Pause. And Begin Again. Tracy Fessenden on Spirits Rejoice: Jazz and American Religion
Tracy Fessenden delivered this comment at the 2016 AAR meeting in San Antonio on Jason Bivins's work Spirits Rejoice: Jazz and American Religion, The first comment, from Paul Harvey, was previously posted here.
A Pedagogy of the Not-ShockedTracy Fessenden
Jason Bivins’s Spirits Rejoice! is inspiration and solace to me I contemplate what pedagogy and scholarship might look like in the months and years to come, what either might include. Those of us who hoped for a different result on November 8 fall roughly into two groups. Call these groups the shocked and the not-shocked: those for whom the energies that drove and delivered this outcome feel painfully new and strange, incomprehensible, and those for whom they feel painfully familiar. On November 9 educators in Arizona began to work to ensure that our state’s 2000-odd undocumented college students be afforded “arrangements for the continuation of their degree programs” in the event of their promised “arrest, imprisonment, and deportation” under the coming Administration.
How odd that we in the academy who find ourselves shocked by our cruelly implausible president-elect should have imagined we had anything to teach the not-shocked about the workings of power and privilege. I do not know what my students, including the undocumented and others who bear the larger cost of the aggressions this election has normalized, will need or want going forward or how we will deliver. I know what I need now is a pedagogy of the not-shocked.
Jazz may be the sound of surprise, as Whitney Balliett famously said, but jazz is also, profoundly, the sound of not being shocked. American cool as it was defined by black musical artists was more than beatnik affectation, more than Ernest Hemingway’s grace under pressure; it meant dignity, calm, and self-possession in the face of relentless existential threat. To be cool was to act as if one were not under threat, as if the freedom struggle were not so much won in the long game as it was spiritually redundant in the present.
Jason Bivins has made a book of learning from the hard-won cool of the not-shocked. Who among the jazz artists he samples would have been confounded by the results of this election?
Not Louis Armstrong, whose memoirs tell lightly of a childhood so materially precarious that he was supporting his family as a day laborer by the age of five, so emotionally strained and stretched that his baby sister went by the name of Mama. And haunted always by a quotidian racial terror.
Not Lester Young, who, having failed to evade the draft in 1943, copped to a marijuana charge in the hope of being dishonorably discharged from the army and getting back to his horn. Instead he was sent to a fetid Jim Crow stockade in Georgia where he languished for the remainder of the war. He never really regained his psychic equilibrium, but still he continued to blow.
Not Duke Ellington, who played jungle music for the thugs who owned the Cotton Club.
Not Albert Ayler, the jazz and genre-bending saxophonist whose album Spirits Rejoice! provides Bivins’s title, method, and theme. In 1970, after the release of his final album, Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe, Ayers smashed his horn over the television set, went for a walk, and was dredged from the East River a few weeks later.
What about everything in jazz that’s sad, I asked Bivins in an email exchange a few years back, shortly after he’d shared some draft chapters of Spirits Rejoice. What about Billie Holiday, handcuffed for possession on the hospital bed where she died at 44, lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, veins all gone. What about Charlie Parker, dead at 34 of his own long erosions. Is spirits rejoicing really the best description of jazz, and jazz lives, given all that jazz lives with and against?
Bivins offered a partial, oblique answer in a response to a music and religion panel at last year’s AAR. “Billie Holiday is burdened with historical, prophetic identification,” Bivins said then, “through ‘Strange Fruit’ and basically nothing else--as a kind of prophet, singing the limits of the music’s racial habitus, with all the limitations that the word ‘jazz’ carries as its freight. Archie Shepp once said that jazz was ‘a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit, not its degradation. It is a lily in spite of the swamp.’” Still “Holiday is interpreted as a kind of doomed songstress, a ruined prophet who’d been fed dope and over-recorded for meager bucks for decades, and then the light blinked out like Bird’s. But I wonder: who benefits from the embrace of this portrait?”
Who benefits, indeed? If jazz is a religion it bests Catholicism in the density of its martyrs. Jazz martyrs, says Ishmael Reed, “are the ones who immolated themselves with heroin and alcohol, got cut, got shot, beaten up, jailed, tortured, denied accommodations, exploited by record labels, producers, promoters, nightclub owners and copycats,” who died broke “before the age of fifty” from the cumulative abrasions of “unspeakable disrespect, degradations, wounds, illnesses, self-medication.” And “through it all,” Reed insists, “they were the advocates for life for joy for ecstasy even when in mourning.”
Bivins sets up an elegant apparatus for considering jazz in relation to religion. Specific religious traditions including and beyond the overdetermined “black church”--Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Vodun, Bahá’í--afford groundings for musical creativity. Jazz sets religion to time. Jazz makes communities of religio-musical practice. Jazz functions as a form of ritual and a medium of healing. Jazz might facilitate a kind of musical mysticism, make sonic vessels for silence, or nothingness, or the divine. Jazz speaks cosmologies and metaphysics. The sites where jazz and religion intermingle, says Bivins, are thick with “place, sound, aspiration, and feeling, yielding expressions confusing, riotous, lively.”
So here’s another question of overlap: How does jazz go to one’s spiritual formation, make one into someone who manages, somehow, to advocate “for life for joy for ecstasy even when in mourning”? Foucault was interested in the way that philosophy functioned for the ancients as a kind of practice of being, a discipline aimed not just at the gaining of new knowledge but at a transformation of the knowing subject. This care of the soul Foucault called spiritualité. Bivins uses the gerund “spirits rejoicing” as a synonym for the music, but also, he says, as a synonym for “religion” or “spirituality.”
What this suggests is that “spirituality” has everything to do with one’s inner grooves. Consider Bivins’s scholarly praxis as an example of jazz as spiritual formation.
Jazz produces, because jazz requires, both singularity and sociability, virtuosos and communities. What Tom Ferraro says of the streetwise performance ethos that gave rise to Frank Sinatra is true of any jazz session worthy of the name: “sociability produces individuality out of group interaction, not apart from it; individual success provokes quality emulation, not sullen resentment; and the aesthetic pleasures of competitive, individuating display strengthens the body politic, rather than dividing it against itself.”
It’s a nice description of the exuberance, curiosity, and risk-taking of Bivins’s scholarship and (from what I’ve seen) his performance style and the ways these pick up on and deliver one another.
Like our colleagues in English departments, we who teach religious studies are practiced at defending our area of study by saying it promotes something called “critical thinking.” We teach students how not to be taken in by what they read, how not to read religiously. “How curious it is,” Michel Chaouli reflects, “that we dig wide moats--of history, ideology, formal analysis--and erect thick conceptual walls lest we be touched by what, in truth, lures us.” I’m ready to jettison “critical thinking” in favor of something like a “stylistics of existence” as the promise of what we might offer instead. What would it mean to think with our students about how to cultivate inner lives of sensibility, resilience, and verve? What would it mean to foster spirits rejoicing?
Let’s not make the mistake of thinking we have neither right nor cause to do so.
“No one here gets out alive,” poet Michael Robbins reminds us, “is the best case scenario”:
One way poetry helps you to accept perpetual unrest, to arm yourself to confront perplexities, is by reminding you that you’re not alone (a not coincidentally common refrain in popular song). This just in: everyone you love will be extinguished, and so will you. But this can be said of every person in the universe. You’re not special. Men and women have been living and dying for a long time, and some of them have left records. Those records won’t eliminate your fears; they might help you to live with them.
So let’s play some records. Maybe John Hollenbeck and the Claudia Quintet’s 2011 CD, What Is the Beautiful?, which sets the poetry of Kenneth Patchen to music. Patchen’s poem “What is the Beautiful?” provides Bivins with his invitation to the reader near the beginning of Spirits Rejoice. It’s there between the Introduction and Chapter One. “Let me quote a poet by way of transition,” writes Bivins, “and ask you to think and listen with me, here and with each refrain going forward. Let us say together these words of Kenneth Patchen’s as a kind of opening invocation: ‘Pause. And begin again.’”
To let “spirits rejoicing” become interior soundtrack is to let what lures us work on us, to embark on the project of creating inner lives of resilience and style in the company of masters of the game. Where do we start? Pause. And begin again. Bivins repeats the invocation in several places in Spirits Rejoice. I want to fill in a few lines of Patchen’s poem, “What is the Beautiful,” in this late November, 2016.
I believe in the truth.
I believe that the perfect shape of everything
Has been prepared;
And, that we do not fit our own
Is of little consequence.
Man beckons to man on this terrible road.
I believe that we are going into the darkness now;
Hundred of years will pass before the light
Shines over the world of all men...
And I am blinded by its splendor.
And begin again.