Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion (Part I)

Today's guest post comes from Jason C. Bivins, Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University.  In this post, Jason provides a fascinating context for his new book, Spirits Rejoice!: Jazz and American Religion. In a follow-up post, Jason will discuss the book and its contribution to the study of religion in America. Readers following the blog closely may recall that Jason first mentioned this project in Randall Stephens' "Four Questions with Jason Bivins" last year. His book--and this post--comes with a listening guide. Hit play here and listen while you read.

Jason C. Bivins

I have written a fair bit over the last several years about the unspoken, unwritten conventions shaping the study of religions. Some of the conventions I’ve identified include the increasingly habitual impulse of authors to situate themselves at the heart of their narratives. This is usually done for old-school ethnographic reasons: we want to signal to readers that we know we are active in the process of representation, that we are having an effect on what we observe and write about. But most of us in the study of religion are in this quirky, ill-defined field – rather than, in my case, for example, political theory – because of things intimate to our biography. And we almost never talk about these things. Indeed, the dirty little secret of the field is hushed up. I wish this were not the case.

So because I years ago promised Paul Harvey I would contribute something to the blog that I have so enjoyed, and so frequently learned from, and because I have written a book on something dear to my heart (as well as an additional book on things that vex my heart – my third book on political religions, which I blogged about here a couple years back), I thought I would wax biographical to begin describing what I hope are the accomplishments of my new book, Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion.

I can’t count the number of hours of my life I’ve spent in cramped places with music. I have played it in a wide variety of venues public and private, spent nearly two decades writing about it as a record reviewer, and since 1994 writing and presenting occasionally (always under the book’s title, regardless of content) in the academy. In all this time, as I wrote about other subjects, my suspicion was always that other authors would likely beat me to the punch in writing about how central religions have been to the ongoing stories of jazz, and how jazz figured prominently in American religions (though few seem to acknowledge this). These varied experiences, however, continued and I was reminded repeatedly of the frustrations of trying to describe a music that not only lacks lyrical content but also evades form. And I know too well the frustrations of trying to communicate through this music – which most of us committed to it understand to be far more than mere entertainment, and instead as possibly a self-conscious way of recalibrating perceptions and even, sometimes, a different way of being in the world – that is marginalized.

Archibald John Motley, "Getting Religion," [nd]
Collection H: Harmon Foundation Collection, NARA, College Park, MD.
Sounds and images stayed with me in memory. Performers in blurred motion. Distilled moments of emotion welling up. Ritual atmospherics. I had begun a chart in my head, even as I plotted out my next book on political religions, after Religion of Fear. But I decided in 2008 or 2009 that I should act on my experience and my conviction and my desire, and resume my explorations and narrations of a music that anchors my life, which is so deeply and obviously written into the religious stories of the United States but rarely discussed in my discipline. It’s obvious, of course, that this general inattention parallels a larger cultural disregard for jazz. Every decade or so, a well-heeled musician graces the cover of a non-music periodical or website, and so too does there occasionally surface official recognition of what Dr. Billy Taylor called “America’s classical music” (and what even grizzled free bassist Alan Silva once described to me, while he wore a wizard’s hat and robe, as “America’s national treasure”). First Lady Michelle Obama has publicly praised the music and its role in American culture, trading easily in well-worn essentialisms (the once scandalous music is now championed by some as “America’s indigenous art form” or even “America’s greatest gift to the world”) and making the somewhat shopworn observation “there’s probably no better example of democracy than a jazz ensemble: individual freedom, but with responsibility to the group.” Critic Stanley Crouch believes jazz is “perfect for America because most of all the jazz player has to develop an individual style and sound, and to be able to fit in with other people . . . so that means that the improvisation connects it to a democratic way of making music.”

Such characterizations are common, even though they are far from applicable to democracy alone and even though improvisation is central to many musical idioms outside of jazz. Despite such lofty associations, there is little basic familiarity with the music. Many people in the United States know a small bit about jazz, often on the basis of specific associations or representations. Some may think of jazz as the instrumental smooth funk still played on radio stations, others of drummerless trios playing in restaurant corners, of the gentlemanly swing of the postwar martini crowd, all contained in black and white photographs from a zoot-suited past, or in the woefully popular caricature disseminated by the Beats beginning in the 1950s and still circulating (smoke-filled basements, snapping fingers, and musicians lifting horns to heaven to sound out the cathartic emotionalism white audiences crave from black performers). It is also true that a great many people in the United States hear jazz semi-regularly, often in spaces seeking to convey an air of “sophistication”: various independent bookstores and eateries that embrace “jazz as accessory,” where inoffensive 1950s recordings like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter, and Dave Brubeck’s Take 5 play on infinite repeat. Fewer people are aware that some of jazz’s most influential figures were also quite religious, and that various devotional musics have played a part in the music’s evolution since the 1890s. A modest number of religion scholars know that in San Francisco there is a church whose services are centered on the music of late tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and a slightly smaller group may be aware of the late Herman “Sonny” Blount, better known as Sun Ra, who told people he was from Saturn and for decades headed a commune cum big band.

Such knowledge is valuable, of course. Yet it is the functional equivalent of being roughly aware that Elvis and Little Richard made some important recording in the 1950s, the Beatles and the Stones in the 1960s, and later on some independent localisms throve in American rock. Or, if you will, it is roughly like narrating American religious history as the story of some very pious folk who settled in the Northeast, thought they were special, and whose influence eventually faded in the wake of first a series of revivals, then a Revolution, a Bill of Rights, the Civil War, centuries of denominationalism, and so on. What I mean to suggest with this caricature is that there is a great deal more to say.


esclark said…
Jason, I have been excited about this book since the first time I heard you talk about it.

When I worked on the art and music of Sister Gertrude Morgan in New Orleans, I waded through some literature on jazz and found it lacking when it came to religion. Morgan wasn't a jazz musician - she recorded herself singing spirituals and playing her tambourine - but Preservation Hall was her patron. She performed and sold her Revelation themed art at the Jazz & Heritage Festival. She thought New Orleans was a sinful place but appropriated its architecture for her depictions of New Jerusalem. Even if she perceived jazz as part of a sinful culture, she used its tools and aesthetics to make her theology. There is something so poetic and intriguing about that. And there was much more I wanted to do with Morgan and jazz but ended up moving on.

I'm looking forward to the end of the semester for a number of reasons (I'm buried in grading at the moment), and one of those is to find the time to read Spirits Rejoice!

Popular Posts