As our nation continues through a time of pandemic, the cold of January prepares to set in, and social isolation continues to take its toll on all of us, it can feel like our world is not a very "wonderful" place.
At least, that's how I felt most of the time while I was learning how to play "What a Wonderful World" on piano during the past few weeks. But then it struck me: this song isn't about declaring how reality is in a factual sense, it's about a change of one's perspective on life itself.
One of John Coltrane's protégés once asked him why as a professional musician he practiced his scales all the time? He replied, "To become a saint."
What I believe Coltrane meant was that he was fascinated with the beauty of the scale. It was to him a spiritual exercise to exist within the scale and behold its beauty. That which others took for granted and felt beneath them to practice, Coltrane understood to be profound. Music, after all, is the mathematical reorganization of scales into unique patterns which seem pleasing to the human ear.
"What a Wonderful World" calls us to behold the beauty of the present moment and exist within it. It is a perennial reminder to pay attention to even the smallest of details of our reality and revel in its grandeur. As people of faith, we can easily take but one more step and offer words of thanks to God for the blessings which surround us each day.
"I see trees of green
Red roses too
I see them bloom
For me and you
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world"
Did those roses really bloom "for me and you"? Of course not! But to Bob Thiele and George Weiss, songwriters, they perceived the roses to be given to them as a gift.
As I play "What a Wonderful World," I find that certain chords draw me into the piece in a unique way. In particular, near the end of the song, a Dmaj7 chord is used. There's something inherently magical about seventh chords: it's like the music just flows out of them without anything else being played alongside them. When I play this simple yet poignant chord, I think to myself (pun intended), "How incredible that these notes would come together in this way; what a blessing it is to me today!"
Our minds, if left unattended, can easily veer into tiring rehashes of the past, and seemingly endless worries about the future. Part of the goal of Christian meditation is to teach the individual how to exist more in the present and less in the past or future. This doesn't mean that we should ignore our problems; rather, it's a teaching that worrying about them all the time won't make them go away. I believe this is what Christ teaches us when he reflects on the beauty of nature in Matthew 6:26-30 -
"26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?"
Christ invites us as people of faith to find rest for our souls in the richness of the present moment. In so doing, we entrust the past and future aspects of our lives—which we do not ultimately control, even though we like to think that we do—into the hands of our Divine Creator who is always working toward the good of all things.
Music, I believe, is an effective way to condition the mind to remain within the present moment more regularly. Part of the process of becoming a jazz musician is to learn how to "lay back" into the beat. It means going just a fraction slower than the tempo, which allows one to better "feel" and "experience" the music. I invite you this day—even in the midst of many reasons to feel stressed—to take a walk, play through some headphones while you walk one of your favorite pieces, and exist in the beauty of the moment. Lay back into it. Within the vibrancy of that moment, perhaps you can then declare to God with conviction, "What a wonderful world!"