A Surplus of Brilliance: On Spirits Rejoicing Through This Apocalypse

Paul Harvey

At this year's just-completed American Academy of Religion, I was privileged to participate in a session on Jason Bivins's work Spirits Rejoice: Jazz and American Religion. Other participants included Tracy Fessenden, Kathryn Lofton, and Joseph Winters. I'm posting in my comments below for anyone's interest, and also because, as I said at the session, I was delighted to participate in a panel about a book that I love, written by a brilliant scholar and man that I also love. A shout-out to Jason and his work, which Jason himself posted about previously here and here. I also recommend a post of his at the Oxford University Press blog, here, where he focuses particularly on Coltrane's Love Supreme.

A Surplus of Brilliance: On Spirits Rejoicing Through This Apocalypse

During the 1980s, while in graduate school, if people asked me if was “still religious” or “still went to church,” I often replied, with studied sardonic intonation, “sure, I got to Yoshi’s regularly.” Yoshi’s was a jazz club, then on Claremont Avenue in North Oakland, which featured a regular roster of the jazz greats passing through town, often on their way to Japan. Having been raised a Southern Baptist in Oklahoma, I spent my nearly decade-long sojourn in Northern California in part as a spiritual “seeker.” Evidently I missed the “find” part of seek and ye shall find, as nothing concrete or tangible emerged from the seeking. But when I left Yoshi’s or any other venue of music that reached spiritual heights, I often felt that I had been part of some communal ritual of struggle, cleansing, and release. It felt "religious."

On another occasion, in the midst of struggling through the Dissertation Blues, I was felled one Friday by a migraine headache the likes of which I had never had before, and thankfully never since to that degree. The auras accompanying it were there; the orishas were absent. Somehow, on Saturday night I struggled out of the house and made it to Koncepts Cultural Gallery in downtown Oakland, for reasons I no longer remember. What I experienced was a quartet (
led by Henry Threadgill, I now remember, but I was not familiar with him at the time) – a tuba, a piano, a sax, and a guitar – that ripped through and riffed off African American musical history from the spirituals to the 1980s in an hour and a half of some of the most astonishing music making I have ever seen. I was exhilarated; I was healed by the ritual. The incantations had worked their magic. But a day later I could not reproduce what I had heard; it was all over but the shouting. 

Some years ago, when he was writing this text, I remember relating stories like this to Jason Bivins, who was then in the process of writing this text, one difficult to discuss because it has such a surplus of brilliance. I was relating the anecdotes because it was the only way I could connect the terms “jazz” and “religion,” and I didn’t really have any intellectual concept of what it would look like to explore that connection. Now I do; we do. And it turns out those connections are in the very evanescence of both. To capture jazz, and perhaps religion, in words is to describe smoke in a bottle, but it’s also to understand the lower frequencies of American music and spiritual expression. “Spirits rejoicing,” Bivins writes, “reveals the cracks of the world and of our languages,” reminding me of the late and lamented Leonard Cohen’s lines, much quoted over these last couple of horrendous weeks of the “violent reassertions” of a white nationalist clarity into American life:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

But the history from which jazz music and musicians emerged meant that they could not afford to dwell in the glorious melancholy of a Cohen lyric. Jason continues that, before those cracks, in jazz we might “we might feel transported in and by sound’s very elusiveness,” the “ungraspable phantom of life” from Melville. That’s the crack in everything that gets us to glimpse, briefly, new worlds, like the physicists looking at the results of particles crashing in the Hadron Collider experiment and documenting the Higgs boson.

            The poetic surplus of brilliance in Spirits Rejoice makes it impossible in a short comment like this one to leave anything more than a couple of lipstick traces, hoping it might leave a mark for further discussion. So here, based on the healing story related above, I want to focus m comments on Chapter 5, “The Magic of Juju,” which is about jazz, religion, and ritual. Jason asks, “What does ritual accomplish How do we know its purposes if they are mostly sonic, only occasionally gestural, but almost never verbal? Do they do more than ‘signify and do they in fact transform perception, being in the world” (191). And my response to that call is, yes, of course. Who among us here has not had our perception transformed through some kind of sound – in this case, improvised and incantatory sound discussed at length in Chapter 5. “They play with the conviction that music demarcates a particular kind of space and time, and that coordinated activity through these dimensions brings those attuned to the sound in contact with things we call ‘religious.” So far, the congregation nods its head in agreement.

But then Jason continues, “[yet] one of the most powerful registers of the sacred here is not simply that which is clarified or distinct, but that which is amorphous, spilling beyond all formulations.” And he asks the question, “what established orders of otherness (from the world, or from other states of being) do they bring into existence, even if temporarily.” The ritualists he discusses and others he could have mentioned, “use ritual to rewire the body, against the jazz system, against race, and into the realm of the spirits and healing resonance, the loas, the divine breath.”

            I confess I do not understand the phrase “against the jazz system,” and perhaps that can be explained by our author. In the meantime, though I want to focus on how jazz as ritual has a “resistance to closure” that differentiates it from many conventional religious ritual. Jason summarizes some major findings of ritual theory: “Religious rituals dramatize and commemorate. They reinforce or sometimes suspend the lessons of authority. They discipline the body or deliver it into new states of ecstasy or transformed consciousness. They establish settings and sounds enabling performers to become ‘mediums of the gods’ or to under ‘ceremonial possession’ for a time.”

Here, and in many parts of the book, I’m wondering about “listener-response” analysis. That would be a natural question for me, as a non-musician (I did play the trumpet in high school, but let’s just say the spirits did not rejoice when they heard my rendition of “Gonna Fly Now” [Theme from Rocky]). The book is performance-based. As it should be; much of it is about specific performers, their careers, their intentions, their achievements, their sounds, their connections to religions ranging from conservative Protestantism to Buddhism to Scientology to African traditional religions. Jonathan Z. Smith has written that “ritual is, first and foremost, a mode of paying attention. It is a process of marking interest.” The musician is paying attention; so is the listener. What is the listener doing when she is paying attention? What does the ritual signify?

For me, it historically has signified new envisionings, transformation, release, and healing. Is that a perception that is too closed? Jason writes (footnoting others here) that “ritual manifests significantly in ‘open-ended forms of communal performance’ and change across time.” He continues by noting the “very inscrutability of sound” makes music “not just a form of meaningful action but also helps make such action possible. . . . It becomes ritual, not, then through the regurgitation of regularity but in the focus and clarification of the moment where sound is produced and understood as sacred.” (155).

Once the sound is produced and understood as sacred, then what is the action that is made possible? And is that action on the part of the performer or the listener? OR is the performer/listener binary here producing the very false problem that I am trying to solve? After all, the performer may end, pack up, and go to collect pay that one hopes is more than just enough to pay for a Happy Meal. The Happy Meal gig quotation in this book haunts me. But while the performer may be doing that, the listener may be pondering how and why his crippling pain may have been transformed through musical acupuncture.

I want to ask, also, how much this is through music, and how much through improvised music. “Classical” music once left much room for improvisation, before it became codified into a canon. Certain parts of the jazz canon may be closed off to much in the way of improvisation – what are you going to do with Miles Davis’s “So What” at this point, or with “Giant Steps” apart from using it to practice your higher-level chops?

Perhaps that is why – or one reason why, beyond the author’s own musical predilections and interests/enthusiasms – that this book is largely focused on the more recent, the more avant-garde, and the more obscure. I’m pretty familiar with the history of jazz, and there are extended discussions here of people I’ve never heard of – one of the beauties and treasures of the work. What happens to the ethereal, beautiful, and smoke-in-the-container-like discussions of jazz and religion when applied to more familiar figures and tunes. Can “Body and Soul,” already transformed into a bluegrass classic among other things, be ritual and incantatory, beyond being a universally acknowledged beautiful melody? And where do we understand pop jazz of the Kenny G variety? Is there room for aesthetic differentiation, much as we might make between religions that we implicitly see as good or bad?

Finally, I want to think on this quotation from the text: “Scholarly openness and receptivity do not entail that we adopt the simplistic sympathy of the chronicler but urges us to recognize that we share with our subjects the conditions that drives our inquiry. In other words, to write about religion is possibly to experience something that religious people themselves experience: the absence of language the attempt to restore it.” Jazz invites words to describe and resists words to explain, much as does religion. What is there in the absence of those words is where they meet. And, perhaps, that is where the healing ritual occurs, where the orishas occupy the auras. 

I feel about this book the way Jason might have felt about some of the music and musicians he was writing about. There’s a surplus of brilliance that evades description and cannot be analyzed easily. This book is a crack in everything but that’s how the light gets in. The crack in everything is where the elusive particles collide and briefly produce new elements that are there, and then are not.


esclark said…
That panel was so lovely. Thanks for sharing your response with us Paul.

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