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Jazz: The Sacred and the Profane

Victor L. Schermer By

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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."


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