Miles Davis is a musical hero of mine. I love his pure tone and use of the middle register of the trumpet. He was an innovator, at the forefront of numerous movements within jazz music. Miles Davis never seemed to rest. He was always searching for new ways to convey his ideas, and loved to embrace what was new. But what in the world does Miles Davis have to do with music in Contemporary Worship?!
Davis’ approach to leading a band or making a recording can be a great example for leaving room for the Holy Spirit to be present. In rehearsals, Miles Davis would explain or sketch out the general melodies and form, then the band would work through it. He would give general guidelines for the musicians to work within, anything specific he wanted, but most often he would not write out all the parts. By not dictating what everyone was to play, he created an environment in which musicians, would “play above their abilities.”
Miles Davis had faith in the abilities of his fellow musicians, and he trusted their choices – though I’m sure he reserved the right to veto anything. He concerned himself mostly with the larger work and overall flow. I feel this is a great approach to music in Contemporary Worship. For example, when beginning a new song with my church’s Praise Team, I’ll hand out lead sheets or chord charts, tell them the general feel – and we’re off! I give some instructions as to when the guitars should lay out, ask if any of the vocalists would like to take a verse, and then challenge everyone to find something interesting in the piece. Often everyone will play their parts better, and with real emotions; because they are playing something that is their offering for worship, rather than reciting a lick, or harmony I dictated. We are working in a common, creative vein.
I believe playing in this common vein during worship gives the Holy Spirit the best opportunity to make itself known. And it does – believe me. I’ve played shows in front of thousands and it is a great feeling, but there is something else that dances across the back of your neck when a song during worship is…right. When the singers are right on top of everything, the drummer is not just playing a groove but creating a melody, and the guitars and keys are in synch – something moves unlike anything else. We are not trying to force an experience within the congregation, but rather attempting to give a true offering of music with the congregation in praise of God.
Donald Miller wrote in his book, Blue Like Jazz, that jazz music could not be written down because it is a true expression of the soul. Meaning that there was more to a jazz performance than the notes on the page. In fact, Miles Davis had trouble with his Sketches of Spain album because he needed musicians to play both on and off the page. Music in worship should also have this expression of the soul. Composers write wonderful modern hymns for worship, so we should try to not just execute these songs with precision – but to the best of our abilities, worshipfully, and an expression of how it touches our soul. As worship leaders, we should not be afraid to rethink or search our soul for new meanings in song; and how it is played for worship.
Miles Davis, was a very colorful character. He lived a hard life because of the many choices he made, but his approach to music is one that many could learn from. By following his style of leadership we encourage our Praise Teams, and rather than force feel of a song, we will leave room for the Holy Spirit to make its presence known. As followers of Christ, we trust in God; the least we could do is trust our music teams to do their best for worship.
Below is a video of Miles & Trane: