Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Music, Theology, and Philosophy: A Conversation with Artist-Theologian Julian Reid


Image courtesy of Julian Reid

Artist-Theologian Julian Reid interviewed by Alex King

Julian is an artist-theologian who plays, speaks, and writes at the intersection of music, faith, and story. He is a founding member of the jazz-fusion group The JuJu Exchange and has two personal projects, including his solo show Inherited and his devotional series Notes of Rest. He also works with the grassroots organization Fearless Dialogues. He studied theology and the arts at Candler School of Theology and, before that, philosophy at Yale. He and his wife Carmen are based in his beloved hometown of Chicago. You can learn more about Julian on his website and keep up with him at @julianreid17 on Twitter/Instagram.

During or after you read this interview, please enjoy the sounds of the JuJu Exchange.

You’re a contemporary jazz artist as well as a scholar and preacher. How do you think about ethical issues in relation to these different hats you wear – the musical and the literary?

In grad school, in thinking about literary genres or the Bible, I learned about this idea that different genres (literary and beyond) have different constraints, and different moral constraints. There’s a way, for instance, that people can talk in hip-hop that wouldn’t make sense in folk, gospel, or R&B. And there’s a way that people talk and present themselves in pop that wouldn’t make sense in hip-hop. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially around questions about violence, where you can have some genres of music that give voice to extreme acts of violence (either narrating violence that has happened to you, or committing violence in the moment against a person or group). So I’m thinking about genre categories as well as how those categories change what it means for you to like art made by people you find deplorable.

As a musician who makes a lot of music without words, I notice that one’s character can be more easily veiled in those settings. So someone could be committing acts of domestic abuse and come out on stage and what they play is the most beautiful ballad that makes all the grandmas cry. Sadly, actually, we can see this in a lot of jazz cats and their history. A lot of them ended up doing terrible things, even stealing instruments from other musicians they were on the road with to get drug money! Charlie Parker was known for this. 

Really? Wow!

See? But you wouldn’t know that by listening to what he plays. Because he’s not talking about the ethics of property in his solos.

But one complicating factor is that the genre does actually create constraints that signal the way that musicians understand certain ethical questions.

For instance, in jazz there’s a lot of borrowing or purloining or outright stealing from other musicians. But, I guess because of the frequency with which it happens, it’s seen as just part of the culture. If you’re assuming a thoroughly capitalist background, it could be seen as super uncool to be stealing so much. But if you read it in a more communitarian or socialist way, where resources are being pooled and the lines of property are more porous, you can read it as a referendum on American society out of which jazz music comes, where lines of property are not being arbitrated and demarcated, like the white picket fences in the suburbs or redlining in the hood. Rather, Charlie Parker is borrowing from and playing into this smorgasbord of sounds. That’s a charitable read, and many people take it that way.

But this is all related to the central quandary wherein people can decouple reprehensible activity from a person in certain settings and not in others. That is, on the one hand, a grace that can be extended to musicians who play without words because they’re drawing you into an ineffable experience which can get beyond some of these categories like right/wrong, legal/illegal. But it can also be a danger because we can end up praising and admiring people who are doing whatever they need to do to play that way. So Bird is stealing instruments in order to play this music that is speechless and leaves you speechless – do we praise that? He doesn’t have to get up on stage and confess what he’s done. His social cache doesn’t come from that. Unlike a hip-hop cat, who in a sense needs fodder to talk on stage in a way that makes him desirable to the fan.

I don’t think there’s any easy way to slice that up. But it’s something that I reflect on a lot, especially as I continue to reflect on the fact that musicians form the desires of society.

Image courtesy of Julian Reid, photo by Stephanie Eley

A lot of this goes back to what you said at the beginning about the way these norms depend on genre. Jazz in particular has a really rich history of borrowing. You’re just a part of this tradition, so you’re just sharing these references. It’s not like if you play a lick from something else, you’re stealing. It’s just a sort of homage to that. Like, “Remember when Miles Davis did that? Now I’m doing a little riff on that.” It’s a shared set of references, almost like literary allusions, used to evoke a certain context or feeling. And it seems to me that a lot of times in jazz, it’s not done for some very lofty goal; it’s just like, hey remember this? Wasn’t that cool? Let’s have that cool feeling again together.

Yeah, I agree. But also, in another sense, it’s about proving your mettle. So if I know X, Y, and Z allusions, that means I’ve done my homework. It’s a kind of credentializing thing.

But also, if you quote someone word for word in a paper, given the way the Western university treats property – you better cite! Otherwise there goes your career! So I wonder what it is about words that we hold as sacrosanct, as opposed to sounds – and in the very same society.

Yeah, and it’s interesting to watch courts try to litigate sound. There was a recent-ish controversial copyright infringement case involving Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” that went back and forth (initially she was found guilty; then it was reversed). It’s so complicated to adjudicate these claims, whereas with words, it’s typically much more obvious. But words are the medium in which these laws have been constructed, so of course it’s easier. They’re not constructed from the starting point of how we litigate sound. It’s interesting to think about the ways in which that has influenced the way that Black subcultures have moved through sound. Maybe it owes partly to this historical lack of strict legal oversight.

That’s a great point, and it also has me thinking about land and the way we understand it. I mean, I’m sitting here looking at this fence and park, and the fence signifies ownership by somebody. Ultimately the land owns us, but the words we use suggest that we own it. And the words then lead to certain structures that exist that allow us to bind it.

The interesting thing about music is that musicians are always ahead of the law, or there’s always someone who’s working beyond it, and the law has to catch up.

In music, people draw up new boundaries and draw on new influences to create new sounds. And I actually think that has to do with how sound refers and how words refer. The theologian Jeremy Begbie talks about how sound, a musical note, does not have the same strength of reference as a spoken word. (And he, funnily enough, was of course drawing on someone else’s work.) The idea is that, if I play a C, it might have extrinsic references for you, but intrinsically it doesn’t reference anything. It’s just a C. Whereas a word like ‘tree’ always exists in reference to some external object. And of course there are a lot of related debates in philosophy of language. But the fact that the word is always already in relationship to that object suggests a stronger kind of referentiality than a musical note. So I wonder if part of the reason there’s such an issue around musicians and trying to figure out sound and how to bind it is because musicians are always imputing onto the sound as some kind of extrinsic value, and then the extent to which that extrinsic value is widely shared is variable.

Something I enjoy, having studied philosophy and academic theology and music, is looking at the limits of all of these conversations and seeing what I’m trying to express in each realm or what is made possible by working within the limits and tools of each discourse.

Do you think it has to do with music being more targeted toward expressiveness and feeling than at communication? With language, we have to communicate things. We have to say, “Water is over there.” Whereas music may be less teleological. Music does not exist so that we can jointly satisfy specific practical aims. Rather, we’re trying to express something or communicate feeling, which is less dependent on that tighter referentiality.

I love that!

I have heard that music is older than words. If that’s true – and I can’t see why it wouldn’t be, since the first thing you hear is your mother’s heartbeat – then music might be essential to us in a way words never can be, although words create meaning in a way music never can. Words have to do something to move us through the world, especially in terms of survival. Music also needs to be present for survival, but to your point, it’s not surviving in the way that gets us to water. It can be something about how we feel about the water and the world, period.

One interesting thing that’s coming out in the age of all of the public awareness of anti-Blackness is that some music is about coordinating action. But now we’re talking about words combined with music, which is totally different from sounds on their own. Some of these songs are finding real purchase in this time: Jean Batiste’s “We Are,” H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe,” Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown,” Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture,” and more. But compare John Coltrane’s song “Alabama,” which he wrote after the bombing of the Birmingham church 16th Street Baptist Church. To coordinate our actions, we have to know what it’s about.

As a sidenote, I think that’s a real flaw of jazz education. We weren’t taught what those songs meant. We were just taught to play the tunes. We weren’t taught that Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” is about prostitution. Again these are extrinsic points of reference, but they’re still references nonetheless. But perhaps music can still live outside that.

Back to the point, some music becomes too much about what you need to do and what you need to think, and I often find that very flat-footed and not very artful. I expect that stuff from politicians, but typically not from musicians. You could make the case that all music is persuasion of some kind. It aims to persuade you that I’m a human, that this music is worth your time, that this is a good use of your five dollars. But music that is more artful doesn’t do that – at least on the surface, even if underneath the surface it very much does.

This makes me think of propaganda posters. They have a message, and present that message and package it in a visually attractive medium. You could translate that to this context, taking this sort of straightforward moral or political message and packaging it in an auditorily attractive medium.

Yes, it’s agitprop! You could try to make the case that all music is agitprop. If I’m getting funded by a label to release some music, they will want to present it in a certain way. Nowadays, if you want to make money with music, there are whole new dimensions to it. If you want to sell anything? Best believe you need some visual, some money in marketing, a social media presence, and all of it. You have to put money in all these elements that go into convincing people to spend their hard-earned money on you. And not just their money, but their hard-earned attention! After all, in today’s age, it just costs a couple bucks to get stuff up, so there are innumerable names and artists, and even your grandma’s got her own podcast! To actually get yourself heard amidst that, you’ve got to convince. So then how do you convince? You offer sex appeal, political rectitude, or perhaps something escapist.

Or even a piece of your brand.

That’s it! In the era of commerce, how should we apply the term ‘propaganda’ to music? This wasn’t always the way that music was understood. When it was in the hands of the church in Europe or in a village in Ghana, or if it was just something you did casually, it wasn’t talked about in these ways. It might have communicative value, to return to the earlier point. If you hear a certain drum beat, it might “tell” you to come outside for the rain dance. Still, it takes on new meaning and new complexity when an artist is conditioning your desire to buy something.

But sometimes those uses depend on extrinsic references. For instance, in some countries, different utility vehicles play different little tunes, so that the garbage truck plays one song, and the water truck plays a different one. But there isn’t any pretense that those are connected in more than a conventional way. The tune itself doesn’t have any special power or connection to garbage or to water. But in this commercial setting, artists and marketers try to convince you that by listening to this music, you somehow become more a part of this vision. It’s really important for you to believe that this brand of person makes this brand of music, and those two things are deeply intertwined, and that by buying and consuming it, you become a part of that.

Wow, yeah. And for good or for bad, that’s a seductive vision. It’s the way we create community. We have a certain brand and that brand can connect us to certain people, certain places, and it gives us a sense of belonging and meaning. The brand era is deep.

I was just reflecting on this thinking about jazz. Think about this: Coltrane would play a show with vomit on his sweater. Can you imagine now, in today’s world, any pop star playing a gig like with pee on themselves or having defecated themselves or thrown up on themselves and just coming out on the stage? Ain’t nobody would show up! You’d be all over the tabloids, you’d have no followers, they’d be like, “Do better,” “Oh he seems like he’s unstable; he needs help.” Think of the way that Kanye’s been lampooned and crucified for the things he’s said and done, but from what I know, people didn’t care about this in Coltrane’s era. They showed up and listened to his sound because it was otherworldly.

Your brand is so important that Coltrane couldn’t exist now. And that’s something I think about: What does it mean for me to exist as a musician now? What does it mean for me to exist as a part of this community and this legacy now? Especially for jazz because jazz started in very verboten and unsightly places. It was seen as something to be afraid of. Sounds that make your body move this way, these Black folk were making sounds that possessed white folk in a certain way, and you couldn’t trust it. (It’s actually very similar to how some people talk about hip-hop.) It was associated with illegal spaces: piano players in brothels, prohibition in the twenties (the “Jazz Age”), drug use in the forties. But nowadays, jazz functions very differently. It’s a lot cleaner, a lot more middle class, and more sophisticated. Although I will say that jazz is always played on the edges of popularity in America.

I mean, you guys did a TedX performance! That says it all.

Great point. We have arrived! From the Alleyways to TedX: A History of Jazz. From the Brothels to TedX. Yep.

So you’re thinking about how branding and audience expectations have closed off ways you could be a musician now, but do you think that it’s opened up any more possibilities for what kind of a musician you can be?

I don’t know, that’s a great question.

For good or for bad, musicians now have access to a lot more money. I think one of the reasons these cats lived such sad lives is because music then was really underpaid – and to be fair, much of it still is. But because jazz is now sophisticated, you can play it in the Ritz Carlton lobby. And you have access to more funds from universities and other institutions.

Institutionalization creates something else, too. For the longest time, the only way to learn the music was to be an apprentice, to learn from the older cats, to be on the bandstand. It was really gruesome in some ways, but once it became institutionalized in schools, it became part of the way America understood music education. And people came out of those schools. Because of this, a lot of people at the vanguard in terms of technical proficiency started to come from schools, rather than just from the street. That opens up the possibility of a kind of erudition that you wouldn’t have had before, and maybe a kind of respect of society that you wouldn’t have had before.

Another thing is that, with Spotify and streaming shifting how we listen to music, it’s possible to hear different sounds all next to each other. I think this offers an opportunity to have a different brand and a different statement because you have access to so many different voices. Before, you would only have access to whatever music existed in the shadows. As a musician, this means you can think more about where you want to exist in this ecosystem.

In addition, because nowadays there’s an emphasis on brand, musicians can be a lot more outspoken – and maybe should be more outspoken. In a way, their brand holds them to account for what they’re trying to say. Previously, a lot of cats thought they’d be great just because they could play their instrument really well. But it’s increasingly harder to do that. (COVID, sadly, is putting a lot of pressure on that – I mean, nobody is going to touch the proficiency of the first chair of even a mid-tier orchestra philharmonic. You’ve spent your whole life trying to get there, and yet you may now be shuttered because people just aren’t interested in sounds that are disconnected from social messages.)

So not only do you as a musician have access to more sounds and listen to more genres, not only can you be present in society in different ways, not only can you traverse the musical landscape rather than playing the same songs, but so too you can create a movement through the accountability you have for your messaging.

That’s so interesting! Speaking of messaging, could you say more about how you experience making wordless music and speaking in church contexts? How similar or different do you find them? And does your message translate differently in those different media?

You’ve tapped into something that I’m very much exploring in real time. A couple of years ago, I would have been more keen to say that what I prioritize and really enjoy is making music without words, how that draws you into conversations with the ineffable which can gesture toward the conversation with God, who is both speakable and unspeakable. And there are all these features of wordless music – in my case, wordless improvisational music – that draw you into a posture that I actually think prepares you for faith. It isn’t faith itself, but it can prepare you, or cultivate a sensibility of faith. I still believe that to be true. I still think that when I play a solo and you have no idea what I’m going to do – but you’re interested in learning more – that situation does cultivate a kind of dependence or reliance or, really, faith and trust. Faith and trust that this is going to go somewhere, that you can’t even speak to, you can’t even imagine, but you can trust will be worth your time. At the very least worth your time, if not edifying, revelatory, or even simply beautiful. But that requires you to move from a place of trust and curiosity. Similarly, God calls us all as creatures He made, into a trusting relationship. That relationship, once begun, catches our interest, and God draws us into deeper connection if our curiosity and sensibility for trust are cultivated. I still hold to that and see that as part of my ministry, playing wordless music. Two years ago, that would have been the fullness of the answer.

Now, I would also say that I’m actually interested in coordinating speech. I’m realizing that an integrated self for me is one that marries my interest in shaping worlds that scripture and Christian theology have brought about, in shaping those worlds very explicitly with words. Alongside that, shaping worlds with feelings and emotions, in a way that music can because, as you were saying, music can refuse the teleological ends to which words are automatically beholden. I have enjoyed figuring out how to put words into and integrate them with music. 

We are now in a postmodern, multimodal world. The way music functioned back in the forties and fifties was more mono-modal or uni-modal: their sound just had one layer to it. Of course it was complex – there’s no such thing as a simple way to understand Miles Davis – but he wasn’t typically speaking on his tracks. The parts that people have caught of him speaking are incidental, like “Hey play that, Tito!” at the end of certain recordings. Multimodality was limited to musicians getting together with singers, and then you’d be associated with the singer’s message. A big record that is really good and also relevant now is We Insist! Freedom Now Suite by Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln. It’s incredible. 

The Juju Exchange
Image courtesy of Julian Reid; photo by Rene Marban

But in the current multimodal world, people put their own words in stories. It’s a dime a dozen now. On a jazz record you’ll hear some spoken-word artist over a beat that you create. And that’s your political speech that’s coordinating reality: Go vote; fight the system; mourn for the people killed by police brutality. I’m even taking this a step further – or sideways – by doing my own speaking and wanting to speak myself on tracks and play. This gets closer to the logic present for me when I’m preaching in church, leading Bible study, forming the thinking of those around me, around the text that we have taken up. That’s one part of the answer.

The other part is that I revel in the challenge of figuring out how we as humans can create with regulation in mind and with regulation not in mind. For me, the clearest music I create is when I’m not thinking about what the patron saints of jazz would say – what would Charlie Parker say about this solo, what would Miles Davis say, what would my living teachers say? The clearest creating I do doesn’t come from those rules. However, I also love saying the Nicene Creed, which is the oldest official statement of faith in the Christian church. I love using it as a springboard for theological reflection. And that’s very regulated. It was ostensibly created by the rich patricians at the council, and the poor folk had this other kind of Christianity which wasn’t really accounted for and so it too lived in the shadows.

I understand all of that. Still, I don’t see those regulations as closing down or foreclosing on freedom, but as giving life to a different kind of freedom and a different kind of openness. So I really enjoy thinking about church through the lens of these already circumscribed and delimited conversations. I think humans can’t exist without delimited conversations. As much as America thinks it’s anathema to us, America wouldn’t exist if it didn’t exterminate so many native people, displace so many Africans, and delimit all the ways that we have lived. So the fact that humans create limits and definitions – literally define limits and borders and all that – that in and of itself isn’t a problem. The problem is when we’re not honest about it, when it causes serious harms, or when we don’t understand the extent to which those borders have been created by us. I think God is always interested in acknowledging those and honoring certain borders and in transgressing others. 

For me, that logic is also present in trying to create music. At my clearest, I’m moving back and forth between those different places. I’m not starting from anything that Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk would have said, but starting from what the fathers and mothers of the church have already decided – and I really enjoy those two ways of thinking and moving. I think it would bring about a different kind of liberation if I could start sharing that more with more people.

There’s something profound in the thought that the existence of rules and constraints can make you reconceptualize what you’re doing and approach it in a different way – in a way that can actually foster creativity. But there’s a tension between thinking about borders and limitations as spurring creativity, on the one hand, and as oppressive on the other. Could you speak to that?

Definitely. I have often found that musicians are like, “Forget borders! We’re borderless! We can do whatever we want!” Then you see them strung out, no families, terrible health, living in the shadows in so many ways. On the other side you see people in the middle-class world who live within the borders of society and the borders work for them. And I say this as someone who went to Yale, whose wife is a doctor, and all that. People like this live longer and have better health outcomes, but they don’t see the freedom that comes from the creativity that artists relish. So I think we need both. We never live without both.

There’s an irony in that we’re having this conversation, and the Earth is having another conversation with us: “You in the West, or in the North Atlantic – you think that you’re limitless. Yeah, maybe you want to rethink that.” All the conversations around what to do, environmentally and politically, are already too late. 

To start with what to do privileges agency, as opposed to saying what should we not do? These are very different questions. I feel this anxiety, especially when white folk ask me nowadays about anything to do with Black life – what should I do? How can I help? This framing always, immediately begins with privileging agency. Obviously you have to do things, but to privilege the doing, without thinking about the not-doing, has led to many of our problems. America hoards the earth’s resources in an unspeakable way and has created more nuclear missiles than most of the rest of the world combined. Frankly, if we started with what we shouldn’t do, I don’t even know if America would exist. America is all about the doing as opposed to the not-doing, but reorienting ourselves toward what we shouldn’t do might actually cause us to recast how we think of ourselves.

How does your Christianity play into your thinking about these issues – about what we should and what we shouldn’t do?

What I see is the central message of Jesus: that we were created good, but have fallen and moved away from that, and actually need something from outside of us to intervene and correct us. I find that very rewarding because it can be so alluring to fall into humanism, which says that all we need is to just think right or be right or act right or vote right. But I wonder, Who’s doing those things?

In philosophy classes, all these white guys were telling me that, if I could just sit in my room and think hard enough, then I’d be good and be on the right side of history. But Jonathan Edwards sat in his room for forty hours a week and owned slaves. This was a real limitation for me in philosophy. All of that posturing doesn’t mean anything to me. I need God to come and save me. I need God to come save us in a way that only God can. Because if it were left up to us, what I’m left with is the US bombing hospitals in Afghanistan. Not just that, but the current conception of progress is when more people are allowed to do that for the sake of diversity. Now Black folk, sexual minorities, gender minorities can fight to become a part of that top group that then bombs hospitals and children. I can’t put my faith in humanism. There’s no way for us on our own out of this death.

Hopefully, my music – with and without words – gestures beyond us to a God who came and died at the hands of our technologies of death, and said I will die on your cross, and show you that that is not even enough to keep me from you, and that is not even enough for your self-destruction. It’s a powerful time to be thinking that way.

I really think of my faith as a site of generosity as opposed to imperialism, which unfortunately Christianity has often been a site for. But it can be a site of generosity in that it helps people realize that we can’t actually save ourselves. I don’t care what happens with you fighting the police; there will just be something else that white folk come up with to keep their power. Even if a few more of us go to Yale.

Yeah, that’s powerful. But there’s also a common non-religious counterpoint to what you’re saying, which is that if we think that only God can save us, it makes us too complacent. If we put all our faith in the afterlife, then we don’t care about the actual material conditions of injustice and suffering here and now. That’s the kind of thing Marx said. Do you have thoughts about that?

Yes, that’s a great point. Thanks for bringing it up. It extends to Apple as much as to the church! And to the liberal university as much as the church! If you go back to the meaning of the word ‘religion’, it means reli- + gere, which literally means to relink or re-form communities. If ‘religion’ means ‘connection between people,’ then Apple is doing a whole lot of religious evangelism these days. There’s a whole secular religion which we will sacrifice for. We sacrifice people alive now and our children and future generations so that certain people can live a certain way. There are opiates of all sorts for the masses.

Religion definitely runs that risk, and that’s why we need to have critical conversations with it. Christianity certainly can anesthetize and desensitize us to the problems in the world that we have. But my hope is that we see ourselves as people who co-create with God, whose agency we participate in.

There’s risk, but the humility that can be engendered by realizing that we are not the ultimate power can bring about a whole different way of understanding our agency and our work. We don’t have to be sitting around and waiting for the by-and-by to come. Instead, we can do work now that gestures toward a different reality and wait for a different leadership that comes from beyond ourselves. I look to Jesus to do that for me. I know that it can drug me, numb me – and that’s a risk I’m willing to take because I think that Jesus leads in a way that actually sensitizes me more to the world as opposed to turning me off to it. And not just me, but the Church, too.

In parallel with what you were saying, that’s what music can do. If you’re right about the way that we engage with music and musicians, especially when it’s wordless, we have that same kind of trust and hope and faith in those kinds of artists when we embark with them on musical journeys.

JR: Yeah, all of that cultivates a sense of faith in us. And that’s why I like playing “Jubilee.” I called the song that because it hearkens back to a time period presented in the Old Testament of the Bible when the ancient Israelites’ debts were forgiven and slaves freed. It was known as the year of Jubilee. Talk about a celebration! So my hope is that the song “Jubilee” gestures towards that celebration, a celebration that goes beyond just the rhythm, and hopefully moves towards something beyond the material particulars of that moment. It’s an honor to steward the audiences’ trust, hope and faith during these moments of creating.

The Juju Exchange
Image courtesy of Julian Reid; photo by Rene Marban

And it seems like, for the most profound musical experiences, it might be something transcendent.

Yes. And then, as T.S. Eliot says, “When you’re at the end, you’re at the beginning.” I think that’s exactly how we started this. We started asking about how the artist is morally culpable for the art, but if it’s something transcendent, can that transcend even the artist and her or his culpability for the art?

Thank you, this has been so great. I have one last question. Please fill in the blanks as you see fit: “Aesthetics is for the artist as ________ is for the ______.”

Aesthetics is for the artist as faith is for the human.

Note: This interview was originally conducted over a video call, and it has been edited for smoothness and length. Important things are inevitably lost in that translation, but we wanted to add a note about the original live interview format and its relationship to improvisation in life and in music. This is what Julian had to say:

“Improvisation is essential for human existence. We are always making something up on the fly because the world is never exactly like last time. It’s a gift to play this particular given. Improvisational music allows the player and listener to see mirrored for them the nature of improvisation in life all around us. Good improvisation plays out the way we are always creating on the fly in life.”

Edited by Alex King

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