The Deep Joy of Jazz
- Wednesday, February 28, 2007
I once asked my dear grandmother to describe her philosophy regarding jazz music when she was a young mother. Her answer was interesting: She liked the music, and even thought dancing to it was healthy. But she would not let her children go out to the typical jazz joint, for fear they would be corrupted. That was in the 1920s.
Undoubtedly, jazz has mixed connotations for people in any generation. For some, it is the devil’s music. For others, well, it’s simply not their taste. The word itself probably testifies to an element of racism. When some white folks first heard it, they called it “jackass music.” Blacks played the music with such wildness and exoticism that it was unlike anything they’d ever heard. Take away the ck and you get the older word for this music, which was called jass. And yet when others heard it, they thought, we’re saved. For them, jazz was the greatest music in the world, because we finally had a form of music that was fresh, recognizable, and full of rhythm and vitality. It was an answer for the overly abstract, modern, avant-garde music that everyone liked, except the audience.
The Musicians Were Churchgoers
While I side with the enthusiasts, I fully understand the reticence of some. Early jazz was often played in brothels or barrelhouses. From the late 19th century up through 1917, jazz was mostly found in Storyville, the low-life section of New Orleans, full of saloons and dance halls. Those associations run deep. Yet many of the musicians were unhappy in this setting. They left the city to find a better place for their music, which they believed had great aesthetic value. When they arrived in Chicago and New York, they found opportunities to develop their artistry. Furthermore, many, even most of them, were churchgoers.
Historically, the Christian religion has permeated the experience of African-American people and their cultural expressions. In studying the emergence of jazz, it is impossible to extricate the religious element without completely altering the history of its formation. The full story of slave religion is only beginning to be told, yet we can already establish certain clear facts about how the spirits of African-American peoples were shaped by the gospel many years before the 20th century, when jazz became an established genre.
Music is one of the most revealing facets of a people’s life and times. In the case of American slaves, it is a crucial one, and it testifies in part to an understanding of the biblical message on the part of many Africans in North America. Music is often a repository of cultural memory because it is resilient. This is true of music in the middle passage from West Africa to North America; there was already Christian faith on that continent. While slavery involved stripping people of so much in their dignity and culture, music, including Christian music, was retained in various ways. Hundreds of testimonies to the unusual vitality of black music throughout the antebellum period were recorded. They usually describe modal scales, hand clapping and dancing, call-and-response patterns, and improvisatory melodic styles.
In early America, to the consternation of many plantation owners, Christian faith came to the slaves in several episodes. One of the strongest was the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. Christian slaves had to meet clandestinely, in the forests and marshlands, for fear of discovery. They held their meetings in “praise houses,” cabins hung with sheets and blankets doused with water to stifle the sound. The music in those services was African in style, but with clear adaptations from Western music Spirituals, “moaning,” and other religious genres emerged. Biblical themes and imagery were used to express the sorrows and joys of persecuted believers. At the meetings, preaching was central, but the African style required a sort of call and response, with music in imitation of this style. According to the antiquated words of one transcribed testimony, they sang and they shouted, as “the Lord would come shining through [the pages of Scripture] and revive this old…heart... and they’d all take it up and keep at it, and keep adding to it and then it would be a spiritual.”
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