Line Out Music & the City at Night

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Jazz Diaspora: Electrify My Mind With The Lightning Of Your Word

Posted by on Thu, Jan 30, 2014 at 5:01 PM

God, or the idea of god, has been intertwined with music since the beginning of music and the idea of god or gods. Music is for the spirit and for the spirits. I surmise that it has existed as long as the human concept of the divine has existed, if not before. The Greek word psalmos means a twanging with the fingers, a song sung to the playing of the harp or psaltery and these songs were paeans to the gods, to the spirits, for the spirit. Thus, psalms.

It is no coincidence that blues and jazz, with its roots in early African-American church music, are laden with spiritual content and subtext. Anthems, spirituals and jubilees were various terms that are now best known as known as gospel music. The music of the church held sway on the beginnings of blues and jazz and by the early 1920s blues and jazz were, in turn, influencing gospel music. The back and forth of one influencing the other continues to this day. As far as the music goes, the line between the sacred and the secular is a very thin one.

The 1920s blues recording boom allowed for the record companies of the day to cash in on the more pious set as well. If they could sell blues records to dope fiends, boozers, freaks, flappers, and jazzers, they could certainly sell religious records to righteous individuals that looked down their noses at such heathens. Praise the lord! There had been earlier recordings of black spiritual singers such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, The Dinwiddie Colored Quartet or the Norfolk Jubilee Quartette, but these were more staid examples of group singing that lacked the rough excitement of the prime sides of the 1920s preachers and guitar evangelists. Sanctified sermonizers cut records that were just as fervent and smoldering as their secular blues counterparts, and the solo guitar and vocal recordings of the era reveal just as many sublime sides as among those of the major blues legends of the time.

The Holiness or Sanctified churches retained a raw edge in their musical praising of the lord and encouraged individual church members to testify by speaking or singing spontaneously about their faith. This sort of spontaneous testimonial is improvisational by nature and could often become unhinged as the power of their faith moved an individual to increasingly ecstatic heights of worship. This energy, this power of the spirit carries over directly into the blues and into jazz and remains a core element of both forms. As blues guitarist and singer Big Bill Broonzy noted, “The blues was in the Holiness churches, moaning and riffs and that sort of thing between the audience and the preacher.” These riffs and moans function as a call and response in a jazz or blues setting with an ensemble or just a single instrument, say a guitar, and a voice taking the place of a preacher and the congregation.

From Blind Willie Johnson to Albert Ayler, there is a continuum of spirit. The acceptance of the saga of jazz and blues as an art form with inherently spiritual foundations has been a long time coming. From the beginning they have held an ignominious reputation as being in league with the devil, the music of sinners. Now the language of blues and jazz has been subsumed and is reflected in gospel music forms, a reflection of the secular forms it helped to spawn. These days, even St. Peters church in New York city offers a Sunday evening jazz liturgy and their explanation offers an interesting insight into this acceptance, "Jazz is this infectious. It blurs the lines of listener and player, and draws everyone deeper into its contours. Jazz sounds like God because jazz reflects God’s way of blurring lines. It draws people closer to God and to one another. Improvisation captures an always-growing faith. Jazz has many entry points. Entering into the music at any time and in whatever way is a vision for life together in community."

 

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