By John Cody
SINCE its inception, jazz music has skirted controversy. Some have considered it life-affirming music, and the only truly America-born art form; others have denounced it as a threat to all that is decent.
Jazz originated in New Orleans in the waning days of the 19th century; the hub was Storyville, the only legally-sanctioned red-light district in America. The music’s roots are in ragtime, blues, the gospel music and spirituals of the black church and — to a lesser degree — marching bands.
By the early 1920s the new sound had spread north. A Chicago newspaper warned that “moral disaster is coming to hundreds of young American girls.” The report claimed that, over a two-year period, the Illinois Vigilance Association dis-covered that more than 1,000 local girls had ended up pregnant after listening to jazz music. A Stalinist slogan in the Soviet Union proclaimed: “Today he plays jazz; tomorrow he betrays his country.” During the big band era, one expert warned of the “pathological nerve-irritating sex-exciting music of jazz orchestras.” In Nazi Germany, it was labelled “Nigger Jew music.”
All the while, the music soldiered on. Aside from its aesthetic appeal, jazz played a significant social role — most notably in healing racial strife. In an age when black and white rarely mixed, it was impossible to listen to Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman and hundreds of others, and still believe in the inferiority of either race. These were marvellous, original talents, regardless of ethnic origin.
Despite the music’s obvious cultural benefits, respect has been a long time coming. In 1965, the Pulitzer Prize music committee recommended that Duke Ellington be given an award for “the vitality and originality of his total production.” The nomination was vetoed — a contentious decision which caused two committee members to resign their positions. A special Pulitzer was pre-sented posthumously in 1999, on the centennial of Ellington’s birth, along with a formal apology for the earlier slight.
In some quarters, jazz retains a sordid reputation. In a recent interview with Goldmine magazine, composer Carla Bley — who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home — spoke of her family’s reaction to her playing jazz: “When I became a musician, they hated what I wrote and played. It was satanic, according to them — which, of course, jazz always has been to most Christians. But they even disliked the music I wrote that had a heavy gospel influence. The family still objects to me playing jazz. I sent some relatives a bunch of my CDs once — and they admitted that they had no intention of listening to any of it. Needless to say, I don’t have much contact with them.”
Ironically, despite the response of some religious reactionaries, Christian faith has played a significant role in jazz.
Janna Tull Steed: Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography, Crossroad, 1999.
Like many of his peers, Duke Ellington disliked the term ‘jazz,’ preferring the more inclusive ‘freedom of expression’ — and eventually, adopting the phrase ‘beyond category’ to describe any music that moved him. He had numerous hit records, many of which became popular standards: ‘Take the A Train,’ ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing,’ ‘Satin Doll’ and ‘Mood Indigo.’ He also pursued his muse wherever it led, writing stage musicals, scores for films and ballets, music for a Shakespearean production and much more. A prolific composer, he wrote more than 2,000 songs; some 1,500 Ellington CDs have been released worldwide.
Describing himself, with a healthy dose of irony, as a “messenger boy for God,” Ellington felt that his talents were gifts from on high — and that the use of them could only bring joy to his creator. Growing up in Washington, D.C., he attended Baptist and Methodist services every week; denominational differences were a non-issue. He felt that music, like religion, should bring people together; thus, he bemoaned the confrontational stance that too often resulted in “Catholics against Protestants against Jews — and all of them against the Negro.”
Regarding his beliefs, he commented: “You asked me if I’m a religious man . . . I don’t know what a religious man is. I say my prayers like everybody else does. I believe what I’m saying, and I believe I’m helped.” Ellington read the Bible from beginning to end a number of times; and belief in a creator is evident in much of his music.
A good example is ‘Come Sunday,’ from 1943, which includes this lyric: “Lord, dear Lord above / God Almighty, God of love / Please look down and see my people through.” Described as a “seed” by John Sanders — who played trombone with Ellington before becoming a parish priest — the piece “eventually [reached] a rich harvest” in Ellington’s later faith-oriented concerts.
In 1965, the first of Ellington’s ‘Sacred Concerts’ — which he described as “the most important thing I’ve ever done” — was held at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. He was thrilled that he could now express “loudly and openly” what he had said in private for years; the event was well-received, and led to more than 100 concerts of sacred music.
Critic Ralph J. Gleason attended an Ellington show shortly after the first sacred concert, and claimed the change was palpable — noting that he doubted he could “ever hear Ellington play again, in any context, without thinking of it as religious music.”
One of the most important of the sacred concerts, entitled ‘Praise God,’ was held in January 1968 at New York’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine; the final one, ‘The Majesty of God,’ was also presented in New York, at St. Augustine’s Presbyterian Church in December 1973 — seven months before his death.
Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography is part of the ‘Lives & Legacies’ series, which offers concise biographies focusing on the underlying spirituality that permeates the subject’s life and works. The author is a minister with the United Methodist Church.
Louis Armstrong was another great jazz innovator, whose music occasionally con-tained biblical elements. The following albums reflect both his secular and sacred sides.
Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings, Sony, 2000.
More than any other player, Louis Armstrong was responsible for popularizing jazz music. As composer, trumpeter and vocalist, his work was groundbreaking; his venerated position would have been assured if he had never played another note after 1929. By the 1950s, Armstrong was regularly portrayed as a lovable caricature, mugging for the cameras. While his standard of quality remained consistent, his newfound fame as a television and movie personality made it easier for the media to emphasize the more entertaining aspects of his character. On the rare occasions where the music bordered on schmaltz, it was schmaltz of the highest calibre.
His landmark recordings with the Hot Five and Hot Seven groups, between 1925 and 1929, were a blueprint for what was to come; they affected the course of jazz profoundly. Today, three-quarters of a century on, the music remains fresh and exciting. In a four-disc box set, The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings collects all the relevant material — along with detailed track listings, essays and packaging that marks a significant improvement over Sony’s previous single-disc compilations. This album is essential to any jazz collection.
Louis Armstrong: Louis and the Angels / Louis and the Good Book, MCA/Universal (Import) 1998.
Angels and Good Book, recorded in 1957 and 1958 respectively, were packaged together in this British release. The disc offers two dozen biblically-inspired songs. The Angels set takes a romantic angle, focusing on more earthbound celestial beings with tracks like ‘I Married an Angel’ and ‘When Did You Leave Heaven?’ Good Book deals more directly with scripture, offering a more energetic, gospel feel on songs like ‘Shadrach’ and ‘Go Down, Moses.’ As usual, Armstrong is in fine form; but at times, the background vocal chorus is overbearing. A typical example is ‘Ezekiel Saw de Wheel’; it should have employed a group like the Golden Gate Quartet, instead of voices appropriating a ’50s version of an angelic choir.
Finally, as a contemporary footnote to this type of stuff, the following release has a certain novelty appeal:
Swing Praise, Volume Two, BEC, 2000.
Like the majority of material released under the monicker over the past few years, this ain’t ‘swing’ at all; technically speaking, this is jump blues. That gripe aside, it’s not half bad — if a bit forced. The biggest problem is that the lyrics just don’t match the music. It’s not that the subject matter can’t work within the form. That’s hardly the case, as clearly illustrated by Ellington’s sacred concerts; and Armstrong certainly pulled it off, in two full-length LPs of spirituals, and big band era tracks like ‘I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music.’ But on Swing Praise, every song offers exactly the same message: God is good. Can’t disagree with that — and within the confines of the praise mandate, there’s little room for anything else. And yet, that’s exactly what this music needs — a little variety would go a long way to keeping the listener interested.
© John Cody 2001