The Shape of Faith to Come

ornettejazzWhen I was in high school or college, I bought The Shape of Jazz to Come, Ornette Coleman’s seminal 1959 free jazz album. I listened to jazz at the time, especially Miles’s electric stuff, but even more I listened to James Brown and Prince and P-Funk and various alternative rock bands. In fact, I’d probably never heard Ornette Coleman before I bought the album.[fn1] I bought it because I knew it was important, and I wanted to like it.

But, it turned out, I wasn’t a big fan. I don’t remember what the problem was, if it was Coleman’s tone or the unusual melodies, the lack of an underlying harmonic structure, or what. I probably listened to it once or twice, then put it back with my other CDs and didn’t pull it out.

Fast forward to November. Downbeat had an article about Mostly Other People Do the Killing, a contemporary free jazz band. I pulled them up on Spotify, listened for a minute, and was hooked.

I decided a couple weeks ago to give Ornette Coleman another try. And I can’t speak highly enough of his music. The rhythmic and harmonic innovation, the creativity, and the almost telepathic interaction between the band.

What changed? Not the album. It was set in stone (well, except for remastering) 55 years ago. But in the years since I initially bought the album, my taste in jazz has expanded. I’ve listened more and more exclusively to jazz. Some jazz you have to work at before you can enjoy it; I’d put in the work and my ears understand better what Coleman was doing.


Faith does not come naturally to me. It hasn’t since at least high school. I’m not cynical, but I tend toward skepticism.

And yet I believe in the Gospel. I believe in the truth-claims of the Church.

And even when I don’t naturally believe, I try to believe. I work at belief.

Why? Because the Gospel message resonates with me. Because I’ve had experiences where the Spirit testified to me of the truth of it all. Because I find that the Church and the Gospel make me a better person than I otherwise would be.

But largely because, like I knew that Ornette Coleman was someone whose music I should enjoy, I know that the Gospel is something I should believe. So today I work at it. And I hope, in days to come, that I will hear the rhythms and harmonies fall naturally into place, that I will understand the complexities of it all, and that my heart will hear the beauty in what it now perceives as dissonance.

[fn1] This would have been in the early- to mid-1990s, with no Spotify or YouTube, no even Amazon 30-second previews.


  1. Last Lemming says:

    Working at belief is hard enough. I got nothing left for jazz. Sorry.

  2. I’m listening now to “Handsome Eddy” from the album Shamokin and for some reason that I don’t fully grasp, it’s cracking me up. There’s some great musicianship but also a quirky sense of humor being expressed. Thanks for writing this up. Very interesting. (haven’t tried Ornette Coleman yet, but I’ll get around to it)

  3. Dan, you, sir, have taste. I find MOPDtK absolutely hilarious, while also deeply musical. Ornette is less funny, but equally amazing.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    This is a great metaphor, Sam. I have to admit to not putting in the work for a lot of things that I should.

  5. St. Vincent seems a likely contemporary to your experience with Ornette Coleman for me. But great metaphor. We tend to grow into those things that we hold as most important, despite the struggles and complications along the way.

  6. I don’t understand a system in which an all loving god puts his children on the earth to believe in something that is so hard to believe. Why would having faith need so much work? If it were all true than there would be things to reinforce belief and the more we found out as a people the more apt to believe. Instead the exact opposite has happened. People are falling away from faith because we are learning more. If something is true, shouldn’t the opposite happen? Also, why do you think it requires faith to make you a good person? I have never understood this. I am pretty sure you would still be a really good person without faith. Why don’t you have faith in yourself? Seems to me that this would be something that would be more important to work on.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    I don’t think it is so facile, nerherd. It seems to me that you have missed the metaphor. So much in life that is good doesn’t come cheap. If you value a free, civil and democratic society, why is it so hard for people to manage? Shouldn’t we just give up on the world entirely because it is so hard? I can’t speak for everyone, but there are a lot of hyper-educated folk around here, who manage to find belief natural, and worth it.

  8. and many who don’t find it natural but still find it worth it.

  9. nerdherd21 says:

    I understand the metaphor I just don’t think faith works this way. What I am saying is that the more we work as a people toward greater understanding the less faith works. That is what is happening now as opposed to other things were the more you work the easier or the better it gets. That is why I am disagreeing with the metaphor. I also am not taking a shot at your education level just a general observation as to what is happening in our civilization at large. As we become more educated and progress as a society, faith is decreasing. Just wondering if you think that is strange at all. If faith was worth it and it was built up by work and study, it seems that the opposite would happen.

    My intention was not to take a hit at anyone’s education level or intelect. So please don’t take it that way. Just was an observation based on this post.

  10. nerdherd, I appreciate your concern for my faith in myself; let me assure you that, to the extent I have a problem with self-regard, it’s that I regard myself too highly.

    Faith may not work for you in the way it works for me, and I have no problem with that. I didn’t put this out as a normative vision of faith. I do believe, though, that faith is valuable, and that we give up things of value when we don’t pursue things that are hard or uncomfortable. (And listening to Ornette Coleman without context and practice is, in fact, both hard and uncomfortable. As is walking through the modern art galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago. As is reading anything that David Foster Wallace has written. As is, for that matter, maintaining interpersonal relationships. As is, I believe, engaging with Deity.)

    While faith may be decreasing as the world gains knowledge (and I don’t know that it is–I suspect that, rather than losing faith, people are becoming more willing and able to address their faith outside of conventional spaces), that’s a correlative, not causative, relationship. It’s hard, I think, to demonstrate that knowledge rubs out faith.

  11. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

    Any time something previously hidden becomes seen, no matter what field, the need for faith is lost relative to that thing – so, absolutely, education can decrease the need for faith in lots of things. However, the concept of faith still is critical to exploration, discovery, research, etc. – since it is the religious term for belief in what can’t be proven, yet or, perhaps, ever.

    I wouldn’t say faith, in its broadest sense, is decreasing, necessarily. I do believe, however, that many of the religious things that used to be seen “faithfully” (believed without proof) have been proven to be inaccurate (young earth creationism, for example) – so many people no longer have faith in those things. In turn, that loss of faith in inaccurate beliefs can lead to disillusionment with religion generally and lack of faith in any religious claims. I don’t see that as a problem with anything except the religious interpretations of a former time, and we face the same flight from faith if we continue to insist on maintaining faith in what has been disproven. I have no problem saying that we can have faith in something and then let go of faith when knowledge finally is gained – even if that knowledge causes us to let go of that in which we used to have faith.

    Also, fwiw, I disagree with the idea that true faith is only in things that are true. I see faith as the motivating factor in belief regardless of the truth of the object of faith.

  12. As a jazz sax player, my heart leapt at this blog post! How great to hear a fellow Mo use their personal awakening to “outside” jazz as a metaphor for their faith progression!!!

    Thanks for sharing.

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