Ritual as Improvisational Jazz

Jazz is one of the stranger musical forms out there. Particularly improvisational Jazz, where one merely plays the notes that come to mind. The discordant manner in which the music ebbs and flows can make it difficult for those listeners that prefer music to have a rhythmic backbeat over which keyboards, guitar, and vocals are overlaid. I remember that it took a lot for me to grasp the stylings of Thelonius Monk, and Allan Holdsworth. But over time, I started to discern some of the subtle undertones that make up this style of music. Now, some thirty years after Holdsworth’s Metal Fatigue album (1985), I have started to grasp some of the complicated aspects of what he was trying to attain.

In a manner of speaking, much of my life has followed this same goat-path. While I have studied theological concepts and belief systems for most of my life, I never had a strong grasp of any of these, including the one that I follow – Paganism, until the last fifteen years. And I have literally been stumbling down that particular goat-track since 1987. To achieve all of that required me to study often, question a lot, and take a few steps of faith when I did not quite comprehend something. Much like listening to the works of Holdsworth and Monk provided me with a deeper understanding of syncopated rhythm and complex layering of instruments to a recording track, taking deeper steps into the pool of my beliefs soon allowed me a better ability to swim within those steeper depths. Early in my steps upon my own Pagan Path, I was merely at the edge of  stream, just barely dipping my toe into the waters – turning to laugh out loud at the astonishing cool feel of the water. Blissfully unaware of the depths that a few steps further out could provide me.

I went to ritual after ritual and listened to the astonishment of others as they felt the ecstatic touch of the Gods in their lives. I marveled at the richness of the Priests and Priestesses as they seamlessly moved through a ritual, calling quarters and Gods to their rites. And I felt nothing. No touch of a God or Goddess. No presence of another watching from the edges of the circle. Nothing except the temperature of the environment on my skin, coupled with a desire to be like THEM. I wanted to feel the rhythm of the rite, the feeling of the Gods touching me. I wanted that.

What I did not have, at that time, was the desire to study and learn. And the lack of depth in that area, I am certain, was the firing pin that I was missing. Plus, I am a major introvert; my lack of social skills set me near the outside of any group I joined. I knew about solo Pagans – those who follow their beliefs as individuals and not a part of any group. However, after talking to a few, I realized that I probably did not possess the rote memorization skills that they seemed to have. They could spout information off the top of their head to any question I posed. I knew I was bad a t studying and learning, so I felt doomed. I would never learn to be a Pagan on my own.

Then the United States Air Force did me a favor. I was sent overseas to Germany. All the Pagans I knew, I was leaving behind. I would be on my own. I met other Pagans there, but none that I meshed with well enough to want to be in their rituals. So I would spend time walking in the forests near Vogelweh Military Housing, and found small, secluded areas where I might be able to hold my own solo rituals. And to be honest, I never knew what really possessed me to do so. I could not remember any of the aspects of the rituals that I had read about in Buckland’s big blue book. I could barely comprehend what I was reading in Gerald Gardner’s two books. So I did the rituals as best as I could remember. And I made up the rest. After the third ritual I held out in the woods, I remember walking back feeling deeply at peace. And I realized that improvisational ritual was working for me.

When I tried to utilize this in a Wiccan group I joined after leaving the military – I was excoriated for deviating from the format that the group had designed and used for nearly two decades. Sadly, I shrugged off the criticism, and left the group for good. I felt that if there was no room for experimentation – there was no room for me to grow. Looking back, my leaving was probably one of the best things I ever did. That moment helped me to realize that being a solo Pagan was where I best fit in.

Certainly, my time working through the Bardic Grade within OBOD has shown me where concise ritual patterns can be good. It has also given me a framework where I can add my own little riffs on things. Because whether one understands it or not, there is a pattern to the music within improvisational jazz. Its an undertone that takes some experience to hear, understand, and relate to. In much the same way, what I have learned so far within OBOD has provided a wonderful undertone to some of the stuff that I do. And it is that undertone that becomes the driving force upon which creativity can be built.

Honestly, the best advice I can give you, if you are stuck in your rituals and finding no joy in what you are doing – mix it up. Change something. Make it feel new again, but don’t kill the undertone to everything – unless you need to. I kept trying to find something within ritual – a way of touching the Gods, an experience that would jolt me into another reality. That can be found in ritual, but first – have fun. Learn the pieces you need to learn, and have fun with the people you are with. And if you are alone…experience it all. See beyond the edges of the circle. Enjoy the stares of the Hawk or Crow on the tree branches, or the bewildered look of the horses, cows or sheep. But in the end, enjoy the way that your ritual pulls you to the experiences that you receive. Revel in the idea of being you…..

2 thoughts on “Ritual as Improvisational Jazz

  1. The comparison to jazz makes SO MUCH SENSE. As a professional musician, sometimes jazz still escapes me. I don’t play jazz very much, being a visually-oriented read-the-music-sightread-like-all-getout kinda person, but I appreciate it. The comparison to ritual is apt.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks….as a big music fan, I always over-analyze what I listen to in the very beginnings. Later, I come to appreciate what I hear as being a particular sensation to my ears and emotions. I always wanted to be a musician…but my small hands keep me away from the one instrument I love….the guitar.


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