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Jazz, Suffering, and Meaning

Douglas Groothuis By

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Finding the marrow of jazz is vexing, but its essence involves improvisation. In small combos, each musician solos, but the entire group is improvising. In jazz, there is no back-up band.
"Primary progressive aphasia" was a disease I had not heard until March of 2014. Now it is darkly stained into my life, since it is the form of dementia that afflicts my wife, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. As Rebecca and I walk down this road, we are not alone. We have our church, our friends, and our God to walk with us and help carry our load. One of God's gifts to me is jazz, which helps me stumble on without falling. Jazz does not heal all wounds, but it can add salve and balm to life's struggles. Jazz has helped me cope with my wife's dementia. Without deserting my duty to provide care for her, I find that I must escape into other meanings. I can find meaning in suffering, but I need to find significance outside of suffering as well.

Beholding musicians making music adds another dimension to the escape into meaning. I will speak only of jazz, since I am an initiate and aficionado. Finding the marrow of jazz is vexing, but its essence involves improvisation. In small combos, each musician solos, but the entire group is improvising. In jazz, there is no back-up band. I attended a concert of the Larry Goldings Trio at Dazzle Jazz, my favorite jazz club in Denver. During a solo, guitarist Peter Bernstein's played a phase which Bill Stewart, while keeping the beat, mimicked on drums. They did not even acknowledge each other with a nod or a wink, but they conversed through the notes. I hear it and smile. There were many smiles that night. It gets better when I bring a student or friend who is new to jazz or a novice. Then I can teach as well as behold. One jazz epiphany delivered a pure and radiant joy that left dementia and all its ills far, far behind.

I took a young couple to Dazzle, Denver's best jazz club, to hear the Cyrus Chestnut trio. We savored every minute, but a few minutes stood out. Chestnut, playing the piano with his back to the drummer, finished a solo, turned around, looked at his young drummer, and started scat singing! He scatted and stopped. The drummer answered. It was call-and-response, another indelible feature of jazz. I turned to my young jazz neophytes, laughed, and rubbed the top of Michael's head, who was laughing along with his wife. This odd musical exchange—I had never heard this pairing of scat and drums before—was made sweeter because young, newlywed Cassie is a sibling in suffering. By this, I mean one the soul who has suffered in extraordinary ways, ways that most cannot imagine. Her family member suffers from a rare and horrible disease that keeps him from a productive life and, at unpredictable times, physically endangers those around him. But dear Cassie was laughing with her husband and with me, as we joined the fellowship of jazz.

Moments like these do nothing to take away the suffering to which I will return when I go home; but they are glad antidotes for persistent agonies. Here, too, is a slice of divine grace.

(Parts of this essay was excerpted from Walking through Twilight: A Wife's Illness—A Philosopher's Lament, just published by InterVarsity Press.)

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