Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Night Flock—Jazz and Religion

“All praise be to God to Whom all praise is due.” So John Coltrane begins the famous liner notes to his seminal album A Love Supreme. It was his thanksgiving to God for his “spiritual awakening,” which gave him the strength to stop using cold turkey, and begin his remarkable musical-spiritual journey. After his early death, the spiritual devotion of Coltrane would inspire a church in San Francisco devoted to the artist and his music (www.saintjohncoltrane.com). Certainly, a first in jazz history.

The very word “jazz” is thought to originally be derived from a slang term for sexual intercourse. It is strongly associated with night clubs and all manners of night life. Yet throughout its existence, jazz has had a relationship with sacred music, beginning with the early jazz pioneers, who often included hymns like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” in their repertoire.

Frequently, jazz musicians’ first exposure to music came through the church. Lionel Hampton for instance, received his formal musical training from the Fathers of the private Catholic school he attended on scholarship. Hampton eventually converted to Catholicism, and after an inspiring tour of Israel, he wrote The King David Suite, his most ambitious composition.

Hampton was not the only jazz legend to compose works reflective of his religious convictions. Duke Ellington, the urbane ladies man, composed the stirring spiritual “Come Sunday” as part of the Black, Brown, and Beige suite he premiered at Carnegie Hall in January 1943. However, the depth of his religious feeling was not widely recognized until he recorded his 1960’s Sacred Concerts in Grace Cathedral, which he considered his most important work.

1960’s soul jazz gave new impetus to jazz’s interest in the music of the church. Borrowing equally from gospel and r&b, Soul Jazz was an attempt to reconnect jazz with its African-American roots. The result was a nexus between the sacred and the profane.

Some men of the cloth truly personified the soul of jazz, performing and recording as jazz musicians themselves. Father Jack Herrera played with many territory swing bands before finding his calling in the church. He later returned to jazz for an Enterprise LP expressive of his faith. Father Tom Vaughan was more prolific, recording three piano trio albums on RCA in the 1960’s, often with top sidemen, like Elvin Jones and Art Davis. His repertoire mixed jazz and pop standards with more sacred fare.

Throughout it all, one church more than any other has ministered to the spiritual needs of jazz musicians—St. Peter’s on 53rd Street at Lexington Avenue in Manhattan (www.saintpeters.org/jazz/). The late Pastor John Gensel was a jazz fan himself and understood working musicians needed a religious home with flexible hours. His jazz congregation, known as the “Night Flock” finally had a Father who understood the music scene.

Many Jazz musicians continue to work with sacred themes. Wynton Marsalis has composed extended works like In This House, On This Morning and All Rise that are deeply rooted in the church experience. As with any musical endeavor, the deeper the feeling, the more moving a particular recording is apt to be.