- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) - Many listeners of jazz speak of their first encounter with the music in terms of a conversion experience. One hears stories, from listeners and musicians, of a particular recording or performance that drew them into the music, and transformed their way of listening.

Jason C. Bivins writes of that kind of experience in the acknowledgements section of his new book “Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion” (Oxford University Press, $29.95). He first “started to fall for jazz via those Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk records,” Mr. Bivins writes. Later, as a student at Oberlin College, he “plunged into the deep end of the pool” when a friend played him a recording by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Mr. Bivins was “transfixed, smitten, in love with the sound of John McLaughlin’s guitar and with the incredible, impossible lines he played in rhythms I’d never heard.”

That experience, Mr. Bivins said in a phone interview, “opened me up to a different way of thinking about art and relating to people. … It was totally a conversion experience.”

Mr. Bivins is a guitarist and a professor of religious studies at N.C. State University. His previous books are “Religion of Fear” and “The Fracture of Good Order: Christian Antiliberalism and the Challenge to American Politics.” Mr. Bivins said he is a self-taught jazz guitarist who has been lucky to be at schools where there were lots of music students.

As a scholar, he decided to turn from politics and religion to the vital connection between jazz and American religion. “I always thought that someone would scoop me on this book,” Mr. Bivins said. There are books on the religious and spiritual connections of composers like Duke Ellington and Sun Ra, as well as books about early 20th century jazz and the African-American church, but Mr. Bivins thought there needed to be a comparative study about the music and its relationship to ritual and community, he said. What happens, he asked himself, when we think of music not just as an accompaniment to religious settings, but as something that shapes culture?

“The more I looked, it really came up organically through my experience as a fan and as someone who writes record reviews” that jazz was grounded in the religious and the spiritual, he said. “Could the very abstraction of the music, its elusiveness in terms both commercial and aesthetic, be conducive to the sorts of self-realization, collective purpose, or sense of being-in-the-world linked with religions?” he writes in his book.

Mr. Bivins focuses on the last 50 or so years of American jazz. He has a discussion of Ellington’s love of the Bible as expressed in his suite “Black, Brown & Beige” and his “Sacred Concerts.” Mr. Bivins also discusses pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams (who taught at Duke University during her last years), who underwent a conversion to Catholicism in 1957, several years after a spiritual crisis in which she found herself unable to play during a date in Paris. Williams went on to write “Mary Lou’s Mass,” ”Black Christ of the Andes” and other works that were her expressions of faith through musical composition.

Mr. Bivins‘ study reaches well beyond Christianity, or any doctrine. John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and George Russell all looked to music, the very creation of sound, as an expression of the spiritual. Of Coltrane (who posthumously inspired a church in San Francisco), Mr. Bivins writes: “His comportment and music grew steadily to reflect the conviction that in serving the creative urge one gave thanks to God.”

Musicians’ quest for artistic freedom (outside of the demands of commerce and entertainment) led to formation of groups like Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, St. Louis’ Black Artists’ Group, and Los Angeles’ Underground Musicians Association. In all of these organizations, art, political self-determination and spirituality were inseparable, Mr. Bivins writes.

In writing the book, Mr. Bivins used published and archival sources, as well as interviews. He began contacting musicians in earnest about 2009, and a good 70 percent were glad to participate in interviews. Through his own musicianship “I think there was some trust I was able to convey to the musicians,” Mr. Bivins said.

He wanted “Spirits Rejoice!” ”to be about music in a large sense. I want this to be an opportunity for more people to become acquainted with more music that is beautiful. I think the music deserves more than it gets, and this is my small contribution.”


Information from: The Herald-Sun, https://www.herald-sun.com

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