Jazz: A Foretaste of Eternal Life

Throughout Scripture, there are more than 1,000 references to all things musical—songs, singing, instruments, and the like. These passages identify music as a beautifully appropriate way to praise God not only here on earth, but also in the eternal joy of heaven. As a lifelong musician, I’ve always been especially comforted by the reassurance that, whatever else life in heaven is like, music will definitely be a part of it. More recently, as a composer, I’ve often found myself wondering what exactly this music will sound like. Some Scripture passages seem to imply a capella (unaccompanied vocal) music, for example, “I thank you, LORD, with all my heart; in the presence of the angels to you I sing” (Ps 138:1). On the other hand, Isaiah tells us that “we will sing to stringed instruments in the house of the LORD all the days of our life” (Is 38:20). That sounds appealing; who doesn’t love a good string quartet? The psalmist goes several instruments further in his final song of praise:

Praise God in his holy sanctuary;
give praise in the mighty dome of heaven.
Give praise for his mighty deed,
praise him for his great majesty.
Give praise with blasts upon the horn,
praise him with harp and lyre.
Give praise with tambourines and dance,
praise him with flutes and strings.
Give praise with crashing cymbals,
praise him with sounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath
give praise to the Lord!
Hallelujah! (Psalm 150)

In this vision of heavenly music, the entire orchestra is present, complete with a grand chorus comprised of “everything that has breath.” But these are visions of heavenly music that are being described in earthly terms by the human writers of Scripture, albeit divinely inspired earthly terms. In point of fact, there’s no real way to know what the music of heaven will sound like, until, God willing, we hear and learn and sing the hymn around the throne of the Lamb ourselves (see Rev 14:2–3).

On the other hand, even though these passages ultimately fail to tell us precisely what heaven will sound like, they offer us an image. Our own experiences of music, too, can provide such images, offering us a foretaste of what we’ll hear echoing throughout the halls of heaven. While one might default to Gregorian chant or the music of Palestrina when imagining what the heavenly choirs sing, I’d like to suggest a different image of beatific music that makes eternal life seem a little more lively.

Recently, I attended a performance at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center featuring the Preservation Hall Quintet, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and Irma Thomas. For nearly two hours, I was transported from northern Indiana to the French Quarter of the Crescent City, and when it was over, I had become convinced that the jazz music of New Orleans images the music of heaven in a vibrant, joyful, real way.

To begin with, this music is shot through with the message of the Gospel. Songs like Preservation Hall’s “Basin Street Blues” and “Just a Little While” or the Blind Boys of Alabama’s “Almost Home” speak of the journey of faith that one makes throughout life, of the divine grace that helps one persevere on that journey in times of difficulty, and of the final journey that everyone must make through death to eternal life. New Orleans jazz provides an unapologetically raw yet overwhelmingly rich accompaniment for this journey. According to the trumpet player for the Preservation Hall Quintet, “In New Orleans, we bury our dead with jazz”—jazz that lifts up and transfigures the sorrows of death into a foretaste of the joys of eternal life, the joys of being alive in God.

Even apart from its Gospel-rich lyrical content, this music of New Orleans offers a glorious glimpse of heaven’s hymnody in its very construction. This music is polyphonic, consisting of many voices (or instruments in this case). Each melodic line is unique, independent in and of itself, and yet still collaborative with the other instruments in playing the overall tune. Indeed, each individual musical line only reaches its true fullness when played in conjunction with the other individual lines; a lonely saxophone playing its countermelody cannot compare with the intricate interplay that happens with the addition of the other instruments.

Thus, polyphonic music images the communion of saints: just as each saint retains his or her unique, unrepeatable particularity among the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), each instrument retains its own unique voice while simultaneously contributing to the overall beauty of the whole piece in collaboration with the other instruments. Listening to the Preservation Hall Quintet, then, becomes a musical re-imagining St. Paul’s description of the Body of Christ:

If the whole band were a trumpet, where would the rhythm be? If the whole body were a drum set, where would the melody be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one ensemble. The trumpet cannot say to the drums, “I do not need you,” nor again the saxophone to the bass, “I do not need you.” If one musician plays poorly, all the musicians suffer with him; if one musician plays well, all the musicians share her joy (see 1 Corinthians 12:17, 20–21, 26).

The trumpet cannot replicate the drums; the piano or organ cannot substitute for the trombone. Each person must take up their instrument and play to the best of their ability, without any desire to imitate or compare oneself to the others playing alongside him or her. While there may be moments when individual musicians step into the limelight for a solo, each player in turn receives this opportunity, and each player in turn rejoices in the gifts of his fellow musicians. In fact, when the various members of the Preservation Hall Quintet would step forward for their solos, the real joy for me lay in watching the faces of their fellow musicians as they reacted in surprise, laughter, and sheer joy to the soloist’s creativity. I was reminded of the Cantos 11 and 12 in Dante’s Paradiso when St. Thomas Aquinas (a Dominican) narrates the life of St. Francis of Assisi (founder of the Franciscans) and St. Bonaventure (a Franciscan) narrates the life of St. Dominic (founder of the Dominicans). In heaven, as in music and especially as in jazz, there is no room for jealous rivalry. Instead, there is a glorious unity-in-diversity found in the polyphonic praise of the communion of saints. Their example helps us on earth to become attuned to their way of singing as we learn from them to rejoice in the gifts of others, to lift up our own gifts in gratitude, to trust that our humble gifts are made better when offered in conjunction with others’, and to praise God who is the source of them all.

Oh Lord, I want to be in that number, and I want everyone else to be in that number too. I want to sing your praise with the voice you gave me in harmony with my brothers and sisters, rejoicing in the graces you’ve poured out on each of us and in your divine love that draws us all together, forming us into one, grand, heavenly chorus. For now, though, Lord, help those of us on earth to keep marching on together toward heaven, marching toward sainthood, marching toward communion, and help us to keep singing your praises together all the way there.

Editorial Note: Throughout the month of November, Church Life Journal will explore the Catholic imagination as an imagination of sanctification. By sanctified imagination, we mean the imagination which highlights the core narrative of the Paschal mystery, as radiantly incarnate in the saints. We seek to reflect on the manifold ways Christ becomes all-in-all through the men and women of his mystical body, the Church. As our authors explore the various dimensions of the sanctified imagination (please click the link for a list of the posts), we invite you to think along with us. 


Featured Image: Preservation Hall Jazz band plays on sidewalk in front of the Hall at start of second line parade in memorial for the late clarinetist Jacques Gauth, 1 October 2007, photo by Infrogmation; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the program director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music. She is the author of Praying the Rosary Together.

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