Hymn to Freedom: A Fractured and Reformed Reflection of a Jazz Classic

Over several months of personal drudgery and grayness, I had been drifting away from jazz, historically my musical anchor and constant. An austere, rainy March afternoon was to be no different, according to my default estimation. That changed, however, when I was inconvenienced by an old friend, Oscar Peterson.

The late Canadian has always been one of my absolute favorite jazz musicians and pianists, in a similar skill-class to John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Chet Baker. As a piano student growing up, my favorite learning experience was picking up his Gentle Waltz. The joy of playing Peterson could hardly be overstated or embellished.

That brisk day, two months ago, I was driving to see an apartment in Schomberg, a 30-minute jaunt from my hometown of Newmarket, as I was expecting to change my living situation. During the drive over, I decided to give jazz a chance on the radio as I stumbled over the right channel. The broadcaster mentioned that in honor of the Canadian Juno awards, the previous weekend’s event, they would be playing songs from notable Canadian musicians, listing upcoming performances from icons like Diana Krall and, of course, Peterson.

When I heard the name of Oscar Peterson ring loud, it immediately brought to mind fond, nostalgic memories of Gentle Waltz, first hearing his rendition of Satin Doll, and of course his magnum opus, Hymn to Freedom. Of all his creations, characterized by an agile hand, ecstasy over the novel, and reflection on the masters Johann Sebastian Bach and Art Tatum, Peterson’s Hymn is my absolute favorite.

I parked and left my car to see the apartment before Peterson had his turn. The apartment itself was nice and functionally adequate but ultimately too far from my workplace and overpriced. I got back in my car, only slightly disappointed, and upon starting her, that tune from the Night Train album, a melodic nod to the American civil rights movement, interrupted my melancholy–Hymn to Freedom swept in from the dusty, worn surfaces of my vehicle. I smiled.

I love jazz. What I love about Hymn and what separates it from all the other jazz classics (if it may be appropriately called such), I think, is its perfect synthesis of gospel and blues. The spiritual song mates harmoniously with the classical and jazz infusions of vintage Peterson, setting up a triumphant finish against the backdrop of the reality of racial strife and oppression in the 1960’s.

It reminds me of Martin Luther King Jr.’s passion, oratory powers, and longing for a future where humanity may be altogether united.

It reminds me of how Dietrich Bonhoeffer ventured to the United States and was so inspired by the black church and their spirituals–he became simultaneously aware of what prejudice man can foist–that he returned to Nazi Germany as a front-runner in the civilian fight against tyranny, hatred, and complacency.

It’s not necessarily what you would consider to be a spiritual song, but it almost certainly inherits from the musical tradition of the Christian church and the gospel choir. This makes me want to ponder the gospel itself. This makes me want to think of what freedom awaits.

What this jazz classic reminds me of is that beneath a movement and its moral wavefront is a worldview, a set of assumptions about the world through which we interpret life and reality. Beneath the unequivocal order for reform and change is an idea of what kind of world we want to live in, what kind of people we want to be, what kind of God we want to serve. This isn’t to say that members of different religious worldviews can’t unite on certain issues. It is to say that there are philosophical and religious underpinnings to every action, movement, and cause. We all have a god.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is so powerful because it is simultaneously offensive and effective. Yes, it is an exclusive religion–meaning incompatible with other faiths like Islam or Hinduism (given the law of non-contradiction)–that presents to us a triune God that would willingly suffer mockery, torture and death in its bloodiest to save his beloved. But the Christian gospel is so beautiful, and for that reason. This beauty in God descending to save his lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7) doesn’t just mean undeserved eternal salvation from an existence separated from him. The beauty of the gospel is in its transformative power to save, restore, and unite. That grace continues its work in rewiring our minds (Romans 12:1-2) and sets our hearts on what is true and what is good. It reorients our lives, our wills, our pursuits.

It affects, perhaps, the way we view race.

My admission is that I’m as sinful as the next guy. And I certainly have racial biases. Of course I do. Now, over time, as I explore more of the world and get to know people and get a broader perspective and dig deeper into the Bible’s teachings, those tendencies do change for the better, I think. The bridge between my intellectual acceptance of “neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28-29) and my heart’s readiness to love is being reinforced by the day, by the grace of God. My simple ask is that my errors be forgiven as I honestly attempt to be better and act more consistently with my theology.

I am thankful that I live in a country with many rights and freedoms which black and white people now share equally, a victory carried on the backs of many persecuted black men and women, as well as white companions. However, the law can only do so much and it is certainly obvious that racism persists culturally, psychologically, in many corners. My hope and prayer is that the Holy Spirit and God’s grace would continue to show me the ways in which I am a part of the problem, show me the ways I can bring light to the darkness, and shape me into a more loving human being towards my black neighbor and the world in general.

Every time I listen to Peterson’s Hymn, I get close to tears. That’s the power of his musical genius and, perhaps, a demonstration of how music can so vociferously speak into our reality. I love everything about the song, the way it employs familiar chordal structure and then deviates into improvised sections, making the piece as personal as it is eloquent, without forgetting to end with a climbing trill symbolizing hope, victory on the horizon, all colors on a level spectrum, black and white keys incorporated into a shining creation, brothers and sisters redeemed and bonded into a common family.

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