Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion

Jason Bivins BY

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Spirits Rejoice! (Oxford University Press, 2015) presents a critical study on jazz and American religion from the 1940's to the present, and engages the religiosity and spirituality of America's foremost jazz musicians. The book features over 200 jazz musicians and is the first book solely dedicated to unpacking the history of jazz and religion in America. The author is Dr. Jason Bivins, a well-respected professor of philosophy and religion at North Carolina State University. This excerpt is from chapter five of Spirits Rejoice! and it is entitled, "The Magic of Juju: Improvising Ritual." The chapter explores "the ritual and the performative in jazz in order to give shape to the immediacy of musical experience in jazz traditions, to see in ritualized jazz a resonance with ritual improvisations in American religion, and to think about sound as the ritual medium of religious transformation." —K. Shackelford

Here's the excerpt:

Two ends of the line and the same song between us. I was on the horn with the righteous Cuban drummer Francisco Mela, and in our long conversation about ritual and pulse we were trading shared loves. Mela loves Roy Haynes this much, as do I, and we were singing Ornette Coleman's "Law Years" together. "Jason!" he exclaimed. "In Cuba we call the drum the kitchen, because that's where everything is cooking!" Nearly a century before we spoke, Baby Dodds said, "You see a band dead: a drummer can liven up everybody, make everybody have a different spirit." So how does one make this spirit, and for what reasons? Alto saxophonist Bobby Zankel once responded, with some skepticism, to an interviewer's question about jazz music inducing states of "calm." He noted, however, jazz's links to mental and physical transformation through "dance and the African line of spirituality involving trance-like states, where you're connecting with elemental forces." By example, Zankel noted Coltrane's fascination with meditation and pianist Cecil Taylor's observation that "you play for a long time until you reach a kind of state of possession by Spirit." Musicians seek these states through pre-performance ablutions or physical regimens, circular breathing on horns to induce trance states, preceding and punctuating performances with recitations, or even coordinating the circulation of blood itself with sound production.

This chapter concerns the ritualization of jazz, and the use of jazz in ritual. Having complicated some of the more obvious articulations of "religion," with this focus on ritual we begin to see an experiential/perceptual expansion of what counts as religious. While ritual can certainly be mapped anthropologically and historically, and signifies in some expected ways, this chapter marks a transition from the first three cases to a more phenomenological or experiential focus in the book's second part. Crafting from the unknowable openness of improvisation a housing for what is construed as sacred is at the heart of much improvisation; but spirits also improvise joyfully on ritual beyond the confines of genre, plunging into open sound as a confrontation between form and formlessness, as a search for the self's limits and powers at once. Below I explore the ritual and the performative in jazz in order to give shape to the immediacy of musical experience in jazz traditions, to see in ritualized jazz a resonance with ritual improvisations in American religion, and to think about sound as the ritual medium of religious transformation. We find among the music's practitioners an awareness of otherness, of extra-physical presence in sound, and of consecration in performance.

There is no thinking of religions without their sonic properties, and bodies in ritual make plenty of sound. They move, feet dragging across floors or stamping out rhythm on them. Joints crack, hands clap. Small moans escape the throat unconsciously, and vocalisms consciously. A floor-board creaks, a microphone feeds back. The intentionality of such actions in the ritual space is motivated and accompanied by the sense that by undertaking them one enters the presence of the sacred. Sound is a producer of or vehicle for these heightened moments, and a mode of response to them. In the felt, embodied, immersive sounds of religions, sound is no mere vehicle but instead is experienced as the constitutive element of ritual in motion, and its expressive sacrality.

This is not the place for a comprehensive survey of ritual experimentation and sound in American religions. But a brief overview of these expressions situates spirits rejoicing in the broad range of American religious experimentation. Ritual is, as Catherine Albanese writes, "the site for embodied spirituality." It is thus nearly ubiquitous in American religion, in the dances, offerings, and dream reenactments of Native Americans; the displays of Puritan "visible saints"; the improvised enthusiasms of the early revivals; the ritual dramas of emergent "civil religion" in the mid-nineteenth century; the expressive cultures of African American Protestantism; the liturgical reconfigurations of nineteenth-century Catholicism and Judaism; in abstentions and indulgences, altar calls and astral travel, parades and faith healing, direct action and therapeutics. Religious rituals dramatize and commemorate. They reinforce or sometimes suspend the lessons of authority. They discipline the body or deliver it into new states of ecstasy or transformed consciousness. They establish settings and sounds enabling performers to become "mediums of the gods" or to undergo "ceremonial possession" for a time. They are the vector and the substance of improvisations on identity and community.

Music's role in religious ritual lies beyond the mere sonic articulation of creeds and scriptures. Sound is experienced in bodily registers, and has contributed to the transformation of ritual, in various traditions. But there is the perceptual immediacy and strange fluidity of jazz to consider. If we emphasize ritual's similarity to drama, we find that jazz tears up the script. If we draw on standard analyses of embodiment, we risk getting sucked into well-worn arguments about discourse and representation, losing not just the sound but the situated meanings of jazz's rituals. Clearly there are significant epistemological, phenomenological challenges in thinking through these subjects. At the heart of these considerations is the obviously intersubjective quality of performance, the meanings and directions of embodiment therein, and the problem of attributing meanings or aspirations to music that is not only often devoid of lyrical content but even resistant to other forms of signification. Religious studies has since the 1970s engaged the difficulties of such analysis by paying "more attention to the actual 'doing' of religion." Yet even with the phenomenological focus on intentionality in action, it is tempting to retextualize religious experience by generating from practices a narrative or lexicon we fool ourselves into thinking is "religion." Agents must certainly reckon with extant social scripts. But as Marshall Sahlins, Sherrie Ortner, and others have written about the textualization of "social drama," ritual manifests significantly in "open-ended forms of communal performance" and change across time.

The very inscrutability of sound, perhaps especially jazz, seems to express such orientations. If the multi-sensory, dynamic qualities of music "produce a culturally meaningful environment as opposed to simply communicating ideas," then music is not just a form of meaningful action but also helps make such action possible. Its realization in real time—through senses, motility, and interaction—shows the tenuousness of form and the power of formlessness. The setting and occasion for performance may con-strain, but performance is also a resource of practical knowledge and relationships that make a virtue out of necessity, transforming the bent note of endless time into a moment marked, an error converted to beauty. It becomes ritual not, then, through the regurgitation of regularity but in the focus and clarification of the moment where sound is produced and understood as sacred. For as Jonathan Z. Smith wrote, "Ritual is, first and foremost, a mode of paying attention. It is a process of marking interest."

Absent an interpretive frame or narrative structure in which gestures and various signs identify the religious, we must attend to occasion, expectation, and post hoc descriptions if we want to hear the jazz religious in ritual. Musicians certainly pray and dance and recite on stage, and they regularly tell us what they mean. But the very ungraspability of improvisation's sensualism, emotionality, and immediacy is what often leads to the conclusion that one is co-participating in the production of a sacred world that takes shape and then dissolves in sound. For all we might look to structural parameters and audience expectations, the spontaneity and un-predictability so central to jazz suggest that rupture, flouting expectations, and subversion, rather than drab "liminality," may be ritual's salient characteristics. We focus on the moment when the breath is about to be exhaled, the suspended pulse about to beat again; we dwell amid rests, pauses, fractures. If ritual is Baby Dodds's drum, then to experience it is to be behind the beat, that always urgent expectation in which the ear awakens to the intensity of time marked, time gone.

In other words, improvised musical performance facilitates becoming religious, just as religious self-understandings can facilitate becoming musically fluent. This twinned experience is captured in Judith Butler's observation that "identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results." Open-ended, subject to contingency and revision, something about improvised music gets to the very staged, unstable qualities of religion as it structures and eludes identity. The musicians below seek to create the conditions for spirits to manifest: in music written specifically for institutional rituals, in appropriations of Yoruban ritual in jazz, in ritualized theatricality as audience confrontation, or as healing practice. They are played and experienced as distinct (in occasion, intent, or theatricality) from other human actions. Trombonist Bob Brookmeyer once supposed that jazz is "ritual gone mad." Mad or not, below we see ritual as a kind of actualized living for sound. If Taylor is right to note that "practice is preparation for the celebration of the en-trance into the temple of invention," then performance itself creates this temple improvisationally.

Section 2:Hidden in His Music: Duke Ellington

Ritual happens in church, though, and jazz sometimes does too. Richard Brent Turner shows how integral some of the musical practices of New Orleans are to that city's religions. Jazz funerals, for example, feature the tradition of "cut[ting] the body loose," where the band playing a dirge aside the hearse lines both sides of a street to "start playing joyful music," marking life's transition with jazz. But thinking of ritual in the above sense of focused attention on the sacred in musical time, what happens when jazz music is written for a specific ritual setting? James Reese Europe used "religious music alongside the proto jazz he performed." Subsequent efforts included Ian Douglas Mitchell's "American Folk Song Mass," the 1962 Episcopal National Council of Churches' use of a jazz quintet, Don Ellis's Frontiers in Worship, and Yale Divinity student Tom Vaughan, who "created a jazz liturgy with drummer Charlie Smith entitled 'A Musical Offering to God.' " In 1959, clarinetist Ed Summerlin wrote "a jazz setting for Methodist founder John Wesley's liturgy." In the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council, experiments with popular music and liturgy became more commonplace, as with Anglican Geoffrey Beaumont's "Twentieth-Century Folk Mass" and James Tatum's mass for Detroit's parish of Saint Cecilia. George Lewis wrote Jazz at Vespers; Lalo Schifrin and Paul Horn co-wrote Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts; David Amram and Langston Hughes wrote a "Jewish cantata," "Let Us Remember"; and Vince Guaraldi wrote music for the Episcopalian Eucharist at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. And in certain institutions, jazz became integrated into services: the famous "jazz priest," Father Norman O'Connor, was most visible, but similar integrations were shepherded by Episcopalian Father Tom Vaughan, Father John Gensel of New York's Advent Lutheran, New York's Church of the Ascension, Newark's Bethany Baptist Church, and New York's famous Saint Peter's Lutheran, the "jazz church."

No setting generated more controversy than Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts. While American religions have frequently created new musical vehicles for praise, from Shaker songs to Swedenborgian hymns, Ellington's music challenged understandings of "proper" religion and of what was really "jazz." His musical settings of history certainly shaped his understanding of religion, but equally important was the personal crisis he underwent following his mother's death in 1935. He began rigorously studying Scripture and wrote an "elegy" for his mother, which he described as "church music." Ellington began reflecting on how the respect and generosity he learned growing up in church were musical ethics as well, a notion O'Connor later extended by remarking that "the intensity in religion was similar to the intensity of creative jazz." Ellington began using his gift for long-form composition to distill ideas culled from his regular study of religious materials. For decades he kept his personal sentiments concealed, saying only vaguely that religion "gives you strength." But he was remembered by band mates and associates as having "not so much organized religion . . . [but] a respect for the church, a love of the Bible." Herb Jeff believed that Ellington's entire career was "a great ministry"; it was simply "hidden in his music" for several decades.

Only in 1958 did Ellington state publicly how "deeply religious he was." In the context of his growing identification with the civil rights movement, and the public power of African American religion, this comment resonated powerfully. Ellington noted suggestively that when com-posing music, "one runs into the spiritual aspect" of existence; but he also confessed of his earlier works, "I've written words, but I don't know if the words are adequate." He was surprised to receive commission from Grace Cathedral, since religion was "a personal thing with me, not to be mixed with a theatrical performance." But he also loathed pigeonholes, and decided to write music as an offering to God, explaining that "[e]very man prays in his own language, but there is no language that God does not understand." The piece drew on African American musical aesthetics but addressed "the basic, essential state of mankind."

The First Sacred Concert was performed at Grace in September 1965, and Ellington understood each church-housed performance of his music to possess the gravity of formal ritual. In a kind of critical creation story, Ellington's libretto wrote that before God created the world, there was "no poverty, no Cadillacs, no sand traps," and thus no human conflict. While the concert contained multiple scriptural references, some were unnerved. Longtime vocalist Joya Sherrill, a Jehovah's Witness, declined participation: "I just did not go along with religious jazz concerts." Sherrill articulated a widespread uncertainty as to whether this music was religious at all (dancer Bunny Briggs was also nervous about dancing on an altar), since it did not openly evangelize or map onto known liturgical forms. But, Ellington asked, "Isn't that exactly what Christ did—went into the places where people were, bringing light into darkness?" After the Second Sacred Concert was held on Boxing Day, 1965, at Manhattan's Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, Ellington explained even more suggestively that "everything is a part of God's world, and that the old, arbitrary separation no longer makes sense."

Yet the notion that religion could embrace "secular" music, and respected no attempts to quarantine it, proved inflammatory. Some felt that while the music was not "truly liturgical" it was emotionally resonant; some could accept a sole performance but worried about lasting musical change in religion; and others dismissed the direction as an effort "to have fun shocking a few old fuddy-duddies" or simply a sideshow from "this sin-sick world." Nonetheless, "[c]hurches all over the country were inviting the band to play" the Sacred Music. The Ellington Orchestra took the music on the road, beginning at Brooklyn's First AME Zion, whose Reverend Ruben Speaks enthused, "Christ never attempted to compart-mentalize. . . . There is no rhythm, tune, or melody that is not acceptable to God." Ellington concurred, saying, "You don't have to play sacred music only in church.

Perhaps it was the very erasure of the sacred/secular distinction that made some aghast at the spheres of sanctum and stage made porous, even as others praised the music's non-creedal affirmations of love. As Rabbi Sanford Shapero put it, "Surely God will rejoice in having an offering so sincerely and beautifully presented" outside of social and cultural limitations. Amid those elegant section voicings, seductive rhythms, and lyric choruses, all drawing together idioms in a classically Ellingtonian manner, perhaps this music (which Ellington avowed was his very best) was the truest embodiment of his claim that music was "beyond category." The Second Sacred Concert featured a wider range of musical influences and greater attention to lyrical content. "Almighty God" blended spirituals with lyrics describing angels who announced the Ducal categorical imperative: "the freedom to be whatever you are." He called "treating people with love and respect" a "moral freedom." As his health failed in the early 1970s, Ellington became obsessed with writing a Third Sacred Concert. Wracked by the pain of cancer, Ellington took final stock of war and racism and division around him, and in somewhat more conventional music returned again to love as the foundation of ethics. With "The Lord's Prayer/My Love" and "Is God a Three-Letter Word for Love?" Ellington invoked particulars while continuing to insist that he "didn't have any de-nomination in mind."46 The music was more searching, too, and many heard in it the composer's suffering. But Ellington remained unbowed even at the end, delivering his message with characteristic panache and defining his own devotional context, saying, "[R]acism ain't strong enough to kill this music; if I'm going to die, I'm ready. But I'm going out playing 'Sophisticated Lady.'"

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