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.


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