Eric Reed: Sacred Jazz


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Merging my personal life with my music has become more than merely composing some swing ditty and pasting God's name in the title.
Generally, the idea of "sacred jazz" either brings to mind Duke Ellington's three sacred concerts or causes confusion in the minds of those who are not cognizant of what is "sacred" or "jazz." Is it John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Mary Lou Williams' Black Christ of the Andes or Ahmad Jamal's After Fajr? In all these cases, yes. In the broad sense of what is "sacred," the common thread that exists among the aforementioned references pays respect to the devotion to a supernatural being, considered to be higher than us. As for jazz, of course, you gotta swing, but so many people want to make jazz so many things. (Really, must we?) My search for clarification in this field was prompted by my recent participation in a jazz series that focused on "The Sacred Side of Jazz," where I demonstrated the connection between jazz and gospel music via hymns, Negro spirituals and the blues.

When you get right down to it, the term "sacred jazz" becomes somewhat redundant because the nascence of jazz is in sacred music! Do you think Jelly Roll Morton (who probably did invent piano jazz) simply stumbled upon "Wild Man Blues" without ever hearing a gospel blues? It's doubtful he could have spent five years in Chicago and not have ever crossed paths with Rev. Thomas Dorsey or Mahalia Jackson. The stamp of "sacred jazz" is actually rather generic, mainly because it covers such a wide array of artistic concepts. As a child, "jazz" and "sacred" had always intersected in my playing: from bluesy treatments of hymns like "Amazing Grace" or "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior" in my father's Baptist church to Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas, Baby" while entertaining family friends.

For me, there was never a conscious aesthetic separation of gospel and secular music, but I had enough good sense not to subject the congregation to "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On" during the offering. Thomas Dorsey and Rosetta Tharpe met with much angst from church folks who insisted they perform on "one side of the fence or the other." Fortunately, my parents never vexed me in that area, so I was free to explore and develop my own farrago of diverse musical worlds, leaning towards a sound influenced by musical and personal experiences, biblical teachings, Negro spirituals, the blues, swing and a heavy groove.

My music is influenced by a spiritual foundation (specifically, God's spirit, in this case), which encourages me to remain focused on the reason I was born with the gift He gave me—to praise Him. In addition, I share that love and desire with the audience, with the hope that they can be reeled into my spiritual space, to be entertained and blessed by the experience.

For years, my notion was to learn and perform the 'standard' jazz repertoire, composing songs that sounded like standards and generally to honor the brilliant creators—from Armstrong to Waller—that laid it all out before me, while offering the occasional 'tribute' to my spiritual background. Fortunately (and hopefully for most of us) life changes force us to be wisely flexible; as brilliant artists-to-be, we learn that the music doesn't end with the lessons of our youth. On the contrary, it only begins there, laying the groundwork and leading us down the paths we trod towards the excellence of our more mature years in the arts. Merging my personal life with my music has become more than merely composing some swing ditty and pasting God's name in the title. Boldly and unabashedly, I put my love, honor and thanks to God at the forefront of my music—before the transcribed solos, Hanon exercises, repertoire—even the commitment to swinging.

Many jazz artists encountered a "spiritual awakening" on personal and musical planes later in life: Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, John Coltrane as referenced earlier. For others, the awareness was apparent earlier on: Yusef Lateef, Ahmad Jamal. Even though all don't pay tribute to the same deity, the vibration in the music of an individual genuinely connected to his faith cannot be ignored—even if you don't identify with his spiritual philosophy. There is music for music's sake and then there is music that encompasses a deeper purpose.

Of a somewhat less "faith-based" intent, is what has been referred to as "funky jazz" or "soul-jazz." This would be jazz that parrots the sound of Black church music and is more contrived than reverent. Popular jazz hits like Horace Silver's "The Preacher," Billy Page's "The In Crowd" (as performed by Ramsey Lewis) or Bobby Timmons' "This Here" were mostly funneled through artists' impressions of gospel music. It's much like listening to dyed-in-the-wool jazz musicians play Latin or funk—without a full immersion in the experience. Perhaps, this is where the divide begins with regard to sacred versus secular; whereas one implies an honoring and worshiping, the other has a slightly exploitive dynamic that, over the years, has continued to nosedive into poor imitations, the end result being some minstrel-type exhibition by individuals who have no real clue of the value and essence of a spiritual experience.

My recent challenge to connect gospel music with jazz music effectively has ignited a brushfire that sweeps through my bones. Early on, I heeded the jazz curriculum to the letter. As I continue to move through life, my purpose becomes much clearer and now I am moved to invoke the sentiments of Duke Ellington, expressed before he performed his first sacred concert: "Now, I can say openly and loudly what I have been saying to myself on knees."

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