Tom Pieciak ‘21 can’t explain why he loves jazz. He just knows it makes him feel good.
To him, the genre is more than music. It’s a raw, organic expression of humanity, but perhaps it’s even more than that. For Pieciak, jazz is spirituality.
After watching Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary during his sophomore year at Butler University, Pieciak discovered this wasn’t uncommon.
“I saw how deeply spiritual his music was,” Pieciak says about the jazz saxophonist.
At the time, he was trying to decide which project to pursue during the 2019 Butler Summer Institute (BSI). The Jazz Studies major knew he wanted to research something relating to music, and he had been long fascinated with existential questions and philosophical topics, already starting to connect the two interests.
“It makes music an even more emotional experience for me,” he says of how philosophy affects his trumpet playing. “I really feel like what I’m doing is beyond me: I’m simply a vessel for this kind of creativity.”
After a meeting with Matthew Pivec, an Associate Professor of Music at Butler and Pieciak’s BSI faculty mentor, the two agreed there was something in the intersection between jazz and spirituality. For his project over the last two months, Pieciak interviewed musicians and listened to recordings to study why and how the genre can inspire such a spiritual experience. He also asked what it even means to be spiritual—how people express spirituality in different ways, and whether you can be spiritual without being religious.
Pieciak first started playing jazz in high school, when he fell in love with the freedom the style offers. So far in his research, he’s found it’s that space for creativity that might help set jazz apart when it comes to spiritual expression. He says the improvisatory nature of jazz—the room it grants for living in the moment—is similar to how humans handle spirituality.
“Within jazz,” Pieciak says, “I like to think that when I’m really in the element, I’m connecting myself to this bigger purpose.”
Now, he and the rest of his quartet have the chance to perform every month at Monon Coffee Co. in Broad Ripple. While playing in a group, Pieciak often feels a different kind of spiritual connection in the community that emerges when the bass, drums, guitar, and trumpet all come together.
“You’re listening to each other,” he says. “You’re trusting each other.”
Based on this direct experience of how spirituality can show itself in different ways through jazz, Pieciak has broken the concept into three categories for his project: divine (anything relating to religion or a higher power), community (the spirituality involved in relationships between people), and individual (or, everything else). He assigned jazz songs to each of these categories, providing examples of their musical expressions.
At the beginning of the summer, Pieciak wasn’t sure he’d be able to find enough people to speak about his topic. But with a bit of digging and some help from Pivec’s network, he found five artists to study and had the chance to interview four of them. Some of these musicians are directly involved with church communities, with “one foot in jazz and one foot in religion,” like Indianapolis-based Rev. Marvin Chandler, and Ike Sturn, the music director for jazz ministry at a church in New York City. Pieciak also studied the history of spiritual expression in jazz, as well as identified recordings that reflect that relationship.
Pivec says with so many elements to consider and perspectives to balance, “it gets a little bit messy in the organization process.” And it isn’t the sort of project that will lead to any momentous discoveries. But that’s okay, Pivec says, because the project is giving Pieciak the chance to explore something meaningful.
“Really the biggest thing for the talented young people at the Butler Summer Institute is, in many ways, the transformative experience,” Pivec says.
During the regular school year, students take courses meant to fill certain requirements, often offering less freedom. But for this project, Pivec says “there’s nothing students are not capable of.” For Pieciak, he’s already felt the project’s influence.
“It has been affecting, already, the way I approach practicing and the way I approach writing,” he says. “It’s coming from a much more organic place.”
Scheduling constraints limited the number of interviews Pieciak could conduct this summer, but he plans for the BSI project to be just a stepping stone to a longer-term pursuit down the road. He will share his results at conferences, but rather than presenting any finite conclusions, he hopes he might encourage jazz musicians to embrace the spiritual nature of their music and change their crafts accordingly. He also hopes his research will prompt people to reflect on their own expressions of spirituality, even beyond the realm of jazz.
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