearly all of his memory, including his ability to play the guitar. When he awoke from his emergency surgery, he could not recognize his own parents. They were strangers, as was much of the world. His parents moved him back in with them and Martino slowly began to regain many—but not all—of his memory and, amazingly enough, relearned to play the guitar. Having listened to nearly all of his recordings before and after his brain injury, as well as having seen Martino perform four times in two days in Chicago in 2012, I can assure the reader that he regained all he lost—and added even more skill, soul, and musical intelligence. An appendix, “Martino Unstrung: A Brain Mystery,” by psychologist-journalist Victor L. Schermer explores in some depth the nature of Martinos’ injury and recovery—as does the fascinating and enjoyable DVD of the same name. Another appendix provides Martino’s voluminous discography.
This narrative is told rather sparsely, although we learn quite a bit about his parents and upbringing. One does not learn too much about his first marriage, for example. He writes more, not surprisingly, of his present wife, who he warmly credits as stabilizing and inspiring his life. However, Martino and Milkowski recount the basic outline of Martino’s life and especially musical development, which for Martino aficionados such as myself, is intrinsically interesting. The title, Here and Now, expresses something of Martino’s worldview.  While not elaborately articulated or described in metaphysical categories, Martino’s music and life centers on being “in the  present” fully, of finding a level of concentration that is pure and revealing. While deeply steeped in musical theory and possessing flawless execution, Martino believes that there is more to playing and music itself than human performance and acoustic expression. It is spiritual and may open one up to higher realities. However, he views this holistically. He surprisingly says,
I’m not a guitar player. I’m not a musician. Because I don’t really seem to find that of any interest in the long run. I’m more interested in what this whole phenomenon of life is really all about (ix).
Martino came of age professionally in the middle to later 1960s and was influenced by Eastern worldviews and the idealism of the early drug culture, which considered hallucinogenic drugs as, in fact, psychedelic. That is, these substances were taken to be potential portals to a spiritual state of some kind. But as Francis Schaeffer  (in The God Who is There [1968]) and Os Guinness (The Dust of Death [InterVarsity, 1973]) perceptively observed, these drug-induced or meditation- induced experiences lacked intellectual content and were not verifiable through reason and evidence. One gets a sense of this in Here and Now. Martino intimates here and there that reality is more than what normal sensory perception can capture, and that some music has a mystical affinity with this reality, but he is rather illusive about its nature or meaning. Although he was raised Catholic and mentions some short-lived involvement in a Catholic charismatic prayer group, his worldview seems eclectic and perhaps pantheistic. He is quoted as saying on the back cover:
I’ve often asked myself, ‘What am I?’…In fact the words I am are enough for me. They’re the words of God. And that to me is the essence of definition. The greatest truth comes right back down to the central part of what a person truly is—life itself. And when you reach such a conclusion, it’s so spiritual that it overcomes as well as transcends any of the crafts, like guitar playing. Maybe that’s what eventually leads us to discover, however long it takes.
This confession is a bit cryptic and elliptical, but the rest of the book intimates a spirituality and worldview more akin to Eastern mysticism than monotheism. God revealed himself to Moses as “I am who I am.” (Exodus 3:14). The language is that of a personal, self-reflective, and communicate being, who far transcends anything that Moses (or any human) can find within themselves. Christ himself harked back to this theophany when he affirmed of himself, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Yet Martino quotes (without attribution) the Gnostic-mystic psychiatrist Carl Jung on the page before the table of contents: “Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakes.” For Jung, the deepest reality was that of the Self, not of a personal-infinite God outside the self. (See my essay, “The Hidden Dangers of Carl Jung,” Christian Counseling Today; this is available on line: If we look only within, we will find the image and likeness of God, but a flawed and needy image, given the ravages of the fall (Mark 7:21-23; Genesis 3; Romans 3:9-26). As Francis Schaeffer put it, we fallen mortals, rebels against God at our core, need forgiveness and restoration through “the finished work of Christ.”  (See Schaeffer’s exposition of Romans 1-8, The Finished Work of Christ [Crossway, 1998]). This cannot be found within. But if we lift “the empty hands of faith,” in Jesus Christ, we are given a new life with God, and an “infinite reference point” through which to understand ourselves and our world. The knowledge of God is the key to all other knowledge, for “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7; see also 2:5). Further, in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3).
The musical ability and near-miraculous comeback of Pat Martino are, whether he fully understands this or not, gifts from a gracious God. Further, when I met him at the legendary Jazz Showcase in Chicago, I discovered that Mr. Martino is a humble, kind, and gracious man. There was no sign of egotism, despite his prodigious and, at times, breathtaking, talents. May he grow in the knowledge of the one true God and find eternal life “here and now,” and forever (see John 1:18; 3:16-18).
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary
February 2013

Friday, January 11, 2013

"Jazz" by Herman Leonard

Herman Leonard, Jazz (USA: Blomsbury, 2010. 320 pages. $65.  Hardback. ISBN-10: 1608193330; ISBN-13: 978-1608193332.

Sadly, jazz photography is not a part of mainstream American culture today. By jazz photography, I mean photographs of jazz musicians, either playing or in other situations. Leonard’s photographs are usually related to their music in some way, he also catches his subjects in other contexts.  One could also speak of a jazz style of photography (whether it be of jazz itself or not) which the best jazz photographers bring to their craft. In the introduction to the book, Quincy Jones is quoted as saying, “I used to tell cats that Herman Leonard did with his camera, what we did with our instruments” (8). He was a jazz man whose instrument was the camera, and was accepted as such by the musicians he so artfully and intimately captured.
But one might argue that photography ill fits jazz, since it freezes a moment in time. There is no beat, no group improvisation, and no swing. You do not tap your foot to a photograph. That is, the musical medium of jazz may not comport with the visual medium of photography. When the medium mismatches the message, a kind of aesthetic violence is perpetrated—even when few notice.
The essence of jazz is syncopation and improvisation (usually within an ensemble, but also in solo settings) within a uniquely American tradition of the music (the origins of which are disputed in the literature). A jazz photographer faces the daunting charge of getting “into the moment” or “into the groove,” to try to seize something unique, often beautiful, and evanescent. Herbert Leonard has achieved this arcane art in black and white photographs, spanning a half decade. Although he later worked a bit with color, he insightfully says, “When you are looking at a black and white picture, your brain doesn’t have to work as much, You’re looking at a graphic shape rather than the colour value—and in that sense, the image becomes stronger” (303).  Or, as Reggie Nadelson writes in the introduction, “Many of Herman Leonard’s photographs tell a complicated story; sometimes you have to look two or three times to see it all” (9) Leonard bids us to slow down, fix our gaze, and behold the scenes and souls he studied. No multitasking should be involved.
This is not landscape photography, but people photography. The subject matter is usually musicians in unique motion, making music with others (or waiting pensively backstage). The human figure bears its own mysteries, crying to be unlocked and revealed through some manner of representation. People move and surprise; jazz moves and surprises. As jazz critic Witney Balliet (who resided high in the firmament of jazz writers) famously said, “Jazz is the sound of surprise.” By contrast, the photograph is static, inert.  Nevertheless, the essential spirit of jazz may be hinted at or implied in the parts, even in the mute graphic representations, as Leonard himself states:  “I was always impressed by the simplicity of great artists like Picasso who could take a charcoal and do a little line sketch and you’d see the whole character of the person. I thought I could do that with light” (300).                             
And so he did. A skilled photographer uncovers the philosopher’s stone and endeavors to steal the essence (or near essence) of the whole from a fleeting part. Through film, the artist searches for the apotheosis of the form, or at least to approximate it.  Few have this nascent gift or develop it into an art. Leonard did, and people noticed.
This large book is gloriously filled with images from the great performers of jazz in this sixty-year career, beginning in the late 1940s. Most of them were taken in the 1940 and 1950s. We are graced with the visages Ella Fitzgerald, many of Miles Davis, covering his entire career (what a noble face—if not character—he had), Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Dexter Gordon, and many more. One photo simply depicts Lester Young’s hat atop his saxophone case, with a cigarette balanced carefully on an empty Coke bottle. Leonard understands light, figure, foreground, focus, and background brilliantly. (Few of these photographs were posed; when they were, they had nothing to do with the cheesy, corning, narcissistic posing of today.) He was especially masterful in capturing—of all things—cigarette smoke, which was ubiquitous in jazz performances of the time he records. The smoke is keenly articulated and forms a sort of nimbus on the jazz musicians. The photo of a young Dexter Gordon most effectively uses this technique (which Leonard discovered accidently), for the cover of Jazz, by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux  (W.W. Norton, 2009).  Leonard’s camera angles are often arresting as well (there are no cliché portraits), often seizing that elusive jazz expression of pure intensity of joy and longing and pain. Although you will not likely find this in any systematic or biblical theology, this is where jazz meets general revelation.
General revelation is the doctrine that the one true, infinite, personal, and triune God of the Bible reveals truth about himself and creation in ways outside of the biblical text and specific supernatural acts. For example, “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1; see also Romans 1:18-21). And humans themselves bear the divine image (Genesis 1:26; 9:1; Psalm 8). In Cornelius Van Til’s words, we are “finite replicas” of God, although fallen and far east of Eden (Romans 3:14-26). As such, even if these image bearers fail to recognize God as Creator and Redeemer, they cannot exchange their essence for something else, something of their own choosing.
One aspect of the divine image is creativity. As Dorothy Sayers wisely noted, in Genesis one, the only thing we know about God is that he is a personal Creator. If, then, he makes humans in his image, then it is logical to infer that one of their distinctive qualities would be creativity. Even the non-Christian is gifted with the ability to transcend the merely material or machine-like arrangements of the created world. As free-jazz pioneer and journeyman, Peter BrÖtzmann recently said in a biographic film called, “Soldier of the Road” (2012), “Music comes from another world.” We are all creators in some way, and some develop this capacity through the rigors and ecstasies of jazz. When the jazz musician is in the flow of creative intelligence, he is, in a sense, touching something objectively real about God’s creation at a deep level—and he may be manifesting that reality to those listening as well. A sense of this intrepid enterprise can be represented in black-and-white photography (and film, but that is another story).
Yet, the Christian critic may strenuously object that all of this talk is merely worldliness. As James said, part of pure religion is to “keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27; see also 1 John 2:15-17)  After all, jazz had (at in least part) its beginnings in New Orleans’s houses of ill-repute. So many jazz musicians have used illegal drugs and some died of drug overdoses (notably the inimitable alto saxophonist Charlie Parker at age thirty-four and the singer Billie Holiday (penniless) at age forty-four). Even more debauchery may be chronicled. All this is true—and painfully irrelevant. God is the giver of every good gift (James 1) and liberally gives gifts even to those who rebel against him. (Of course, some jazz musicians have claimed to be Christians, such as pianist Mary Lou Williams and Duke Ellington.)
Christian philosopher, scientist, and apologist Blaise Pascal helped explain this enigma of the human condition. He argued, humans are now “deposed royalty.” We are great given our divine origin and image, but deposed, given the fall into sin. This is true for both Christians and non-Christians. Therefore, we are a strange mixture of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, intelligence, and stupidity. (See “Deposed Royalty,” in Douglas Groothuis, On Pascal [Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003].) If one cannot hear greatness in the arrangements and playing of Duke Ellington or selected saxophone solos of John Coltrane (such as in “A Love Supreme”), one does not likely understand the medium or its meaningful mysteries. (For an approachable and learned introduction to the art form of jazz, see Why Jazz: A Concise Guide [Oxford, 2012.] On the importance of understanding higher and lower levels of culture, see Kenneth Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1989].)
Jazz, a book of jazz photographs by a jazz photographer (Leonard is known for photographing nothing else), offers a double helping of common grace and reason to praise the God who made us—saved and unsaved—in his image. First, we can thank God for jazz itself, that unique, uniquely American, varied, and ever-compelling art form.  (For one of the few Christian reflections on jazz, see Robert Gelinas, Finding the Groove [Zondervan, 2009].)
Second, this collection of memorable photographs of jazz musicians has its own eloquence and charm qua photography. These photographs should be beheld, not simply viewed. (I owe this distinction to Marva Dawn, which she made in Talking the Walk [Brazos, 2005].) To behold something is to let its objective reality affect one’s very self. To behold demands more than giving an object a glance or a glimpse. One lingers when one beholds something, such as a fine painting, a sculpture, or a photograph. Consider the King James Version of John the Baptist’s exclamation about Jesus, “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). John is not merely calling others to note that Jesus has entered their visual field. Beholding takes discipline and focus, especially since our culture is saturated by moving images, usually of little worth, but which are highly stimulating and difficult to avoid. I am only now learning to behold vintage and valuable contemporary photography as an art form; however, I know that one looks at the foreground, the background, the lighting, and the angle of vision. Further, we can ponder the peopleand their setting by noting facial expressions, body posture, and by imaging ourselves entering the photograph.
Jazz splendidly offers the careful observer a portal into American musical culture, and even a glimpse into the souls of musicians, made in the image of God. For that, we should be grateful to God, the divine artist.
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary
January 2013