Most jazz audiences know Duke Ellington as the urbane, stylish entertainer and public personality that he was. But he also had deep roots in the Christian faith. Brought up by godly parents in the Baptist church and the A.M.E. Zion church, he knew all the hymns and Bible stories by heart. He read his Bible every day and prayed regularly. Although his schedule often precluded being in church on Sunday morning, he often attended mid-week services, or just walked in to sit in the pew for inspiration. Throughout his career he took material from gospel tunes and wove them into jazz music. The presence of a forgiving God was always real to him, as can be witnessed by a line in one of his songs: “Forgive us our necessities, and the hunger that makes them necessary.”

In the last decade of his life, Ellington wrote three jazz oratorios. The Third Sacred Concert took him the better part of 1973, the last year of his life, to write. When asked why it took him so long, he replied, “You can jive with secular music, but you can’t jive with the Almighty.” The premiere was at Westminster Abbey at a concert sponsored by the United Nations. More meditative than his first two jazz oratorios, this composition concentrates on prayer and love. Ellington was a sinner, a man with many flaws. He could use people, lead women on, joke when he needed to be serious. But his character flaws are magnifications of the struggles of the age. His faith in God’s love enabled him to transcend the conflicts.

At its best, jazz narrates a general movement, a particular flow, from deep misery to deep joy. Jazz carries this aesthetic in its fabric. Sometimes the musicians consciously articulate the narrative of redemption.

Working with Obstacles, and Transcending Them
Finally, think about improvisation. Of course, all great music has at least some improvisatory character. But for African-Americans this has a special hue. From the beginning, blacks coming to North America have had to learn to survive. John Newton, the reformed slaver, commented that shipboard insurrections were noble struggles for liberty, and that traitors who sought to undermine the plans were wrongly viewed as honest fellows. More than survive, the slaves were often able to move out from oppression to a creative revitalization in many areas of life.

"Suppression to re-emergence” is thus a pattern characteristic of the African-American aesthetic. From clothing styles to the culinary arts to health practices, they display an astonishing ability to be creative, despite all that might conspire against them. In music and the other arts, this is notably the case. At one point (around 1856) during Black Codes in New Orleans, drumming and dancing were all but forbidden on Congo Square, but blacks rather creatively asked the town fathers to define “dance” for them. The authorities came up with this strange definition: “Dance” is when “a person’s legs cross to a rhythm.” So the blacks developed the “Ring Shout,” where no legs are ever crossed! In the 18th and 19th centuries, European musical styles and tunes were merged into African ones, so that the “blending of African musical traditions with European ones created a new African-American music that was the first truly post-Columbian American art.”

Improvisation is at the heart of jazz music. What is this art? It is to fabricate, to build with what is conveniently on hand. It means to take a set of challenges, even obstacles, to work with them and transcend them in a creative narrative. Stanley Crouch famously compared jazz and blues to the American Constitution. This document believes both that human beings cannot be trusted and that they need freedom in order to gain access to human potential. Its succinct boundaries and liberties have made it possible to meet many challenges in the ensuing generations: “In essence, then, the Constitution is a document that functions like the blues-based music of jazz: it values improvisation, the freedom to constantly reinterpret the meaning of our documents. It casts a cold eye on human beings and on the laws they make; it assumes that evil will not forever be allowed to pass by. And the fact that a good number of young Negro musicians are leading the movement that is revitalizing jazz suggests a strong future for this country.”