So the last few days I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between jazz and chant. A friend and chant scholar used the term “licks” when we were discussing a schola learning new chants, especially singers that are used to “reading” rather than “singing”. Instead of reading “note note note note note” and sounding like we’re singing a bunch of squares in a row, our singers need to hear the notes in their groupings, the “licks”. This makes perfect sense if we consider that chant was passed on in the context of an oral tradition, not in square notation.
There is a lot in common with the oral tradition of jazz, and the “toolkit” of licks a musician must have ready, practiced, heard, etc to be able to improvise well. It is not about intellectually thinking through every single note of a solo, it is about the idea, the motive, about the group of notes. The compositional methods have a lot in common.
So, in thinking a lot about this, I wrote to the great chant expert Fr. Columba Kelly, OSB to ask what he thought. He said, “Chant and jazz are first cousins!” and sent me a link to this video. Check out this project he was a part of with the Thomas Merton Society. I hope you enjoy!