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Exploring the spiritual side of jazz: Jazz and the Spirit starts new season on KBEM

If you’ve ever wondered why jazz moves you (if it does), or how jazz musicians communicate during a live performance without speaking, or what makes certain jazz shows seem especially amazing, a radio program called “Jazz and the Spirit” may have some answers.

“Jazz and the Spirit” debuted on KBEM in the fall of 2004, a collaboration between station manager Michele Jansen and jazz musician/educator/liturgist Steve Blons. Aimed at jazz lovers and spiritual seekers, the show uses music and interviews with prominent musicians to tell the story of jazz as spiritual expression.

The show airs on Sundays at 8 p.m. The new season begins this Sunday, April 4. When I spoke with Jansen and Blons earlier this week, they hadn’t yet decided whom to feature on the first program but had narrowed down the possibilities to two: Jeanne Arland Peterson, matriarch of the musical Peterson clan and renowned jazz pianist, or Barbara Dennerlein, the Hammond B-3 organ virtuoso known as Germany’s most successful jazz export.

I’ve heard enough of “Jazz and the Spirit” to expect that either will be interesting, enlightening, and mind- and ear-opening.

‘The sin in syncopation’
Jazz was once denounced as the music that put the sin in syncopation. “It is harmful and dangerous,” proclaimed the Ladies Home Journal in August 1921, “and its influence is wholly bad.” In fact, for many musicians and listeners, jazz is profoundly spiritual.

Which is not to say “Jazz and the Spirit” is about religion. Both Jansen and Blons are acutely aware that their program airs on a public radio station owned and operated by the Minneapolis Public Schools and housed in North High School. So there’s no proselytizing. “It’s about creation,” Jansen says. “Jazz musicians are creating every second.”

“In the improvisational moment,” Blons adds, “there’s something that opens, a connection between the artist and some mysterious source. The word ‘inspiration’ has spirit as a root. There are spiritual traditions that talk about God or the mystery as being found in the fleeting moment and only then. To the degree that’s true, the improvisational artist is directly in contact moment-to-moment with that spirit.”

When given the chance, which they seldom are, many jazz musicians are glad to talk about the spirituality within the music and their own experiences. For some, these experiences reach back to childhood and churches that rang with gospel music. Others have followed less traditional paths to non-mainstream faiths such as Baha’i or Eckankar. Sometimes there’s no connection to a specific faith or creed.

Learning to listen
“When you’re making music,” Blons says, “so much of it is about listening. To cultivate your artistry as a jazz musician is to continually learn to listen deeper and deeper into the music, into the connections between the notes, what’s happening with the other players around you. Many spiritual disciplines involve listening — listening for the inner voice, listening for the voice of God, meditation. [Jazz violinist] Stéphane Grappelli once said, ‘Improvisers are only thinking about their God.’ ”

In the early days of the show, Blons wondered whether the idea had legs. But every musician they invite says yes, and everyone who says yes has a lot to say.

Blons remembers paging through jazz magazines to find potential subjects. “In every two out of three interviews I read, at some point the person would say ‘spiritual.’ And it was never amplified. The interviewer wouldn’t go back and talk about it. But there it was.”

“People are afraid to talk about religion,” Jansen says. “We’re not talking about that. I might ask someone, ‘What does it mean for you to be in the zone when you’re on stage?’ Or ‘How do you communicate with other musicians without saying a word? How do you know what the other person is thinking?’ We’re just trying to figure it out, and if people happen to talk about their religious background or faith, great, if that’s what it means to them.”

To date, Jansen and Blons have interviewed a who’s who of jazz stars including Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, Kurt Elling, Tierney Sutton, Ramsey Lewis, Charlie Haden, and Delfeayo Marsalis. The show has also featured area artists Debbie Duncan, Irv Williams, Charlie Devore, Patty Peterson, David Bruce, and Bruce Henry. Also slated for this season are Kenny Werner, Ike Sturm, and Deanna Witkowski. On their wish list: Chick Corea and Gary Burton, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Anthony Cox, Branford Marsalis.

‘It’s in the DNA of the music’
They recently spoke with Timothy Brennan, a University of Minnesota professor and author of “Secular Devotion: Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz” (Verso, 2008). “Brennan has a theory that jazz, as part of the expression of the African diaspora, carries with it the spirituality in which that culture is grounded,” Blons says. “It came with the people and found expression in the new world in a variety of forms, largely music. It’s in the DNA of the music.”

If you don’t already know “Jazz and the Spirit,” why give it a try? “Because you’ll get an insight into why you respond the way you to do music that moves you,” Blons suggests. “There’s more going on than just pleasure. Something is opening up in you because of this art. That’s why you want to listen. That’s why you keep coming back to this music, or even a particular artist.”

Jansen adds, “I think this program helps people understand jazz better — what jazz really is, and where the music is coming from. It’s also an opportunity to hear music you wouldn’t otherwise hear. Steve does a lot of research on the web, and a lot of bin diving. He finds things you don’t normally hear on the radio.”

“Jazz and the Spirit” airs on Sundays at 8 p.m. on KBEM, 88.5 FM. Stream it live over your computer, iTunes radio or your iPod or iPhone with the Public Radio iPhone app. Go here for more information.

Pamela Espeland keeps a Twin Cities live jazz calendar, blogs about jazz at Bebopified, and tweets about jazz on Twitter.

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