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.”
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.
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.”
Optimism about America’s future aside, the comparison is poignant. Jazz is indeed, I believe, “the American music.”
May we dare suggest that the gospel itself is a kind of improvisation? For what is the good news, if not God’s wise, loving plan to redeem the human race by facing the daunting obstacles of sin and evil, and turning them upside down. It is God’s own willingness to be oppressed in order that He could re-emerge as Savior. By becoming man, and being humbled, Jesus Christ improvised. He took the givens, and worked with them, and made them work for Him. He “trumped” evil and caused death itself to die. Jazz music, at its best, is the expression of a people who know this truth. So you gotta love it.
William Edgar is a professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where he has served on the faculty since 1989. He is the author of The Face of Truth, Reasons of the Heart, and Truth in All Its Glory: Commending the Reformed Faith, as well as articles on cultural apologetics and African-American music.