Spirits Rejoice! (Part II): A Follow Up on Jazz and American Religion

Today's post is a follow up to Jason Bivins' post yesterday. Jason has recently published Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion with Oxford University Press. In this post, he considers the historiography of music and American religion as well as his hopes for this book. As with the first post, readers are welcome to take advantage of the book's listening guide while they read this post.

Jason Bivins

It’s long since time that Religious Studies took this music more seriously. Whereas Jazz Studies has developed quickly and impressively in the last two decades – ranging from vibrant theorization from folks like Ajay Heble and Josh Kun to splendid social history from authors like George Lipsitz and Scott Saul – very few authors indeed (the most notable attention coming from David Stowe) have attended to the religious creativity that has been so powerful a part of “jazz” since “the jass” was first decried as libidinous threat a century ago in New Orleans.

My hopes for this book, then, were first to establish the seriousness of jazz as a subject of reflection and analysis in Religious Studies (and also to deepen the engagement with “religion” and “spirituality” one encounters in Jazz Studies). Beyond standard approaches to music as a kind of setting for texts, the book explores a series of themes, pursuits, reoccurring foci, and interpretations harvested from the religious and cultural history of American jazz: not just jazz’s relation to specific religious traditions as groundings for musical creativity, but the music’s own chronicling of American history and religion, jazz communitarian experiments, expressions of jazz as a practice of ritual or healing, jazz notions of mysticism or meditative egolessness, and jazz cosmologies and metaphysics. I conclude by exploring how “the sound of spirits rejoicing” challenges not only prevailing understandings of race and music (framed substantially by what Anthony Braxton calls the “reality of the sweating brow”) but understandings of what we know about “religion” too, with both categories pressing against category, against the limits of language and knowability.

Behind all these explorations is my claim that jazz makes sense in and also complicates known accounts of American religion, finding strangeness in the familiar and familiarity in the strange. Spirits Rejoice! adds a different resonance to American religious history since the 1920s. While we know what was happening religiously in 1930s New Orleans, in bebop’s postwar Manhattan, and in the cities awakened by free jazz in the 1960s and 1970s, we have not yet adequately understood how jazz has not just been in conversation with religious developments in the United States, but shaped and drawn on them as more than simply their musical accompaniment. For example, jazz musicians participated in the religious exchanges and combinations that have proliferated in the United States since 1965, adopting Hindu gurus, pursuing jazz as an expression of Vajrayana Buddhism, or linking performance to the developmental schema of Scientology. By exploring what Ralph Ellison called the “lower frequencies” of American culture – populated by marginal creators, activists, provocateurs, and mischief-makers – we find that jazz registers in some unexpected but meaningful places in American religions. In many ways, Spirits Rejoice! accretes these themes as a way of proposing a framework for a cultural history of American religions told in the tones and tales of jazz. While the music itself has often lacked a sizable audience, a central storyline in American religions and avowedly “secular” modernity has been the engaged, knowing determination of (mostly) African-American musicians to trouble the certainties of their religious, musical, and indeed American inheritance. In each phase of jazz’s development its innovators and institutions have been improvising with the central religious themes and practitioners of the time as well: Ellington’s inundation with the religious creativity of the Harlem Renaissance, Art Blakey’s participation in the post-WWII embrace of African-American Islam, Horace Tapscott’s role in the proliferation of intentional communities in the 1960s, and the reinvestigation of identity and tradition so prominent in the 1980s.

So the stories of jazz are integral to the stories of American religions in the last century, even if I arrange them in non-chronological fashion. Spirits Rejoice! generates overlapping narratives attentive to what Greil Marcus calls the “lipstick traces” connecting disparate phenomena: images, themes, and sounds that resonate multiply, opening beyond themselves to encompass others or be absorbed elsewhere. These different elements relate to and play off of each other throughout the text, and hopefully beyond, capturing what Ellison calls “the complex forces of American life which comes to focus in jazz.”

Looking at the complex floriculture of this music reveals that its sounds, creators, concerns, and communities capture and participate in and play back to some of the most central and engaging concerns of American religions. We hear jazz’s historical suites in the tradition of Jacob Oson and W.E.B. DuBois; we observe in ritualized jazz the outer reaches of a broader American experimentation with ritual and sound; we trace the sidereal ruminations of jazz’s visionaries to a pantheon of seers including not just Blavatsky and Swedenborg but Plotinus and Ficino; in each case, by exploring the music’s recurring concerns we learn about the new shapes of abiding religious impulses and about the multiple resonances of the music. To explore these territories and expressions resonates with central methodological debates in Religious Studies, about the emotions and the senses, about ritual bodies, about the shapes of communities and resistance. My hope was that Spirits Rejoice! would be no simple gloss on these debates, but a way both to complicate them and to wring from them new possibilities.

These practitioners show that their music simply cannot be separated from the investments in and interrogations of religion that suffuses it. In this, they shape what Lipsitz calls “the alternative archives of history,” enacted in the doing as well as the word. A field that celebrates each new journal unearthed from an antebellum home or every newly discovered collectivity (no matter how small) gathering to channel a divine being or peruse a sacred text should surely affirm the existence of so expansive an archive, documenting not simply self-determination and resistance through sound but an entire compendium of religious practices, ways of knowing, and sonic documents that have been understood by those performing and hearing as sacred presence. I have listened with fascination to American religion as it is heard through jazz, and as jazz has improvised on it. I hope my book begins further conversations not just about jazz’s enduring thereness in our field, but about sound and language, performance and constraint, improvisation and presence. Finally, to see how jazz has been a part of the changing religious habitus of the United States in the last century is to understand with new vibrancy the elusiveness of the category “religion” itself, since it makes possible such combination and fluidity.


Paul Harvey said…
Want to make sure everyone also knows about Jason's post applying his thoughts on jazz and religion to Coltrane's Love Supreme, at the Oxford U. Press blog -- another great read: