Monday, November 26, 2007

Fundamental Blues

Last night I spent five hours in church, and I doubt Old Scratch took any satisfaction from the fact that jazz was being played nearly the entire time. After regular jazz vespers, the Jazz Foundation of America had a moving tribute to their co-founder Herb Storfer and Chairman Dr. Leo Corbie, with beautiful music from Dr. Billy Taylor, Bertha Hope, Jimmy Owens, and others.

Coincidentally, I have been following some pitched internet skirmishes in recent weeks regarding Bob Jones University’s ban on jazz. (It seems like fun in general is banned at BJU, but this debate only focused on jazz.) While I’m sympathetic to the general cause of jazz there, I doubt intruding into their debate as an outsider would have been helpful, but it led to some thoughts here.

Regardless of what you think of the institution and its troubling past policies, it does have a certain reputation (to put it mildly), that will likely make employment particularly difficult for its music majors. Classical symphony positions are extremely scarce, difficult even for graduates of elite Northeast conservatories to attain. If they had some instruction in jazz, BJU grads would actually have a better foundation for real-world musical employment, like backing up singers, pit orchestras, studio work, and maybe even their own gigs. They could also network within rehearsal big bands. Jazz instruction might not make you rich (usually far from it), but it does give graduates more employment opportunities within music that really are not available to the solely conservatory trained.

Much was made in the debate of jazz’s red-light district roots, which is a historic fact. However, it is not like Jelly Roll Morton voluntarily decided of all the places in the world to play, he would choose a bordello. Early twentieth century African-American musicians in New Orleans had to take their opportunities where they could find them, even in Storyville. Such arguments do a particular disservice to the New Orleans jazz pioneers, who were almost entirely devout, God-fearing individuals. Hymns like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” were in the standard repertoire of every traditional New Orleans musician, and nothing symbolizes the birthplace of jazz more than the stately jazz funeral, culminating with “The Saints.”

I am not an Evangelical Christian (more of a Lutheran with Catholic inclinations), but I think they are often misrepresented by the media. Pointing out this debate will only confirm some of those prejudices, but the BJU policy on jazz does not help anyone. Should they ever reverse policy though, it is hard to think who would be a good fit for the jazz chair. (New York hipster joins Evangelical faculty—could be the basis of a good sitcom.) Still, I’m always in favor of more employment for jazz artists.

Evidently, BJU agrees with Oprah and Letterman on one thing—unfortunately that would be their low regard for jazz. The jazz partisans are probably right that this policy costs BJU potential Christian music students. In truth, it is America’s churches that are proving to be one of the few growing markets for the music. St. Peter’s may have been the first church to regularly feature jazz in a worship service, but it is no longer alone. Years ago, Ellington and Brubeck proved that jazz can make a powerful statement of praise. Currently, many younger jazz artists are following in that tradition. For now, BJU students are just missing out on something good.