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Jazz: The Sacred and the Profane


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"As above, so below" —Hermes Trismegistus

A warning: this article is worth reading only if you believe, as I do, that jazz is not just a form of entertainment, but an art form that has deep significance for our lives and contributes to our search for meaning. I fully appreciate the value of "digging the music" and leaning into it for its rhythmic syncopation and feelings of fun and excitement. But for many of us, jazz is part of our search for human connection and greater understanding of who we really are, deep down, in our spirit, our soul. If you are anywhere in that territory, you might find my musings of interest.

In his groundbreaking book, The Sacred and the Profane (Harper, 1961), historian and philosopher Mercia Eliade contended that religion and everyday existence are separate realms of human experience. He equated the sacred with the religious and the profane with our everyday life in the world of material things, desires, and troubles. I think this is the way most religious people feel, or how they would like to feel. They would like it if everything were ideal and purified of lust, grief, and evil, even though they realize that they themselves are not so well-designed. In what follows, I take a position different from Eliade, although some of my views were influenced by him. I believe that the sacred and the profane are two poles on a continuum of the human condition. I believe that jazz, as an expression of our deepest humanity, reflects both the good and bad in us, as well as the sacred and the profane in the people, places, and things that each of us experiences in our brief sojourn through life.

What strikes me as most characteristic of jazz, aside from the specific rhythms and harmonic structures that immediately announce its presence, is its ability to express the sacred and the profane in one implosive moment: heaven and hell, with the "sweet spot" being somewhere at their intersection in the human condition. I remember hearing a recording of Billie Holiday singing "Some Other Spring" and thinking how majestic was her expression of love and the singing heart, and at the same time feeling her hellish ache. I've experienced this feeling of duality in almost every jazz performance I've ever heard, although it is often more subtle and nuanced than Holiday's. Clifford Brown's trumpet playing was very joyful, but, as a friend pointed out when he first heard Brownie's music, "There's a tailing off at the end of his phrases that's like dying." (My friend knew nothing about Brownie's untimely death, but it was as if he heard it prophesied in the music.)

Even in a tune as exhilarating as "Take the A Train," you can hear the unnerving shaking of the subway cars and the limbo state of being between the stations. Reviewing my various listening experiences, I can hardly think of any exceptions to this fusion of opposites, except perhaps in the upbeat music of the swing bands like Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman whose "feel good" music helped everyone get through a Great Depression and a World War. Even le jazz hot of the roaring twenties possessed a tinge of sadness, which made Bix Beiderbecke's playing so poignant. Most of the time, jazz, even in its ecstatic moments, can't help expressing the mixed emotions that make life bittersweet.


This dual feeling of "as above, so below," of lofty spiritual sentiments combined with sensuous, erotic, and even disdainful and despairing emotions has its origins in the history and foundations of the jazz legacy. Jazz originated in New Orleans as a synthesis of gospel revival music and brothel entertainments. The former elevated the spirit, while the musicians in the houses of ill repute provided the soundtrack for intoxication and fornication, and in the end, the despair of "St. James Infirmary."

How could any musical genre draw equally and simultaneously from two such divergent opposing forces as the sacred and the profane? The answer may lie in the way that both include an encounter with death, the church music speaking to the initiation into eternal life, and houses of ill repute being places where you could revel before death finally swallowed you up. So then you have the funeral street band playing "When the Saints Go Marching In," taking the deceased to his or her grave with a mixture of joy and sadness. Death invokes both the heavenly spheres and the underworld, and while Western religions present them as places of reward and punishment for deeds done, many world religions and mystical traditions see heaven and hell, the sacred and the profane, light and dark, as manifestations of the eternal wheel of creation and destruction, the grand illusion or maya of the world that is overcome by enlightenment and transcendence, not by going to the extremes of pleasure and pain, heaven and hell, but by seeing the ultimate Truth that lies behind them. At its best, jazz plunges into the abyss and ascends to the stratosphere, but, in the final analysis, it transcends them both through spontaneous leaps into the unknown.

The Trance State

New Orleans was a multi-cultural mix like no other, so that in addition to church music and entertainment, there were the French and Spanish impressionist songs of the creole tradition. Above and beyond the European influences, however, jazz from the very beginning was deeply infused with African and Caribbean music and dance that existed before "civilized" Europeans invaded the free space of the jungle, the desert, and the sea. Jazz is trance music: it emanates from and induces an altered state of consciousness. In this state of consciousness, phantoms arise and take over the body. Things happen spontaneously outside of our control. Everything is up for grabs. In the trance, we hover between life and death, good and evil, ecstasy and despair. Such precarious experiences can and do lead to self-transformation. Energies are released that may be dangerously psychotic but can also facilitate healing and enlightenment.

Of course, much of the jazz we listen to on a daily basis is not as mesmerizing as a rhythmically induced trance, but any jazz set or album that has outstanding improvisation will almost always leave the listener feeling a bit dizzy and not quite the same as before. The spontaneity, surprise, and successful negotiation of difficult passages produce a mild trance and even a shift in personal agendas. Consider John Coltrane's famous recording of "My Favorite Things" (Atlantic, 1961). He took the lilting tune and played with all its possibilities until it became both rapturous and discombobulating at the same time. It's light and ingenious, like Mozart, but at the same time there's an element of protest and disturbance. You can decide for yourself which is sacred and which is profane. I prefer to think that, paradoxically, Trane's disturbance is sacred, like the messiah making prophesies, and the lilting pleasure becomes almost profane in its ironic juxtaposition. Indeed, this disturbance within the sacred is the motive force that took Trane into his excursions into free jazz and spiritually-based music, as we can judge from A Love Supreme (Impulse! 1965) and Meditations (Impulse! 1966).

Jazz, Dream, and Myth

In addition to the trance state, jazz induces a dream-like reverie which you can readily hear, for example, in Sarah Vaughan's version of Tadd Dameron's "If You Could See Me Now" ( Musicaft, 1946) and Johnny Hartman's rendition of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" (John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Impulse! 1963). Their singing is especially notable for stimulating the imagination around basic feelings of love and disappointment, which is what Freud said dreams are all about: wish fulfillment and unresolved conflicts. Someone I know told me he had a dream of encountering a deer in the woods. When we discussed what it meant, he connected it with the desire and anxiety he felt when his girlfriend became sexually seductive with him. Jazz, trance states, and dreams overlap insofar as they consist of auditory and visual images that coalesce into an inner world. When you are dreaming, the imaginary world seems incredibly real. For that time, it is the world you are living in. But when you wake up, you remember it as if it were complete fiction. In waking life, you experience a state similar to a dream in the so-called aesthetic illusion that occurs when you go to the theater and become so immersed in the dramatic action that it seems real.

Jazz is like a dream and an illusion in several ways. First of all, just as you can be the dreamer or, conversely, appear in the dream as one of the characters, in jazz you are the listener yet you become one with the musicians. You are a member of the audience, but at the same time you become so identified with the players that you tap your feet, sing their improvising to yourself, almost as if you are entering their bodies and minds, or at least imagining that you are. This is true of most forms of music, but especially in jazz because the music is spontaneously created right in front of you in the moment, just like the images of a dream.

Jazz and dreams emerge from and stimulate the imagination. Jazz is not about thinking, but about feeling and imagery. For example, in Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960), Miles Davis and Gil Evans created a world of images that are more vivid than the passionate Spanish music that inspired them. The listener gets carried away into another world and another time. I can't allow myself to listen to that album when I'm driving, because I will momentarily forget where I am. I will find myself in a dreamlike state, which I can do safely only when I'm on terra firma! For me, Davis was at his greatest in his collaborations with Evans. The latter created an impressionistic backdrop for the trumpeter's imagination to roam freely around his own sensitive areas, and he literally spoke contemplatively yet erotically through his horn.

Contemporary neuroscience supports the idea that jazz improvisers are "dreaming" their music as they perform. When they improvise, the thinking parts of the brain actually show diminished activity. As in dreaming, the parts of the brain involved in emotions, sensations. and memories become more active. This contradicts the common sense notion that the musician is "figuring out" (thinking about) what he wants to play. SaxophonistsSonny Rollins and Ben Schachter told me that their improvisations emerge, not so much from themselves as from another source, which they variously frame as the unconscious, a muse, or God. The musicians and the audience are entering a collective dream space, a "sacred space," where the gods and goddesses appear and intervene in human affairs.

Jazz and the Oneiric

The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, along with others involved in existentialism, Jungian psychology, and cultural anthropology, culminating in the writings of Joseph Campbell on world mythology, said that dreams are but one manifestation of the human ability to conceive narratives of multiple realities, including the worlds of the sacred and the profane, above and below. Merleau-Ponty used the term oneiric, which derives from the Greek word meaning dreams, to describe the wide variety of self-created and co-created worlds which we inhabit. Basically, these worlds are artistically and culturally "lived in," as distinct from the practical world of scientific and practical facts that get us from A to B on a daily basis. Without oneiric worlds and experiences, our lives are effectively deadened and deprived of meaning, which unfortunately many of our technical advances and economic priorities have done to us.

I would argue that jazz is the quintessential expression of the oneiric, the spontaneously co-created narratives that we so easily lose sight of in the world of material necessity. Several years ago, I had a life-changing experience of participating in a program called Mimesis, developed by the late theologian Samuel Laeuschle and his wife, psychoanalyst Evelyn Rothchild, in which we re-enacted world mythology in sacred spaces like the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Similarly, through the jazz idiom, as in mythology, we come together in a sacred space where the elders (the great musicians) spontaneously create a ceremonial event that invokes a world of feeling, meaning, and levels of consciousness from the holy to the damned which has the scope, depth, and character of myth. World music, from the Carnatic music of South India that has impacted upon Rudresh Mahanthappa, to the North African music that has influenced Dave Liebman and Dave Burrell, among many others, has greatly expanded the oneiric aspect of the jazz repertoire. The music of world cultures largely derives from ceremonies and rituals which reflect the dreams and myths that define each community, ethnic group, and tribe.

A few musicians, like Bobby Zankel, in his stunning composition "Ndura: The Forest is Our Father and Mother," and before him Duke Ellington and Cecil Taylor, consciously incorporate mythology into their compositions. Most of the time, as in the cases of Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, the oneiric, mythological, and ceremonial aspects manifested more simply as a mist that wrapped around them when they played. Beiderbecke reminds me of Icarus flying too near the sun, Young a Dyonisian figure evoking sensual and emotional coloring, Davis a Promethean bringer of fire (and ice), and Coltrane an Apollo driving the chariot of the sun across the sky. In ancient Greek polytheism, various aspects of human nature were manifest in the gods and goddesses who inhabited both the highest spheres and the underworld. What draws us to the legendary figures of jazz are the mythic proportions of their music and their specific blends of the divine and the fallen within us. We dream and make mystery with them, and through them we rediscover the mythic figures that inhabit our inner worlds.

The European Influences

Although jazz is an African American musical form, it merged with European music through vaudeville and Broadway musicals, such as those of the Gershwin brothers, Jerome Kern, Rogers and Hart, and Cole Porter. Then, with the advent of bebop, jazz musicians, with particular encouragement from Charlie Parker and Gil Evans, incorporated the musical ideas of Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, and Stravinsky into their improvising. Since then, for over half a century, jazz musicians have referenced contemporary classical composers. Composers like Eliot Carter, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, to name a few, have significantly influenced jazz artists. I mention these classical composers because the art and musical forms of the modern European temperament reflect the gradual deconstruction of the unbridgeable boundaries between the sacred and the profane that defined European culture since the Middle Ages. Whether it is Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," Joyce's "Ulysses," or Picasso's "Guernica," the sacred and the profane, above and below, come together in ways that merge, collide with, fragment, embrace, and magnify one another. Pianist Tom Lawton recently composed a jazz suite inspired by the art of Man Ray, who saw the visual beauty and meaning contained in objects of daily use. Man Ray combined unrelated objects, such as a picture of an eye pinned to a metronome, into a single sculpture, drawing, or photograph. Lawton did something similar in his music, combining fragments of swing, blues, hard bop, tonal shifts, and so on, into a set of movements for improvising.

Psychoanalysis, existentialism, deconstruction, and post-modern European thought have led to a breakdown of the categories of good and evil, the ethereal and the earthy, the reverent and irreverent, the miraculous and the ordinary, the sacred and the profane. What were once thought to be separate mutually exclusive worlds of good and evil now inhabit unified intellectual and artistic spheres. In one respect, this concatenation reflects a moral breakdown in Western civilization. The fusion of the sacred and the profane parallels the challenges faced by the "absurd" human condition in creating and establishing morality, In modern art and morality, good and evil become paradoxical expressions of man's essential "throwness" into life and its contingencies. A prime jazz example of the sacred and the profane playing existentially against one another is Miles Davis' Evil-Live (Columbia, 1971), a fusion album whose title suggests that life and evil are mirror images of one another. The music in that album runs the gamut from unbridled eroticism and violence to the profoundly spiritual.

Jazz, in its spontaneity and grab-bag approach to using almost any genre, style, and turn of phrase to make a point, is thus a step-child of European existentialism and post-modernism. After World War II, expatriate jazz musicians on tour encountered European thinkers, artists, and composers, mutually influencing one another. Miles Davis met Jean Paul Sartre in Paris and was close friends of expatriate writer James Baldwin. Dave Brubeck studied with the French composer Darius Milhaud. Over the years, with musicians traveling extensively between Europe and America, existential and post-modern ideas penetrated the jazz idiom. The result is that the dialectic between the sacred and the profane, the church and the brothel, the spirit and the flesh, from which jazz originated, has culminated in the diverse forms of jazz that brook the divide between heaven and hell by unlocking the infinite possibilities for merging the two.

Conclusion: The Nightclub and Recording Studio as Sacred and Profane Creative Spaces

I have always been struck by the fact that many if not most of the breakthroughs in jazz have taken place in jam sessions, nightclubs, and recording studios rather than concert halls where the ability to hear the music and the appreciation by the audiences is much greater. In a nightclub, people are drinking and too often talking, which seems insulting to the musicians. In a recording studio, they are using headsets to hear one another, located in separate parts of the studio, surrounded by microphones and acoustic panels, and often overdubbing parts of what is already recorded. Yet, while I could utter profanities about these awful performance conditions, the musicians are paradoxically more inventive than when they have a thrilled audience paying rapt attention and almost worshipping them.

I've come to think that jazz musicians need a touch of chaos to be at their best. This goes back to where jazz originated, in the streets and brothels of New Orleans. The sacred space of jazz requires, not so much a sanctuary as it calls for a living, troubling atmosphere to consecrate it. Jazz does not belong in a monastery as much as it belongs in the firmament of human life. This is true not just of jazz but of many other creative endeavors. Some of the greatest works of music, art, and writing have been produced under the most difficult circumstances. The element of sacrifice under duress induces humility and persistence. And humankind wants to find creative meaning within the chaos.

What can we learn from all this? It may be that we have a mistaken idea about holiness. Yes, there is an element of purity and chastity that we seek. Yet, the great prophets preached in the street, not in gothic Cathedrals or cloisters. Moses was given the Ten Commandments as an exile in the desert. Buddha sat under a tree after witnessing great suffering. Jesus reached out to the most rejected and sick. Mahatma Ghandi lived in tents and jail cells and walked among the people. As above, so below. The crooked straight. The mountains and the valleys. In their own way, jazz musicians reflect the ethos of the most inspired prophets: finding the highest in the lowest.

Painting of Billie Holiday and Lester Young by Natasha Mylius.

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