Jazz and American Religion
by Jason C. Bivins
Pp.369 with photos and index
© 2015 Oxford University Press
This book explores the relationship between religion or spirituality and its influence, if any, on American jazz musicians. Little has been done in attempts to correlate these two. The book is written by a gentleman with interests in both areas. Jason C. Bivins is a professor of religion at University of North Carolina and an active jazz guitarist. He’s written reviews for various publications including Cadence, so he has good credentials in both areas.
The book is not an easy read. The first chapter discusses the relationship between spirituality and religion and quotes writers and theologians with which the average reader will be only vaguely familiar, if at all. Other chapters are a bit less opaque in that they deal with specifics and mentions jazz artists with which the reader will likely be familiar with some.
There is a preponderance of African-American musicians discussed here. Duke Ellington is mentioned in relationship to his three sacred concerts performed later in his life. And there is Mary Lou Williams’ example of giving up her jazz career, becoming a devout Roman Catholic and composing some masses, which have become famous.
Then there are other religions such as Islam, Sufiism, Rastafarianism, and some Eastern religions that are discussed. There’s a segment on Sun Ra and his Arkestra. In reading about him, it was hard for me to tell whether he was a complete charlatan or completely deluded. In conversation with the author, his tendency was to give him the benefit of the doubt and call him an “authentic American eccentric.” Also, there is mention on the use of music in Scientology but not enough detail is given for the reader to determine how and to what effect it is used.
There is a chapter called Jazz Communitarianism. The author talks about UGMAA, Union of God’s Musicians in Artists Ascension, founded by Horace Tapscott. There were similar organizations in Chicago and St. Louis. These arose in the late ’50s and ’60s and most have gradually diminished or discontinued with the passing decades.
My advice to the average reader: It might be better to leave the first chapter to be read last. Dig in to some specific examples initially and then read the more theoretical chapter about what other scholars have to say about the interrelation of music, religion and spirituality
Some of the religious and spiritual practices are difficult for this reader to understand. However, Rastafarianism would seem to appeal to a certain segment. They have a slave narrative and there is the practice of dancing and drumming all night, along with the use of marijuana.
Here are some excerpts from telephone and e-mail interview with religion professor and jazz guitarist Bivins, which will, I hope, give further insights into this book:
Your musical instrument(s) and performance experience:
Guitar, primarily electric. I’ve played in bands since I was 14 or 15, and by my early 20s I committed to playing jazz and improvised music almost exclusively. I’ve been on over a dozen records, and have toured in the United States. I am still an active performer and player (though mostly locally in North Carolina.
For whom, primarily, was this book intended; your experience, so far, as to the reception you’d hoped and expected?
It was written for a mix of academic and serious non-academic audiences, and for folks coming either with a primary interest in jazz or with a primary interest in religion. I wanted to teach scholars of religion more about jazz, and I also wanted to teach jazz folks a bit more about religion.
How has it, so far, been received by 1.professional academic religion professors; 2. musician colleagues
Very well received so far. Lots of good reviews, nice press coverage (including a full-page review in Downbeat), dozens of invited talks, radio interviews, etc.
Thinking of other instances where a professional has interest in two areas, is it possible that your musical colleagues think of you as a religion professor and the religion professors think of you primarily as a musician?
I think most of my musician pals just think of me as Jason, which I’m glad about. But they all know what I do and we talk about it, because they’re smart and curious folks. Most of my academic colleagues don’t think of me as a musician at all. In fact, I think most of them are probably totally unaware of it. That’s okay with me, although since I mention this in the book that knowledge is now probably a bit more likely.
Assuming that you have been reared in Christian faith and, further, that you currently hold, more or less to those tenets, what non-Christian faith is appealing to you as a musician and why?
I was raised Episcopalian, though not in a strict household. I’m not a member of any particular community right now, though I see plenty of appeal in a lot of traditions. The phrase “music is my religion” still sounds pretty good to me.
It is said that Martin Luther had some of his best theological thoughts while sitting on the toilet. What/where do you find musical or intellectual stimulation?
Mostly in literature, in nature, and to a certain extent in film too.
Do you have plans for any additional books along musical lines?
Not right now, but I’m certainly open to the idea. It might not be on jazz. Or it might just focus on a single musician rather than a bigger analytic study.
You mention the use of music in Scientology. However, in my reading, your book and elsewhere, I never got a strong sense of detail how music was used for this group (cult). Any comment or clarification?
I’m not sure Scientology itself is particularly musical. It’s just that at a certain moment of jazz history, a bunch of musicians (especially Chick Corea) found their principles useful in performance.
Any questions I should have asked, but didn’t?
Maybe “What interview do you regret not landing?” And the answer would be: Anthony Braxton.
One facetious comment from me: I wasn’t familiar with the details/beliefs of Rastafarianism but I can see how this would appeal to a certain element—night-long sessions of drumming and dancing with associated use of marijuana.
And the music’s good too! I recommend The Congos’ Heart of the Congos.
Another comment: My white jazz-fan friends frequently commented about the Ken Burns TV series on jazz—too much sociology. However, to me the series would have been incomplete without the social commentary on the social conditions of the times. Music and sociological conditions are, in my view, inseparable. Also, my associates all had criticism because their favorite performer(s) didn’t get more air-time. My comment, “I can’t wait until I see your version presented!”
I agree with you. If we take the music seriously, we have a responsibility to understand the bigger picture. That’s basically the motivation for my book.
Another comment, although you mention some white musicians who have been attracted to more obscure religious sects, what, in your opinion, was the motivation for such a transition?
Maybe just the allure of being an outsider.