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Spirits Rejoice! An Interview with Jazz and Religion Author Dr. Jason Bivins

Spirits Rejoice! An Interview with Jazz and Religion Author Dr. Jason Bivins
K. Shackelford By

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When contemplating the connection between jazz and religion, many short pieces have been written about it, yet no American scholar has released an exhaustive and comprehensive book on such an important topic. Dr. Jason Bivins, a well-respected religious studies and philosophy professor, has brilliantly tackled the task. His new book, Spirits Rejoice! (Oxford University Press, 2015) is a groundbreaking piece of scholarship, offering the first book solely focused on the history of jazz and American religion from the 1940's to the present. A talented jazz guitarist and jazz critic, Bivins offers over twenty years of research on the religions of well over two-hundred jazz musicians. The book's fascinating title, Spirits Rejoice!, is the same title of jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler's album and was also the title of South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo's 1978 record.

Of course, all jazz music is not concerned with religion. Bivins makes this clear in the beginning of Spirits Rejoice!. Yet there are undeniably many central figures in jazz who have created sacred music such as Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis, Charles Gayle and Mary Lou Williams. One of the critical questions that Bivins tackles in his study is how do we know that a jazz piece is religious? What musical indicators can one look for in a jazz piece that can identify the work as sacred? Bivins' research is far from flaky as it relates to answering questions as such. What is found in Spirits Rejoice! is painstaking research and critical analysis of jazz pieces that is supported by interviews with their creators, analysis of the music's "known formal properties" and the historical environments in which different jazz pieces are composed. The book also focuses on various religions of jazz musicians in America.

David Stowe, author of How Sweet the Sound: Music in the Spiritual Lives of Americans notes that the book is "a prodigious work of far-flung research, impassioned analysis, and incandescent prose." Connie Crothers, jazz pianist and President of the Lennie Tristano Jazz Foundation refers to Spirits Rejoice! as important to religious literature as William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience. She notes that the book helps readers "to understand and feel, reaching the spiritual center within" the music of jazz.

Spirits Rejoice! is the first music centered book by Bivins who has authored numerous articles and released several highly acclaimed books on religion and politics in the past twelve years. His other books includes Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2008) and The Fracture of Good Order: Christian Antiliberalism and the Challenge to American Politics (University of North Carolina, 2003). He currently resides in North Carolina and is a tenured professor in the department of philosophy and religious studies at North Carolina State University.

All About Jazz: Your new book is an in-depth analysis of the world of jazz and religion, you're not only a lover of this musical genre but also a scholar and an accomplished jazz musician. What made you decide to write this book when most of your work is centered on religion and politics?

Dr. Jason Bivins: Well, it's truly interesting. My initial interest in the subject was born many years ago when I was an undergraduate student or very early in graduate school. Moreover, that interest was really primarily as a listener and a player. I grew aware very early on, in my infatuation with jazz, of the abiding religiosity and spirituality that is central for so many players. Consequently, I developed an interest in comparing and contrasting what various musicians had to say about this topic. I thought that this was a subject that was integral to any reasonable understanding of jazz. The more that I got into my own scholarly career and the more I read in both histories of American religion and histories of jazz, I was surprised to see that most writers really didn't do very much with this big and central topic. After writing a series of books, I thought that one day if nobody else got around to this, that I would give it a shot. So I guess the answer is really two-fold. The first attraction to writing about this topic was out of love of music, and the second was more from a motivation to fill in this huge gap in jazz and religion literature.

AAJ: And your book is entitled Spirits Rejoice! That term is used heavily throughout the book, and is engaged more thoroughly in chapter eight. What does the term "spirits rejoice" mean?

JB: It is a term that I chose for very specific and for very abstract reasons. Initially, I thought that it was just a cool title, because it referred to an album cut by Albert Ayler who is a central figure in these histories. And there is a later album by Louis Moholo-Moholo, with the same title but has a question mark at the end. But as the research went on, I was fascinated by how much resistance there was among interpreters and musicians to any kind of intellectual closure or final formulation of the term microreligion or spirituality. So there is something fascinatingly analogous to improvisation itself, that ended up being part and parcel of how musicians think about and live out what we would elsewhere call religion and spirituality.

So the term "spirits rejoice" became an open, fluid, improvisatory substitute for terms like religion and spirituality. But I like the fact that it is verbal. It's active. And that seems very characteristic of what is going on and what I tried to cover in the book.

AAJ: What obstacles did you find when discussing what happens spiritually or religiously in jazz? And the other question is, what solid facts came out when exploring this topic? Because early in jazz, it was termed the "devil's music" so when someone says there is a connection between religion and jazz it may be a totally new concept to many jazz listeners? Some may become uneasy.

JB: Just listening to you, I am thinking about Grant Green's "Feel the Spirit." I think the biggest obstacle that I had was answering these questions—what do we do when we don't have a title? What do we do when we don't have words? How do I know a piece of music is religious if there aren't any signposts? If I was listening to A Love Supreme, but I didn't know what the title was or John Coltrane's story, would it automatically sound 'religious' to me? So that is an obstacle, and a kind of question I don't think analysis of other popular forms of music, like opera, are faced with. That is to say, in many forms of music you've got this surplus of words that imply meaning while much of jazz does not have words. I think that was my major interpretive hurdle. Given the enormity of that interpretive challenge, I had to decide how I assigned these different expressions, and these different pieces of music, these different musicians/communities to analytical categories that will help us construct something. So that was kind of the first step challenge.

AAJ: And what solid facts did you find in your research?

JB: In the research process, I was playing around with language and category and all this kind of stuff. For a while, I thought the book might be about that, which is, how do jazz musicians deal with religion as a way of resisting misrepresentation, or as a way of challenging racial constraints? There is a portion in the book where I engage this, particularly at the conclusion. But what I found out was that the deeper you got into this subject matter of jazz and religion, there were a number of solid facts that actually emerged. Most of these facts took the form of interpretive categories that are pretty central to the study of religion. So I found that a lot of jazz and religion could be thought of through constructing historical narratives.

In addition, throughout the history of jazz it's been really common for musicians to chronicle the history of the African American experience, for example, and to reflect through jazz on that experience. I found that to also be a really rich kind of archive. Slowly, I began to focus on ritual, metaphysical systems, meditation practices, community, and so on. So there were all of these solid things that I was able to get as I further went into the interview process, the reading process, and the listening process. In my research I found that there is this fascinating juxtaposition which is very jazz, and may also be very religion. There is also a juxtaposition between this real, earthy fluidity and this real abstraction.

AAJ: You have several American religions that you probe. Well, no. I mean you probe the musicians that are a part of these several religions in your book. How did you go about finding that the religious backgrounds and beliefs of so many musicians that you outline in your book, did you go through interviews, or the liner notes of albums? The number of musicians you have in this book is terribly impressive.

JB: The research that I did is certainly different from the research that I've done any other time in my career. But it did kind of emerge organically. When I finally decided that I would buckle down and write this book, I realized that I'd created an archive of interviews and my own notes, since the mid-1990's. I wrote a seminar paper here and gave a talk there, so I was always giving myself an excuse to do more. Most of the material, I actually got from liner notes and from the jazz press. I also gathered information from books written by jazz journalists, and jazz studies. My own discipline, religious studies, as wonderful as a discipline as it is, in many ways was totally ignorant of this material with very few exceptions. Certainly people know about musicians such as Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, but very few people know who Sun Ra was. In addition, I've written jazz reviews since 1997. So that gave me a bunch of copies of magazines, like Cadence, Downbeat, and all the usual outlets. These publications are where these musicians always had an opportunity to talk about themselves and their own motivations in making art. Whenever I saw a reference to religion, I would write it down and over time I had a pretty considerable stash of information.

AAJ: In this book you use the word "cosmos" and you probe the connection between jazz and the word cosmos. And jazz does have this kind of otherworldly element to it, could you explain what you are implying when speaking about jazz and its connection to metaphysics, mathematics and science. How do they all connect?

JB: So there are a few different ways to answer that. If we think kind of broadly about human history, what we would turn up is a pretty regular association between musical tones, mathematical intervals, and planetary motion. People have thought about that relationship since Pythagoras and the Greeks. I think it is very common for human beings in West Africa, Siberia, and other locations to think about the relationship between themselves and the stars which is a sort of fundamental human question. But to also do this through the lens of sound. I think jazz musicians also participate in that very ancient human practice. However, when you start getting into what is specific about jazz and American religion, I think the term "cosmos" starts to take on a different resonance because jazz is so abundant and so ever opening. It is relentlessly and restlessly imaginative. Indeed, something about the expansiveness and the vast scope of the cosmos suggests the level on which a lot of jazz musicians are thinking, reflecting, praying and playing. So this gives us a second dimension to the term cosmos.

I think if I had to sum up those two, it would give us a third dimension of the term cosmos as I am using in the book. This is a more basic definition, but I think it is also something that a lot of people are faced with when they think about jazz and religion. For example, when you say the terms jazz and religion, a lot of people will think of known religious institutions, churches, mosques, temples, and so forth. So it's this idea of "where does jazz go to church?" That is a super important question. Yet, I've always been struck by the fact that religion is more than that. Religion is about a certain reflective and meditative quality that people pursue in relation to the universe. Moreover, religion isn't always where we think to look for it, especially in the United States. In the U.S. people operate as individuals and creative improvisers in terms of how they assemble their lives. Jazz musicians across the board also do this one hundred fold. Religion takes place outside of buildings.

AAJ: You speak of many jazz musicians including Ornette Coleman who recently passed away, Coleman received multiple awards in his career, including the MacArthur Genius Grant, and he grew up in the church. You talk about Coleman's "space church." Could you explain that a little bit more?

JB: What a huge loss that was, as we all know. To answer your question, Coleman's thinking really exemplifies a lot of what is going on in the book, and the term "space church" is the title of a tune that Ornette composed. Now, I wouldn't want to suggest that it was this career long regulative concept for him, but it captures a lot of what he was up to when constructing his harmolodics system. That is to say, he thought about these vast reaches of the human imagination, and about all the things that humans could accomplish if we sort of divested ourselves of our pettiness, sinfulness, jealousy and bigotry. By doing this, we could achieve something like a Utopia through the music. He was fascinated by the thought of folks like Buckminster Fuller, and also by Moroccan trance musicians. On a more literal level, Coleman's harmolodics system was also meant to construct an actual space where musicians could interact in new and much more free ways. These ways were outside the rigid strictures of bop harmony. Moreover, if they could interact in this new way, focused on the gravity of single notes or the clarity of a line, then maybe they could actually become freer people. So it was a literal space that you occupied while playing, but it could also carry you into a better future.

AAJ: There is also a nice section in your book, where you talk about Chick Corea, who is a Scientologist. How did his Scientology beliefs influence his artistry and performances?

JB: Scientology is a really maligned tradition. Speaking as an American religious historian, what interests me about Scientology is exactly how it facilitates the process of artistic development that we see in Mr. Corea. In the late 1960's, right around the time he was performing with Miles Davis, Corea first started investigating Scientology. During this period, there was a kind of hunger for new religiosity and spirituality among people of Corea's generation which included new college grads, and people in their early twenties. This was the age of "Aquarius." Moreover, this kind of 'seeker' religiosity was pretty much the norm, or at least nothing out of the norm. So when Corea encountered L. Ron Hubbard's writings about the dynamics of self-realization and what Scientologists call clear, I think that resonated with a lot of what he hoped would happen for him as an artist.

He pursued these ideas in correspondence with Hubbard initially, and they became more central to not just his improvising but also to his compositions. We see the transformation taking place between the abstraction of early albums by his trio ARC, and later on in his other groups. So that trajectory into a more kind of direct mode of audience communication was fueled by Corea's Scientology beliefs in a certain sense, and he understood it to be a process of his own realization as a person and artist.

As far as the question of Corea's persecution, and the banning of Scientology discourse in Germany, that obviously happens much later in the 1990's. But I think it's fair to say that by that time Corea was permanently committed to the tradition, as he remains today.

AAJ:You also discuss the conversion of Islam, and Christian musicians such as Abdullah Ibrahim and McCoy Tyner, could you discuss how Islam theology informed their sound and approach to music?

JB: Both of these musicians converted to Islam not too far apart in terms of chronology. Abdullah Ibrahim was really going through a series of kind of racial and musical struggles of his own at the same time that African Americans were steering jazz through the Civil Rights era in the United States. To contextualize this a little bit, as early as the 1940's what we see on the bop scene is Islam becoming a popular option that was outside of the Christian orbit. So musicians like Art Blakey, for example, believed not out of any anti-Christianity, that there was a religious tradition out there that resonated more with the African American history, burden and sensibility. A lot of people began to embrace Islam. By the time we get to Yusef Lateef and other musicians, there is a further embrace of Islamic science and art by people in the jazz community. I think all of those things are feeding into Ibrahim and Tyner when they convert to Islam, and it shaped their music in specific ways.

The first way is in the embrace of actual Middle Eastern musical modes, the incorporation of Middle Eastern instruments in certain performances, and also verbal signification that we encounter in album and song titles. For example, Ibrahim's "The Hajj." So there is a lot of Islamic symbolism and language that begins to move into the center of their music. But the other influence is more conceptual and this comes from Islamic universalism. In Islam, all that matters is whether or not you are a faithful practitioner, it doesn't matter whether if you are black or white. It doesn't matter whether you are male or female. All that matters is your profession of belief. Ibrahim and Tyner saw that universalism resonating with what jazz could be which is an open and universal form of communication—that doesn't have language or cultural barriers. For them, it was a really powerful association.

AAJ:In Chapter 6, entitled "The Tao of mad Phat: Jazz Meditation and Mysticism," you wonderfully explicate the connection between mysticism and jazz music. A lot of musicians speak of going beyond themselves, or losing themselves while playing. I hear this often by players and those who participate in art forms, other than music. What is mysticism exactly and how does it relate to the experience of the musician and listener?

JB: There is an experience in jazz that I have had in my own performances, and we have all had when listening to records and in live performances. There is this sense that regular time has stopped, and that the regular world is somewhere else. There is this moment where all of your senses fuse together and the people in the room are 'one' with the sounds. Maybe even 'one' with the musicians. Mysticism is a difficult term to understand and it varies in each religious tradition. The term mysticism comes from the Greek word "mysticos" and initially referred to an initiate of Greek mystery religions. Over time, this entailed searching beyond language and known forms of images and symbols for concrete experiences that transcended time and space. That's a technical way of defining the term.

Another way to think of mysticism is losing one's self and getting beyond all of the everyday stuff that clouds our perceptions and experiences of the divine. Those every day things can primarily include language, concepts, and categories. Mystics such as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the Desert Fathers, Meister Eckhart, Hindu Mystics, and Muslim mystics all have this kind of fundamental search to get to what they call the "God beyond God." In terms of jazz, we look at someone like pianist Matthew Shipp who says the escape from language means the escape from certain forms of constraint. Thus, the musical quest for freedom is analogous to the religious quest for freedom. This is why mysticism makes a whole lot of sense for a lot of religious players and they access that through a number of specific pathways such as Native American mysticism or Buddhist meditation to cite a few examples.

AAJ:What can we expect to see from you from the future, this book was amazing and I hope there will be more work from you on this matter. What new projects are you currently working on?

JB: I certainly am actively considering a follow-up to Spirits Rejoice!, where I can talk about some of the stuff I wasn't able to fit in this book. Maybe I would re-investigate that early period of the history of jazz through the categories that I ended up developing. Maybe I would go further into discussing a particular artist. There are a number of possibilities that I am considering. I am currently working on my third religion and politics book. I certainly think there is a whole world opening up in terms of scholarship on sound and religion, and I would like to see more writing on jazz and religion. I really want more people, whether it is me or others, to get into the music more and bring these issues to the attention of more people. Jazz is some of the best human creative expression of the last 100 years, and it is an absolute crime that people don't know about these wonderful artists. That is my fondest hope, and if some of my future work would facilitate that, I would be grateful.

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