Here is a musical question for you: What does improvisation have to do with the Biblical Songbook and the American Songbook? I am going to explore that biblical theme of musical improvisation over the next several programs. To do that we will look first at David’s joyous dancing and singing before the Ark as it is brought into Jerusalem.
In 2 Samuel 6 we read,, “David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.” David and the Israelites had just defeated the Philistines and they were taking the recovered Ark of the LORD back to the capital city of Jerusalem. They were spontaneously celebrating during the journey back home “with all their might.”
It is worth noting that the musical instruments employed by David and the entourage were instruments of rhythm. Specifically, the joyous procession had stringed instruments and percussion instruments to accompany their singing. It was David’s rag-time band and it was loud and raucous. But there was order and a plan to the procession because David had a new cart built especially for the Ark, and it was guided by named individuals. So it was not chaotic noise, but joyous, spontaneous music. Amos was right – David was the great music improviser of Israel.
The Ark had a cover or lid over it on which the blood of sacrifice was sprinkled. We call this part of the Ark the “Mercy Seat” for it means that the mercy of God has been graphically portrayed in that our sins have been wiped-out or made-atonement-for by the sprinkled blood.
We get a modern sense of David’s spontaneous celebrating in the popular 19th century hymn based on Psalm 32 which alludes to the Mercy Seat of the Ark. The hymn “How Blest Is He Whose Trespass” was first published in 1867 and contains the words “How blest is he whose trespass has freely been forgiv’n, whose sin is wholly covered before the sight of heaven.” and “The sorrows of the wicked in number shall abound, but those that trust Jehovah, his mercy shall surround. Then in the Lord be joyful, in song lift up your voice. Be glad in God, ye righteous, rejoice ye saints, rejoice.”
Turning to the American Songbook, the usual focus of “Singing in the Shower” is on composers and lyricists, and not on performers. However, when the subject of improvisation comes up, the names of performers naturally come up because they are the ones doing the improvising of the songs. It is only proper that as I focus on improvisers, the first name to get my attention is the marvelous Louis Armstrong.
In 1928, the most influential musician in the history of jazz, “Pops” Armstrong, went into a Chicago recording studio with his quintet, “The Hot Five” and recorded, among other songs, “West End Blues” written by jazzman, Joe “King” Oliver. It is not much of a Tin Pan Alley song, but Mr. Armstrong’s cornet playing set a standard that instrumentalists have aimed to hit for the last 80 years. The first 12 seconds of the song are considered revolutionary in popular music circles, as Armstrong ad-libs his introduction.
Music historian Gunther Schuller says that on this recording, Armstrong, “singlehandedly forged the new rhythmic language of jazz that would in turn be its foundation for decades.” Add to Mr. Armstrong’s inventive horn playing, the piano mastery of Earl Fathe’ Hines and you get an American classic set. Listen now to “Satchmo” and his “Hot Five” play a bit of “West End Blues,” 1928 style.
(“West End Blues” performed by Louis Armstrong & Hot Five)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXHdqTVC3cA
One of the terrific aspects of being made in the image of God is that we are people created to improvise. Whether we are a David or a Louis or just us, we are called to celebrate our divine image in making spontaneous, rhythmic music in praise of God and His mercy seat.
This is Bob Case for “Singing in the Shower: The American Songbook and the Church.”