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For Jazz and Gospel Artists and Audiences, Music Is Their Faith, and Faith Is Their Rock

Black music's spiritual aspect may be a given, but two new books, A City Called Heaven and Spirits Rejoice! go deep into explaining how that actually happens.

Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price: $29.95
Author: Jason C. Bivins
Length: 392 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-05

A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music

Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Price: $29.95
Author: Robert M. Marovich
Length: 488 pages
Format: Trade
Publication date: 2015-04

Black music is an act of faith.

The key word there is “faith”, which you can take in two directions. There’s the spiritually guided direction of the spirituals and gospel, giving communal sustenance to black hopes and dreams from a Biblical underpinning. Then there’s the direction of faith as in “leap of faith”, in daring to create and articulate an artistic vision, rooted in the previous communal music but seeking to express something both broader in scope and more personal in intensity. The former takes “faith” as a given, the latter seeks “faith” as a goal.

Their aims may be different, but their paths converge and influence each other constantly. Gospel music would not have evolved, and wouldn’t even exist, without individual artists needing to hear and express something beyond the church-based music that came before them. There’s the “tortured soul” meme of singers caught between sin and redemption, and fighting it out in song (Marvin Gaye, Al Green, R. Kelly). There’s the ecstatic experience, which people have reported feeling in venues as dissimilar as a packed dance floor throbbing to house music, and a packed arena throbbing to Prince. We might as well throw in ‘70s Jamaican roots reggae, much of which was informed by not just American R&B but also Rastafarianism mysticism of an African-based salvation for black suffering.

The evidence of faith in all its permutations is all over the place in black music – so much so, we take its very presence as a given. But black music’s relationship to a higher power is long and complicated. Two new books, radically different but equally thorough, explore both ends of this ongoing dance.

Robert Marovich’s A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music is, at its beating heart, a labor of love. Marovich is the ultimate outsider-turned-insider: he knew next to nothing about gospel until he was exposed to it through the work of his first wife, a music teacher on Chicago’s West Side. Once hooked, he dove in and never looked back. He became a radio DJ, blogger and writer about gospel’s history, and spent five years researching the singular role Chicago played in the music’s birth and growth.

The biggest takeaway from his profoundly researched work is two-fold: gospel was actually an insurgent music within black churches, and virtually every one of its foundational artists either sang in Chicago or was deeply influenced by someone who did.

As the first wave of the Great Migration brought thousands of black southerners to Chicago in the '20s, it set off a most curious cultural frisson. When those transplanted folks sought a place to worship, they encountered established black churches whose music didn’t reflect them. As opposed to the communal, emotional singing from southern churches, the major churches in Chicago (and elsewhere up north) drew from the repertoire of spirituals, complete with classically-trained singers and accompanists. At the same time, the harshness of life on Chicago's segregated South Side prompted many migrants to seek a music that would negotiate the chasm between their dreams and their realities.

Throughout the ‘20s, that music took shape. The Pace Jubilee Singers combined the old-school spiritual singing with touches of the nascent blues and jazz, and recorded extensively in the years before the Great Depression. The First Church of Deliverance became not only a Spiritual alternative to the mainline denominations (Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian), but also a showcase for the emerging worship sound, both in performance and on its radio broadcasts.

Marovich cites a “gospel nexus” of five titans who set the stage for gospel’s explosion during the ‘30s. Songwriter Thomas Dorsey was transitioning from blues to gospel, but needed a way to get his compositions into the marketplace. Three singers, each of whom would go on to bigger and better accomplishments, helped sell his songs by performing them from gospel conventions to street corners: Theodore Frye, Sallie Martin and, most famously, Mahalia Jackson. Another associate, Magnolia N. Lewis Butts, had both the respect of the old-line spiritual music community and the presence in the developing gospel world.

In the ‘30s, gospel took off across the city. Marovich explores how an informal gospel music industry took shape. Singers, choirs and songs became known and popular through performances at churches across the South Side, as well as gospel concerts held at churches and other venues. Frye and Martin helped Dorsey acquire some business smarts, prompting a new era in gospel song publishing. By the end of the decade, the old-school spiritual singing had become a thing of the past, and yet another wave of gospel innovators was taking shape.

That wave would crest in what is commonly referred to as gospel’s golden age, 1945-60. Chicago performers would refine both quartet singing and the sound of large community choirs. Independent music labels, emerging after World War II, released influential singles by Jackson and others, many of them recorded in Chicago. Jackson herself became gospel’s first crossover superstar – by the dint of her power as a singer, not by setting gospel aside for secular music. A charismatic Chicago teen, Sam Cook, joined the Soul Stirrers, one of gospel’s most important quartets, and electrified gospel audiences before going pop (and adding the “e” to his name). James Cleveland started out as a pianist and songwriter, relocated to Detroit and returned a triumphant choir director, then went on to establish the Gospel Music Workshop of America, one of the music’s most influential networking bodies.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Marovich name-checks seemingly every singer, performer and choir that had a hand in the development of the Chicago gospel scene, and there were a lot of them. Chicago was clearly the center of the gospel universe from the days of Dorsey up until the late ‘60s, but none of the previous gospel histories (not that there have been that many in the first place) laid out the case in such authoritative detail. Although Marovich’s research reads more like a laundry list than a context-driven analysis by the end, that comes from his deep, sincere connection to the local scene and commitment to documenting it to the fullest, so it’s hard to fault him for making sure everyone got their proper due.

That said, the one area where he falls short is explaining the music’s power. Reading A City Called Heaven makes one long for the stories behind the music, the vision and artistry that called the musicians, and the hustle and flow that propelled them. Which came first for these artists, the music or the faith? How did their faith shape the kind of gospel music they created? How close to that higher power did they get when they sang?

Other books about gospel get closer to that, in the words of the artists themselves (most notably, Anthony Helibut’s essential The Gospel Sound and Alan Young’s Woke Me Up This Morning: Black Gospel Singers and the Gospel Life). But as elusive as faith itself can be, so too is a sense of how it manifests itself through gospel music. Marovich’s book is indispensable music knowledge and a welcome statement on Chicago’s cultural legacy, but not quite an exploration of the faith inherent in the music itself.

Ironically, another book tackles the existence of faith in music – specifically a form of music many people don’t associate much with faith at all.

Jason Bivins’ Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion is also a labor of love, but coming from a much different perspective. Bivins happens to be both a jazz guitarist and a professor of religious studies. Not surprisingly, both those disciplines inform his exploration of the many ways jazz has sought the divine.

This journey starts at an obvious place: the shared lineage of jazz and black spiritual music, and musicians who came through that nexus. But it quickly expands beyond the traditional black church to cite Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Scientology, and even self-styled polyglots of cultural faiths as frames jazz musicians have used to shape and inform their work.

That broad thinking is reflected in the dizzying array of recordings and performances Bivins cites. Again, some choices are no-brainers: Charles Mingus’ church-based stompers, Duke Ellington’s series of Sacred Concerts, Mary Lou Williams’ masses. Of couse, there's also the mystic-seeking music of John and Alice Coltrane, and the holy roller-esque abandon of much of the ‘60s avant-garde; the book takes its title from a 1965 Albert Ayler record.

As Bivins probes further, however, we discover musicians who went about their art as a self-contained whole in which to explain and imagine the world, in a manner he parallels to the development of a religious worldview. In this light, we gain a different appreciation for envelope-pushing collectives like the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and Horace Tapscott’s UGMAA, iconoclastic composers from John Carter to Steve Coleman, and the musical cosmologies of Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton.

All along the way, Bivins sprinkles in quotes from the musicians he interviewed over the years, talking about those moments in their playing when they enter another realm beyond the worldly. Much of what he reports and analyzes will make some degree of sense to anyone reasonably familiar with the music, especially the last 40 years along jazz’s cutting edge. For everyone else, he compiled an extensive blog of YouTube clips.

I would be curious to know how those in Marovich’s gospel world would relate to jazz being described as a religious experience, as Bivins lays out in Spirits Rejoice!. I suspect they’d think on it with a sense of recognition – maybe not for the music itself, and maybe not for jazz’s lack of the emphasis gospel places on individual redemption. But the deepest connection between these genres may be that, in the acts of making, performing and hearing the music live, there's little else their devotees can fathom that approaches such transcendence. For the artists and audiences of both worlds, their music is their faith, and their faith is their rock.

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