Spiritual Jazz: From New Orleans to Coltrane and Beyond

by Marshall Bowden

Spiritual jazz is generally a term that is applied to a sub-genre of jazz music from the 1960s and 1970s, but any jazz musicians have incorporated their spirituality into their performance from the music’s beginnings.

The connection between the spirituality of Africans transported to the United States as slaves and the musical traditions they brought with them is profound and worked its way into blues, gospel, jazz, and eventually R&B and soul.

Jazz sometimes seems to have a particularly large spiritual vocabulary and a tradition that goes back far into the music’s past. Jazz probably inherited much of its spiritual content from the blues and from gospel, which were themselves the result of the combination of Christo-European elements and a variety of religious traditions from Africa by way of the Carribean and Cuba.

Arguments about the purity of jazz always seem somehow to come from off the mark considering the music’s bastardized beginnings. In addition, jazz was originally party music, dance music, and therefore immoral. So jazz managed to extricate itself from the dogmatic underpinnings of religion per se, and that made it in many ways the perfect medium for those searching spiritually and for secular humanism as well.

A deep spiritual element was certainly present in jazz as it emerged from New Orleans. One expression of it was the jazz funeral. Some believe that the tradition of the jazz funeral is the result of two traditions—the marching French brass bands that would play processionals for dignitaries and politicians and the ring dances honoring spirits of ancestors practiced by slaves in Congo Square. In the words of present-day New Orleans jazz musician Dr. Michael White:

“People come to jazz funerals in New Orleans because it’s part of the spiritual celebration. We celebrate and laugh at life. We celebrate and laugh at death. We dance at the occasion. We’re happy because you’re going to a better reward. We’re sad because you’re not here anymore. We’re sad because we’re going to miss you. We’re happy because you’re going to a better place, permanently.”

Or, in the colorful words of Jelly Roll Morton: “Rejoice at the death and cry at the birth: New Orleans sticks close to the scriptures.”

Louis Armstrong, of course, grew up in New Orleans and the spiritual elements of the musical tradition there never left him or his music. Armstrong’s approach to the music and to life was one of inclusion, which is in itself a sign of the seeker. Armstrong had religious convictions, but he preached the gospel of secular humanism, of respect for one’s fellow man and of compassion.

According to an essay Armstrong himself wrote, he was disturbed by the treatment of the Karnofskys, a family of New Orleans Jews who he worked for. They treated him in a humane manner and helped feed and clothe him as well as lending him the money to purchase his first instrument, a cornet. He noted that the family was treated poorly by the Christian society of New Orleans; in fact, they were treated every bit as harshly as African-Americans.

Armstrong always displayed an affinity with Judaism, often wearing a star of David as well as a crucifix. And there is the spiritual element to Armstrong’s 1969 recording of the song “What a Wonderful World.” The song is like a God’s-eye view of the world, one that acknowledges God in each person and sees the potential in every living being. That’s different than the Pollyanna viewpoint many have attributed to the song over the years. The very act of singing the song is, for Armstrong, an affirmation of the existence of God. With his weathered voice betraying the world-weariness of one who has seen the many horrible things that human beings can do to one another, Armstrong chooses instead to affirm the beauty in life.

Duke Ellington’s music also had, from early on, a deep element of the spiritual, of the relationship between God and Ellington and between God and the African-American in particular. Ellington eventually chose, starting in 1965, to express his spiritual and religious feelings directly in his series of concerts of sacred music.

“The message Duke wanted to deliver consisted of his own beliefs about God, which were rooted in Christian doctrine but idiosyncratically selected and interpreted,” writes Rev. Janna Tull Steed in her book Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography. “The medium was his music, often paired with lyrics of his own making, and enhanced by dance and narrative.”

These concerts were performed hundreds of times in the last ten years of Ellington’s life. They were not merely a diversionary project for him; he came to see them as central to his legacy. In addition, Ellington’s sacred music, while sometimes disparaged by jazz listeners and critics, is not just music written to convey a spiritual or religious agenda, it is, first and foremost, good music in itself.

Listening to the four tracks included on the 3CD Highlights from the Duke Ellington Centennial Edition from the sacred concerts, one is struck by the way that the music is so purely Ellington and so deeply rooted in African American musical traditions yet so universal. “Come Sunday” and “A Christmas Surprise,” both hymns from the First Concert of Sacred Music performed on December 26, 1965 are stately and magnificent, and both sound like spirituals as old as the waters of the Mississippi River. Delivered, respectively, by Ester Marrow and Lena Horne, they do not fail to uplift.

Ellington’s piano solo from the same concert, “New World A-Comin’” manages to combine elements of jazz piano such as stride and the piano fantasias of James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith with a blues and gospel underpinning. “Ain’t Nobody Nowhere Nothin’ Without God” from the Third Sacred Concert, performed in Westminster Abbey in 1973 is a straight-ahead swinging, gospel-inflected blues that emphasizes the ecstatic nature of the spiritual life.

In 1965, the same time that Ellington’s sacred music was first being performed, John Coltrane reached what some consider to be the pinnacle of his career with the recording of A Love Supreme, a statement that is every bit as much spiritual as musical. To this day the album is a touchstone, a doorway into both the world of modern jazz and to personal spirituality. For Coltrane that search meant fusing his Christian American roots and upbringing with elements, both musical and spiritual, from Asia and the Indian subcontinent as well as from Africa.

Using the modal jazz pioneered by Miles Davis as a springboard, with few chord changes, echoing the use of drone in Indian music, Coltrane began to incorporate elements of Indian and African music, as well as instruments like the oud and African drums, into his work.

Following this path, Coltrane’s music continually became freer and more like meditation. It could be disconcerting for those who heard the saxophonist live to hear him subject relatively simple thematic material through a variety of rhythmic and harmonic variations for long periods of time, but it really was an attempt to allow both the listener and the musicians to quiet their thoughts by concentrating on the music’s ebb and flow, as those in meditation concentrate on their breaths.

In the few short years that fell between the release of A Love Supreme and the end of Coltrane’s life, he recorded a number of albums with a variety of musicians who were in a similarly searching mode. Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders played on such later Coltrane recordings as Ascension and Meditations, continuing to play music that he described as “cosmic” after Coltrane’s death. Sanders was considered by many to be Coltrane’s heir, but his music is very often less dense and makes more use of space than Trane’s.

His 1969 album Karma delivers a sense of contentedness that is rarely heard in Coltrane’s late music, with the thirty-minute “Creator Has a Master Plan” offering the mantra “The Creator has a master plan/Peace and happiness for every man.” Sanders followed this up with a similar vibe on Jewels of Thought. Though the influence of Coltrane is still apparent in Sanders’ sound and technique, he has developed his own complete style and vocabulary. He has continued to address social and spiritual elements in his music, even though the sound palette he uses is generally more subdued than his earlier work, a fact that has led some in the jazz community to denigrate the later work.

Coltrane’s widow, Alice Coltrane, took on the spiritual quest of her husband as well as the musical interest in Indian and African elements. Her first recordings following John’s death, Journey in Satchidananda and Ptah the El Dauod contain elements of free jazz, Indian music, modal jazz, and make use of unusual elements such as the sitar and table, a variety of percussive elements, and the harp, an instrument rarely heard in jazz.

Ptah the El Dauod, featuring Alice, Sanders, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter, and Ben Riley, is an overlooked jazz classic of the period, easily as interesting and potentially influential as a number of John’s recordings. Alice became so interested in the spiritual aspect of her life that she left the music business to found her own ashram. For many years the only music she created was specifically in the service of her spiritual practice, music designed to serve a function. Only in 2004, did she re-emerge with the recording Translinear Light. Her music still displays the elements of spiritual searching and the influence of her late husband, but like Sanders, the music is cooler and a bit more peaceful than that of her earlier career.

A variety of spiritual practices have been embraced by various jazz musicians over the years. Buddhists have included Harold Land, Charles Lloyd, and Herbie Hancock. Dizzy Gillespie came to embrace the B’hai faith, Muslims include Art Blakey, Billy Higgins, and Ahmad Jamal, Scientology is practiced by Chick Corea and Isaac Hayes. There are a large number of Christian musicians of various denominations.

Interestingly, a large number of jazz musicians have also been Freemasons. While Freemasonry is not a religion nor a religious organization, it is a social, philosophical, educational, and charitable organization, and this represents a pretty good cross-section of what spiritual practice is about. Jazz musicians who were Masons include Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Eubie Blake, Nat “King” Cole, Duke Ellington, William C. Handy, and Lionel Hampton.

But there is a sense that the deeply spiritual music created by jazz musicians of the 1960s and earlier 1970s has disappeared to some extent. While some fusion musicians were certainly seeking to incorporate spiritual elements into their music—John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock come immediately to mind—there is a feeling by many that the music became mired in deliberate shows of technical proficiency and commercialism.

But there is a sense that perhaps some current musicians are again consciously exploring spiritual avenues in their music. John and Alice Coltrane’s son, Ravi Coltrane, creates music with a personal depth that recalls his father’s search. Musicians like Jason Moran and Don Byron have explored the roots of jazz in gospel, blues, and the church again. Byron has also explored Jewish klezmer music, reiterating the tie between Judaism and African-Americans, a tie that musicians Warren Byrd and David Chevan explore with their group, Afro-Semitic Experience. A Love Supreme has been re-examined by Ravi Coltrane, orchestrated by Wynton Marsalis, and performed anew by Branford Marsalis with his quartet.

No matter where jazz music travels in the future, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a time when there will not be jazz musicians who do not express their spiritual journey in musical terms.

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