The Deep Joy of Jazz
- Wednesday, February 28, 2007
From Spirituals to Blues to Jazz
Slaves made the natural connection between the history of Israel and their own experience. Lyrics were developed from the great stories and prayers of the Bible, spanning a range of religious sentiment, from lamentation to praise. Sometimes the words doubled as signals. Such was the case of “Wade in the Water,” which described the step of faith required of Moses and Joshua, but at the same time warned the fugitive slaves that their pursuers had dogs and so better to go by the river than by the pathways. Canaan Land was heaven, but so was Canada—the final stop on the Underground Railroad.
Spirituals have their own history. But they richly intertwine with blues, and, eventually, with the early forms of jazz. Many individual musicians can testify to the extraordinary connection between biblical faith and music of many genres. One of the pioneers who noticed this connection is H.R. Rookmaaker, the art historian and jazz critic. He notes the convergence of many forms of African-American music in the same musicians and even in the same music. For example, Blind Willie Johnson’s gospel music combined the blues with elements of jazz, which in turn influenced other musicians to do the same. In terms of the musical styles, despite some important differences, there are great similarities as well. Thomas A. Dorsey, known also as Georgia Tom, the greatest gospel composer of the 1930s, started out as a blues musician. He once stated, “There are moaning blues that are used in spirituals, there are moaning spirituals that are used in blues.”
So, at the deepest level, jazz, blues, and spirituals come from the same source. To some, the blues are secular. To most blacks they are as religious as spirituals; simply the subject matter is different. As the great Alberta Hunter once said: “The blues? Why, the blues are part of me ... . To me the blues are like spirituals, almost sacred. When we sing blues, we’re singin’ out our hearts, we’re singin’ out our feelings. Maybe we’re hurt and just can’t answer back, then we sing or maybe even hum the blues. Yes, to us, the blues are sacred. When I sing, ‘I walk the floor, wring my hands and cry, Yes, I walk the floor, wring my hands and cry,’ what I’m doing is letting my soul out.”
Even those not inclined to go to church make the connection. Sidney Bechet, not known for his piety, nevertheless acknowledged the strong bond between church worship styles and jazz. He famously compared jazz to an invocation. The subject matter might be different, but the feeling was the same. As he put it, “One was praying to God, and the other was praying to what’s human. It’s like one was saying, ‘Oh God, let me go,’ and the other was saying, ‘Oh Mister, let me be.’”
Music Depends on the Church
The fact is, the church was a stabilizing institution in the rural South, and it provided a place for the creation of music of all kinds. Though sadly, for all kinds of reasons, many church people condemned the blues, the dependency of almost all African-American music, including the blues, on the church is nevertheless patent. That is why so many individual jazz musicians, whatever their lifestyles, are often consciously motivated by a Christian worldview. Indeed, almost all of the early musicians have strong roots in the church. King Oliver’s letters to his sister are a powerful testimony of his Christian faith. A good many modern pianists, such as Hank Jones, Cyrus Chestnut, and Monty Alexander, are followers of Christ who understand their music in terms of Christian faith.
Perhaps the outstanding example of this individual connection to a biblical worldview in jazz music is America’s greatest composer, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. Duke Ellington is jazz. Many people do not realize that “his great passion and work sprang from an awareness of the presence of God in all of life.” The narrative of biblical Christianity, particularly in its African-American version, is the underlying aesthetic behind much of the astonishing artistic achievement of this foremost American musician.
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