Saturday, May 8, 2010

Jazz and Divinity

Recently I was asked by Rev. George Lambrides, Executive Director of the Interfaith Round Table of Washtenaw County, to write some cursory notes about divinity and jazz. These notes were delivered at an IRT fundraiser concert on March 23, 2010. What follows is a more fleshed-out version of these notes.

This article will address the utility of jazz and improvised music in contemporary liturgy. In particular, I refer to its use as a central piece of the liturgy at Canterbury House (Episcopal student center for the University of Michigan) in Ann Arbor.

Strictly speaking, jazz is not inherently divine. It is played by many people for many different reasons, many of which are secular. Moreover, the reasons for considering such music to be a sacred part of one's life are also varied. Some offer their musical works as gifts to a deity, while some consider the very process of improvisation to be divinely inspired.

We must distinguish further by recognizing that only some jazz musicians feel the need to express their faith overtly: in song / album titles, liner notes, etc. And even then, very few jazz musicians dedicate all of their work to religious expression. Many will also deal with more secular or abstract matters. Lastly, it only makes sense to grant that for some jazz musicians, religious beliefs are a private matter.

Even after narrowing things down as we have done, there is still a large and varied body of overtly religious jazz music. Some mainstream examples are Duke Ellington’s “Sacred Concerts” and Jimmy Smith’s “The Sermon”. While all such music is considered fair game at Canterbury House, we tend toward a more radical form of improvised music that emerged in the late 50’s and early 60’s. This style, known as free or avant-garde jazz, is highlighted by an openness for experimentation with form and timbre. We draw a thread from this musical openness, through social justice, to a theology of non-violent liberation (the sort espoused by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.).

Let’s first establish the link between musical style and social justice. Free jazz came to prominence right around the time of a major social revolution in the United States: the Civil Rights Movement. There is much evidence to support a link between them, both in song titles and in overt statements of motivation, in the work of Sun Ra, Clifford Thornton, Archie Shepp, Grachan Moncur III, Charles Mingus, Horace Tapscott, and many others. During this same period, jazz musicians with activist interests began to organize themselves, resulting in groups such as the Jazz Composer’s Guild in New York City, Tribe in Detroit, the Black Artists Group in St. Louis, and the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) in Chicago.

Continuing the thread through to a theology of social justice and liberation requires that we address the category of “overtly religious jazz music,” established above. Narrowing our focus to the decade of the 1960s, we find numerous examples. The most prevalent is probably John Coltrane, one of the most influential jazz musicians of the 1950's and 60's. By the late 50's, Coltrane had already garnered a reputation throughout the jazz community as a highly accomplished saxophonist, composer and bandleader. He had developed a compositional signature with harmonic devices like those employed in "Giant Steps", "Countdown", and "Moment's Notice", as well as in his reharmonizations of standards like Gershwin's "But Not For Me".

But by the early 1960's, his musical development was clearly continuing in another direction, toward simpler forms. Some results of this are his many modal compositions, like "India" and "Spiritual", as well as his adaptations of "My Favorite Things" and "Afro Blue". The composed material became less and less, leaving more room for taking improvisational liberties.

In the liner notes to the 1965 release of A Love Supreme, Coltrane eloquently expressed the spiritual motivations behind his music:

“This album is a humble offering to [God]. An attempt to say “THANK YOU GOD” through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues. May he help and strengthen all men in every good endeavor…”

After this, the line between modal and free improvisation became more and more vague. Within a year from the recording of ALS, atonality and free meter were used in his music. After ALS, many of his song titles reflected a continued deep religious commitment: “Amen” and “The Father And The Son And The Holy Ghost,” “Ascension”, “Peace On Earth”, “Offering”, and “Call Me By My Rightful Name”. Unfortunately, his music from this later period is often shunned by the mainstream jazz community, but it is tremendously rewarding for those who attempt to understand it.

I've spent much time on John Coltrane, but there are certainly other examples. John Coltrane’s wife and musical collaborator, Alice Coltrane, was also very religious, and this was expressed in her music. In 1975 she established a Vedantic Center in California, where she was the spiritual director. Albert Ayler is another important musician and composer in the free jazz continuum, who composed and recorded songs with titles like “Spirits Rejoice”, “Angels”, “Holy Family”, “Zion Hill” and “Holy Spirit”. These are among the most overtly religious musicians of the free jazz style, but many other musicians expressed a personal spirituality, at least occasionally (Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ornette Coleman, Pharaoh Sanders, etc.)

The free jazz of the 1960s is uniquely suited for Canterbury House’s worship and theology, which are based on radical inclusiveness and social justice. As we have seen, much of this music is expressly religious. All of it is deeply spiritual, beginning at least with the appreciation that improvised music necessarily depends on inspiration. Even music that is not explicitly religious (or composed by musicians expressly hostile to religion) is often appropriate in light of its social context. Moreover, it is music which we simply enjoy playing. We feel that playing such music in a religious setting is not out of place, as long as it is played with commitment and passion.

Published in Canterbury House News, April 2010. I will likely continue to make slight adjustments to it.

[last updated 5/8/10]