Over in the Gloryland

Sammy Rimington, Frederic John and Keith Minter, performing in a concert of hymns and spirituals at The United Reform Church, Folkestone, Kent (Photo © Peter M Butler, Jazz&Jazz, 2009)

Hymns and Spirituals form a considerable part of the jazz repertoire. It goes back to the times of slavery, especially in the Southern States of the USA, including the Louisiana plantations. Christianity proved a major respite for black slave workers and their families. Sabbath church assemblies not only helped lift them from their drudgery but also provided an opportunity for entire families to relax and fellowship.

“We discovered the history of the slave songs and African rhythms, the spirituals and folk songs, ragtime, the blues, church music and dance music. These were all important contributors to the mix that emerged in the early 20th Century as jazz.” (God, Church and All That Jazz)

This was especially so in Louisiana and New Orleans where the early jazz musicians found inspiration in church music and either adapted hymns and spirituals for their bands or composed their own numbers. Perhaps this is why, for the most part, those early musicians were so smartly attired. The music lifted them above slave status enabling them to forgo slave rags for their glad rags and appear on stage or at their gigs in “the white man’s” attire. And the more popular jazz became, the more they could proudly claim their place in society.

Duke Ellington

Sadly, during the era of UK and European “traditional jazz”, this dress code went by the board. Bands and musicians switched to more easy going, individualist fashions, if they could be called fashions! Duke Ellington would not have been pleased.

But to this day, hymns and spirituals remain a core influence on jazz with numbers such as “Over in the Gloryland”, “The Old Rugged Cross”,  “Down by the Riverside” and “Does Jesus Care” regularly performed at jazz festivals and clubs and sometimes at jazz concerts in churches.

Jazz: A Theology of Different Tones


No wonder, then, that I was especially drawn to an article entitled “Jazz: A Theology of Different Tones”, sent to me by a good friend and jazz fan in Monrovia, LA.

Here are a few extracts from the article:

Wynton Marsalis (Courtesy Fanpix.net)

“Jazz, like other art expressions, offers a theology of differing tones, a language of sophisticated splendour and complexity; a source of varied contemplation. Jazz is music the church should take greater notice of, giving audience and emphasis to its musical-theologians, those that play with great skill, humanity, and inspiration, a gift given to them by the Master of Creativity.”

“So what is it about jazz that is intriguing, particularly from a Christian standpoint? What makes jazz an art form of beauty and

cerebral gymnastics, pointing to the intricate nature of God? These are hard questions to answer. Many have written about the theology, influence, and ideology found within Jazz.”

Thelonious Monk (Courtesy eil.com)

“What’s interesting to note is that many Christians have taken a keen interest inJazz, a once taboo form of music for the church. Even many of the composers, be it Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy, or Wynton Marsalis, have integrated Christian themes within their music.”

“Anabaptist theologian, James McClendon writes, ‘It is jazz with its partner the bluesthat constitutes a distinctly American music, thereby offering American culture (and increasingly, world culture) a fresh art.’ McClendon goes on to summarise the interchange of jazz and worship as, “Participation, improvisation, cooperation, recognition, inclusion.”

“Dutch theologian and historian, Hans Rookmaaker, asks a question concerning the importance of jazz: “Why did we [the church] reject…jazz years ago, without ever bothering to listen and ask ourselves whether it might help rejuvenate Christian music?”

You can read the full article online at: ASSIST News Service (ANS)

Jazz: Sinful or Spiritual?

Next I read in an article entitled: Jazz: Sinful or Spiritual? by David Arivett.

“A careful study of the history of jazz reveals many moments where jazz music has become a very expressive and powerful vehicle that points to a spiritual dimension in life. Whether it’s been jazz funerals in New Orleans, Duke Ellington’s beautiful sacred jazz compositions, or John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”,  jazz music has been created and played for spiritual purposes. In fact, many of its musicians and fans understand both jazz and improvisation to be of a spiritual nature.  Dizzy Gillepsie once shared that…”the church had a deep significance for me musically…I first learned there how music could transport people spiritually”. Many of those considered founding fathers of jazz music from New Orleans, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong were all brought up in church and church music played a very important roll in their musical development. The Negro spirituals also played a most important role in the birth of the music we today call “jazz”.” (http://songsofdavid.com/JazzSinfulOrSpiritual.htm)

“Jazz: A Theology of Different Tones” also quoted The Reverend Alan Kershaw’s poignant statement, …jazz played with feeling and inspiration seems to me more truly an act of worship than singing some of the religious songs I learned back in Sunday School…life is so big and wide and deep that you just have to go beyond what’s superficial, and banal, and what’s phony. Faith rises above the streets, above the slime and the suffering men, to the source of goodness Himself. In this sense, jazz becomes a glorious anthem of praise”.

Jazz in Caistor Church

Caistor Church in Norfolk periodically hosts jazz concerts and is currently announcing:
“Following another successful concert, we hope to bring New Orlean’s Heat back to Caistor in 2014.”

New Orleans Heat (here seen at The Peartree Jazz Club, Welwyn Garden City) are a popular band at jazz weekends at Hemsby, Caistor’s neighbouring village, and have recently released a new CD featuring hymns and spirituals appropriately named “Over in the Gloryland”. (Photo © Peter M Butler, Jazz&Jazz)

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