The connection between jazz and a search for something more significant than the human condition is intrinsic to jazz culture. For decades, jazz musicians fought not only racism but snobby critics, some implying jazz music awoke your sexual side rather than a spiritual nature, vilifying its players. Yet, jazz is populated by musicians with a keen sense of spirituality.
Jazz is collaborative music, which immediately makes it a scene of group participation where the connection to others feels amplified. It arose from oppressive situations but was a light in those places. Music offered succor and temporary escape. So from the start, jazz brought warmth and freedom to people in the worst situations. It later brought the same to many people, and its broad appeal meant musicians played in many different settings and thus touched many hearts - and souls. For many, jazz opens up as many spiritual explorations as musical ones.
Attending church would have been part of many early jazz musicians' family lives. Hymns and gospel music would have formed the musical template; for many, worship songs would have been the first music they heard.
Today, maybe the closeness of a late-night gig provides a connection to people, a place, a time, the music, and perhaps something more significant. Perhaps listening to music opens us to spiritual influences when all other responsibilities can be put aside for a while. Maybe music is a vehicle for that. Jazz is collaborative music, which immediately makes it a scene of group participation where connection to others feels amplified.
Many talk of 'something' being present when they play. Musicians speak about the privilege of being in a position where they can give voice to injustices, where their craft can unite people and connect disparate personalities with a sense of oneness with the music. Some musicians have told me they believe in multiverses where we exist in parallel lives, with endless permutations and destinations, depending on our choices.
Many influential jazz musicians were, and are, drawn toward spirituality. It is hard to find many who extol the virtues of one particular faith or church - although there are some - but instead, they explore, through music, a connection to a more significant expansion of a spiritual nature. Some players have adapted intellectual or emotional themes found in sacred texts, and the bond between their music and the spiritual side provides purpose and fulfillment. Others see the music itself as a key – a tool to unlock a part of us usually hidden, even from ourselves in our inner psyche.
Musicians' beliefs form part of their character and how they seem to fit as musicians in art. Many jazz musicians have a connection between evolving as a musician, the discipline of faith, and deepening belief. Did the development of their music take players on paths of spiritual exploration, or did faith inspire and encourage musicians to explore their spiritual side? Either way, many use their talents to express spirituality.
Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, and Yusef Lateef are some jazz musicians whose faith inspired their music. Add Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, Bill Evans, Horace Silver, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, and John MacLaughlin, and it becomes clear that the search for spiritual understanding has been part of the drive for many to excel in their musical achievement.
For some, their journey in music is similar to religious devotion – with the rituals, long hours of practice, dedication, and the desire to serve others and connect. That journey may involve inner debate, revelations, and a realization that their journey so far is the wrong one for them. John Coltrane described a revelation he had when God spoke to him, and he quit drugs and set about writing exquisite music praising God and teaching his followers. On the face of it, this might seem like musicians taking a self-orientated journey, but as they look outwards and can communicate to a broad audience, music becomes their greatest tool in sharing their knowledge.
Music affects the brain in ways that studies have sought to understand. We do not entirely understand it yet, but we know music can alter our moods and state of being. Whether it is a chemical response in our brains or a response from the soul is debated. The fact remains that a driven musician seeking to engage and communicate on a spiritual level has something extra in their playing. Jazz lends itself to this because of the improvisational elements, which allow musicians to express emotional outcries from their souls, which triggers a response from listeners and those on stage. The pull and push effect, which syncopation allows, also enables jazz music to express awe or adoration, and there is no doubt it touches parts of the soul.
Those seeking a spiritual path seem to have an added inner strength, and jazz musicians who have done so have influenced many who follow. And it continues. I have spoken with musicians who talk of their spiritual connections. Some believe their right to create music comes from inner strength, a power greater than themselves. Discussions are fascinating, and I think some of the belief in something greater comes from the fact that when you play or hear great jazz, you often get a sense of being taken to another level. Worries drop away, the place can drop away at times, and you are transported, however briefly, to a place of peace and wonder. I think this is what people want to experience, and the music gives them a sense they have glimpsed something beyond life here. Whatever the reasons, spirituality has influenced jazz and shaped its development.
Duke Ellington's Christian upbringing gave him spiritual awareness and a belief in God. He strived to live as God intended. His beliefs meant he treated others fairly while not pretending he himself was perfect. He created parts that drew attention to each musician's strong points and away from weaker aspects of their playing. His retention of orchestra members for extended periods speaks volumes. Despite challenging times, somehow, with Ellington, there was no malice and even a touch of humor. But he was not unaffected by situations, like when he and his orchestra played The Cotton Club in the late 1920s. The club had black waiters and musicians but only white clientele. Ellington wrote arrangements that used 'jungle,' and 'growling' sounds from his horns and brass - mainly created by using various mutes and adjusting the reeds, but if the clientele expected jungle sounds from black musicians, they got them. If proof were needed, he proved that color had nothing to do with creating sophisticated and fantastic-sounding music.
Ellington was not afraid to confront issues either. He highlighted men's journey from enslaved person to free in his musical story Black, Brown, and Beige, which made the point that even with freedom, Afro-Americans were not seen in the same way as whites.
Ellington believed God had called him and he should bless others. His frequent trips abroad proved effective in promoting jazz. He drew on the culture he saw in India and elsewhere to create music that connected people of the world, and jazz took a different shape from that which originated in America. This served to legitimize Black American Art and show it did not rely on America solely as a backdrop for its development and that jazz was observing other cultures.
Ellington was concerned about civil rights and wrote songs about Martin Luther King, Jr. He believed jazz music could help power the struggle for freedom and racial equality. When he toured with his orchestra and Ellington was jazz ambassador for the USA, they were more warmly welcomed abroad than in the US.
In 1965 when he was 66 years old, Ellington's first 'Sacred Concert' debuted in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. The opening number, In The Beginning, God won a Grammy Award. He had created a work of praise that linked jazz to secular and sacred music. He wrote a second, then a third Sacred Concert - the latter taking much of his final year of life on Earth. These works represented Ellington's deep love and personal offering to God.
John Coltrane devoted much of his later life to creating music that praised God. He studied different religions and philosophies, including the Indian philosophy of Jiddu Krishnamurti, to which Bill Evans introduced him. In the early 1960s, Coltrane underwent a powerful religious experience and heard God's voice. He stopped taking drugs and became deeply religious, and his music took on an increasingly intense and spiritual side. In his suite A Love Supreme (Impulse, 1965), Coltrane expressed his love and awe of God and the final movement centres on a devotional poem written by Coltrane.
Coltrane perhaps expressed his love for God most during his free jazz period. His tracks Love and, The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, on Meditations (Impulse 1965), albums Ascension ( Impulse 1966) Om,( Impulse 1968) and Peace on Earth from Infinity, (recorded 1966, released 1972, Impulse) reflect his belief. Coltrane used the ferocity of his playing and complex techniques as a way of worship. He said he created music for God and others and wanted to be the opposing force to evil. It is slightly ironic then that many jazz appreciators hold Coltrane in almost religious awe. Even those unaware of his driving beliefs find something special, untouchable, and unique in his music.
Coltrane believed Islam was an opposite force to the one which caused deterioration of the mind and reliance on substances. He came to believe in one God and that all are equal. Incidentally, Coltrane, Blakey, Yusef Lateef, and other musicians were part of the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam which forbids the intake of drugs and alcohol.
Without his spiritual awakening, Coltrane may have lost his career. While addicted, he would arrive last minute for gigs unshaven, un-bathed, and in smelly, wrinkled clothes and often fell asleep on stage. Miles Davis fired him, and Dizzy Gillespie complained about his unreliable performances but didn't fire him because of their deep friendship and Gillespie's respect for Coltrane's talent. Maybe it took reaching the nadir before musicians realized it was either they lost everything or got up and worked their way out again. Like many other musicians who reached out for spiritual salvation, Coltrane had the experience of faith when he was young. His grandparents were ordained ministers, his parents met through church, and his home was religious.
Coltrane's first wife, Naima, helped him in his religious quest. She was a practicing Muslim and worked with him to understand the presence of God in their lives - something his substance abuse had masked.
With her support and his belief that a higher source was guiding him, Coltrane kicked his drug habit and alcohol within a year of finding his faith.
However, it was his second wife, Alice, with whom he journeyed furthest. She had studied a variety of beliefs before converting to Hinduism in 1972. He could not have children with Naima, but with Alice, he had sons. Alice's role in her husband's spiritual journey eventually extended to collaborative musical experiences with him. She was a pianist and harpist but also his partner in his spiritual journey. She understood Coltrane's desire to contribute to a greater purpose through music.
After John's death, Alice kept pushing musical boundaries, and her music took on a profoundly spiritual element. She was guided by an Indian guru, Swami Satchidananda, and was intrigued by Indian ragas. Her ability as a harp player allowed her to develop the instrument, including the addition of electronic enhancements, which added surreal and beautiful tones. Pharaoh Sanders accompanied her on several recordings, and his saxophone prowess added weight to the already ethereal music. She collaborated with Ornette Coleman, Sanders, and many others, and her music traverses from blues-infused melodies to unfathomable sonic journeys, but it is beautiful, and her talent won armies of devotees. Coltrane's late music, with its contradictions and unresolved transitions, did not please everyone, and some found it less pure than his earlier recordings, but for many, they remain some of the best work produced by any jazz musician and inspire many players to this day.
Dizzy Gillespie's life was transformed when he converted to the Baha'i Faith in the 1960s after meeting Beth Mckenty. She called him after a gig, shortly after Charlie Parker's death at just 34. She knew Parker and Gillespie had been close and told him Parker could have made different choices. Eventually, after discovering more, Gillespie formally accepted the faith the day after Martin Luther King Jr's assassination in 1968. His conversion gave him a purpose when his career was languishing. He realized he drank out of boredom, and while he was still touring, the venues were small, which was something of a comedown for a man who had been such a founding father of the jazz scene. He came to understand more about his failings but also his strengths. He understood he was part of a lineage that stretched back to Armstrong, King Oliver, and before. He reconnected with himself and his desire to be vital in jazz music again. He taught, encouraged young musicians, and advised others on how to live. Other musicians who became converts to the Baha'i faith include Marvin 'Doc' Holladay of Ellington's band, who remains active in Baha'i today.
Albert Ayler had a distinctive spiritual take on music - not of one religion in particular, but his own ideas. He described Coltrane as the Father, Pharaoh Sanders as the son, and himself as the Holy Ghost, which is a big announcement by anyone's terms. His father, Edward, was a musician, and Albert played alongside him in church, where he first got a sense of spirituality. He said he played to praise God, and his playing was free with expression and a self-revelation that others before had foregone.
Those seeking spiritual music and an outlet for visceral energy would do well to listen to Ayler, who demonstrated music had virtually no limitations. His music connected to a wide field of influences and related very much to the moment and Ayler's feelings. His 'Summertime' is a deconstructed, free version of Gershwin's aria stating that the rose-tinted version of slavery which Gershwin depicted was far from reality. His re-arrangements and disconnected passages resulted in a torrent of musical revelations.
Bill Evans was fascinated with Eastern religions and philosophies, including Islam, Zen, and Buddhism, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago had members who followed a spiritual search at their heart. They played music, performed short plays, and had face painting as part of their presentations. The face paintings were supposed to represent different people of the universe. Their music was not limited to Western instruments but also those from Asia and Africa. Joseph Jarman, a core member, was a follower of Zen Buddhism.
Spirituality also provides an identity and excuses musicians for being different. It gives a sense of pushing toward a higher way of living, away from self-indulgence, and the need for acceptance, becoming unique.
Sometimes, one could look at some religious journeys with a modicum of cynicism. Art Blakey led The Jazz Messengers. He became a Muslim and took the name Abdullah Ibd Buhaina ( Bu to his friends). Nearly all his musicians converted to Islam when they joined the band, which included trumpeter Kenny Dorham and pianist Walter Bishop. In 1947, Blakey traveled to Africa to learn more about his African ancestry and Islam. Many jazz musicians converted to Islam, including Grant Green, Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner, and Jackie McLean, some remaining Muslim for a period while, for others, it was a permanent conversion. As well as finding faith, it proved advantageous because, in the late 1940s, black Muslims were not considered black by some authorities. It offered the musicians, still living with racial prejudice, an identity in a country where they were still not entirely accepted.
The philosophies and practices of the Indian religions have drawn many jazz musicians. Traveling musicians found in it a calming, centering practice. Yoga is believed to heighten physical awareness and alertness to the sensibilities of others, which might help create harmonious atmospheres within bands. This is still practiced today in the form of 'Jazz Yoga,' which can be found in New Orleans and combines the benefits of yoga with playing and hearing jazz music. I know several musicians who practice yoga and find it helps them get over nerves and worries, and one or two say it helps with their music. Then again, I might find the same in groups of poets, plumbers, or zookeepers, but I don't know many of them.
Many seek not one religion but a more encompassing spiritual journey that seeks to serve a higher power and their fellow men. A multi-faith perspective is common, allowing them to connect and understand people. Two weeks before Coltrane's death, he discussed opening a music venue without alcohol as he realized this had masked his creativity. He was a Muslim for a period, but as he neared the end of his life, Coltrane sought an understanding of all religions.
A different form of spiritual jazz is astral jazz. Astral jazz is abstract, and the influences are Eastern but tempered with some distinctive interpretations of the philosophies it is based upon. Also, a search for something outside the human state, it involves imagination and provides a bridge between avant-garde and free jazz. It includes experimental music with mesmerizing harmonics, spacey, warped electronics, and a theatrical element using costumes and art. Often album titles (and stage clothes) depict ancient Egyptian art and fashions.
Astral jazz emerged when the World and jazz music was making stark choices. Social unrest, anti-racism, post-war recovery, and the fracturing of jazz into free form, traditional and modern, created the perfect condition for something new to fill the void, which existed slap bang in the center of music, where spiritual and fusion touch. Rock and roll outcompeted jazz in many countries, and fusion changed how jazz was presented to the young. There were Coleman and other free players for the free, Ellington and big bands for the more traditional, and Davis for the rock fusion fans. Out of the fractured music came astral jazz, which linked them all. The spiritual searching in jazz led to a sense of journeying outwards and exploring the universe, seeking out places none of us could imagine.
Musicians, including Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane, had continued the spiritual journey Coltrane and others had begun. Still more Eastern influence came into the music - harps, bells, gongs, whistles, and vocal chants. This gradually evolved into cosmic or astral jazz.
Sanders is a jazz phenomenon who has played with nearly every contemporary jazz musician of note. He played on Coltrane's later albums, and although he remains a free-playing musician, he also introduced elements from India, Arabia, R&B, Afro-Cuban and Southern gospel. He recorded albums on the Impulse label like Coltrane, and his The Creator Has a Master Plan is perhaps the culmination of his influence by Coltrane on the album Karma. (Impulse 1969) Sanders featured a song Hum Allah Hum Allah Hum Allah, on his 1969 album, Jewels of Thought (also on Impulse!).
Equally experienced but more of a concert player, clarinetist Tony Scott had played with Miles Davis, Benny Green, and Sarah Vaughan. He was an experimental musician like Sanders, and 'Music for Zen Meditation (1964) showed Scott as an exponent of more ethereal music and proved a precursor to astral jazz.
Lonnie Liston Smith took the Fender Rhodes to places it had never been. He featured with Sanders, Coltrane, and Davis on various projects and, in 1973, formed his group, Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes, and recorded Astral Traveling (Flying Dutchman 1973).
These and other musicians began to occupy the corridor between Earth and space, seeking ever more spiritual and outward-looking music. There is one bandleader without whom any discussion about astral jazz would be incomplete: Herman Blount – otherwise known as Sun Ra.
At the very edge of musical exploration and often going where no musician had gone before, Sun Ra (1914 - 1993) produced a vast catalog of releases. Live shows featuring his collective are legendary for their lights, dancers, costumes, and jazz music. If astral jazz as a concept feels vague, a Sun Ra experience will polarise your understanding as he brings together many threads which run through the music. He was known for his long discussions on philosophy, stories, and randomly changing recollections of times and dates when everything happened. Above all, Sun Ra was an entertainer. He created a persona and culture which proved an allure for astral jazz connoisseurs. Many of his musical ideas are sampled across the music industry.
He founded El Saturn records with Alton Abraham and became one of the few black label owners. His music maintained jazz rhythms yet encompassed explorations of the furthest reaches of musical concepts, which stretched both the imagination and belief.
Ra built on the foundations laid by Coltrane and others - delving into the mysterious and philosophical side of jazz music - and extended these to encompass far-reaching conceptual ideas through the power of music.
Sun and Ra are both names for the apparent creator of the universe, and Sun Ra took on the philosopher's role. He was a talented musician and helped establish the synthesizer as a solo instrument in jazz music. He claimed to not only have visited Saturn but to have been born there. His Arkestra comprised over 20 members at times, and many musicians stayed with him for decades, while some passed through the Sun Ra experience on their way elsewhere. Among his Arkestra, Marshall Allen, Knoel Scott, Don Cherry, Pharaoh Sanders, John Ore, and many more could be found at one time or another. Many of them had played with groundbreaking musicians and brought musical ideas to the forefront of avant-garde. There is melody to much of his music, while some is ethereal and 'spacey.' Ra had a mission - to bring peace to Earth.
Like his philosophy, Ra's life seems to have swung between following institutions and creating belief structures of his own. He was interested in Free Masonry and attended a Black Masonic Lodge for a while. He attended college but left after his transportation to Saturn when he was told to leave education and use his music to connect to the world. As with many of Ra's experiences, there is vagueness about when this happened. According to Ra, this was in 1936 in Chicago, but he didn't live in Chicago until the 1940s.
Ra had a philosophy, but it is difficult to say exactly what that philosophy was. His answers to questions were often vague and changeable, with tangential stories attached, adding to his mystique. His music was 'cosmic' and connected messages the universe gave Ra for Earth and Mankind. One thing was clear, and that was his search for peace. He believed people should not go to war or hate each other.
Even with his beliefs being difficult to hone and understand, Sun Ra could discuss profound concepts intensely. His philosophy drew from different belief systems, including the Kabbala (the ancient mystical Jewish interpretation of the bible), Freemasonry, Numerology, Rosicrucianism ( a belief in the spiritual transformation of Mankind), and Ancient Egyptian Mysticism with a touch of Black Nationalism thrown in. His persona affected some musicians - including Marshall Allen, who led his Arkestra after Ra's death. As a conscientious objector, Ra refused to do National Service, which led to him serving time in prison. He was eventually excused because of his cryptorchidism ( non-descent of a testicle), which not only caused him great pain for much of his life but would have seen him excused national service in the first place.
He avoided any particular political or religious doctrine and used the bible with great care because some of its passages had been used to justify slavery. Ra's intellect worked overtime, and he even studied words, seeking hidden meanings in passages from books. His Arkestra members were given cosmic names, and the music they produced is serenely beautiful in places and does, at times, feel as if it touches on a new harmonious order. Perhaps giving the Arkestra cosmic names meant they became part of his fantastic world, and so the music they produced fitted the characters he assigned to them. Like Ellington before, his decent treatment of musicians in his collectives meant many stayed a long time. The Arkestra continued after Ra's death in 1993 and today is under the direction of Marshall Allen.
Sun Ra's recordings are many, but a few are Space Is The Place ( Evidence 1972), Supersonic Jazz ( Saturn 1957), Jazz by Sun Ra Vol 1( El Saturn 1957), Jazz in Silhouette ( Saturn 1959), and God Is More than Love Can Ever Be( El Saturn 1979). Sun Ra's music touches on many musical forms and ideas - hence its classification under jazz, big band, free jazz, or avant-garde.
The Sun Ra Arkestra events are performances in more ways than one, with elaborate costumes, guest artists, dancers, and theatrical drama. They demonstrate very free music, with extended melodies, modal insertions, and polyrhythms, all coming together to create coherent sound. The Arkestra still provides a wealth of experience handed on to members, whether transient or permanent. Current members number around 22 and include Allen, Scott, saxophonist Abshalom Ben, 'cellist Kash Killion, violinist Tyler Mitchell, vocalist Tara Middleton, and trombonist Robert Stringer.
Ra's legacy and influence are felt by many today as he provided the window through which many musicians glimpsed a way of playing without restraint. Jerry Dammers, formerly of The Specials, formed the Spacial AKA Arkestra in 2006 and borrowed many of Ra's concepts. This Arkestra has included saxophonists Jason Yarde, Terry Edwards, and Denys Baptiste, Dammers on keyboards, clarinetist Shabaka Hutchings, trombonist Harry Brown and bassist Ollie Bayley and others. These players create free and surreal music inspired by Dammer's desire to pay tribute to Sun Ra. It combines jazz with funk, hip hop, ska, cosmic blues, and reggae.
Trumpeter Don Cherry had played with Coltrane on The Avant-Garde ( Atlantic 1966) album, but his best-known album, recorded live at the Berlin Festival, is probably Eternal Rhythm (MPS 1968), where Cherry plays free jazz, funk, and world music. His most spiritual works take inspiration from Indian classical music and Africa, South America, and Asia. Cherry took global concepts and melded them into his distinctive style. On Tibet (Sonet, 1981), he used the gamelan. His album Organ Music Society (Caprice 2012) included tracks, North Brazilian Creator Hymn, The Creator Has A Master Plan, and tracks where Cherry chants wordlessly. A player of many parts, Cherry even played on pop records like Dance of The Crackpots with Ian Dury and The Blockheads (Stiff 1980). In his free jazz is a search for meditative revelations.
The influences of Coltrane and Sun Ra are felt long after their deaths, but I believe it was not so much their philosophy that inspired, but perhaps they showed there was a way to play from the heart without constraints. They opened the door to jazz playing, which allows the player's spirit to reveal itself.
It seems natural that music with power and magnitude, yet which can be played so delicately and quietly, almost as a prayer, should have strong connections with religious belief and spirituality. So much about how music affects us cannot be explained, and there is a sense of something more profound. It is that into which some musicians tap. There is irony in that the jazz culture is not necessarily associated with strong beliefs, but so many musicians speak about a desire to share, connect, and make the world a better place. Whether you are directed to do that by just the atmosphere or feel driven by something greater than all of us, it must be a good thing.
Because of its connectivity and how it makes people move, clap and listen, jazz music is now played in many churches. The Rev. Bill Carter is a professional jazz musician who performs with his band, Presbybob, in Pennsylvania. More examples of churches that freely welcome jazz music as part of their worship. Louis Armstrong relied on hymns and gospel music for inspiration, and Wynton Marsalis has called jazz music 'between heaven and earth.' Singers, including Mahalia Jackson, were gospel in their roots, and during the swing era, jazz was welcomed into church as part of the worship score. Most enjoyed its alternative offerings compared to standard hymn tunes, but a few saw it as the devil's work.
During the 1950s, the spiritual side of jazz music seemed to become important for many musicians. George Lewis recorded Jazz At The Vespers. ( Today, churches, including Westminster Presbyterian Church, Ohio, repeat this concept, which advertises jazz vespers with stellar musicians.)
Dave Brubeck wrote The Gates of Justice (Decca 1969), a cantata commissioned in 1968 by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations that combines the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., biblical scripture, and music. It was written to heal the rift between the Jewish and Black communities after Dr. King's death. Brubeck combined jazz and classical music with sacred text to create new music for worship. The titles include Lord, The Heavens Cannot Hold Thee, How Glorious Is They Name, and The Lord Is Good.
The jazz mass combines jazz's spiritual nature with church music's divine nature. For many, religious music can feel remote and disconnected, but a jazz mass brings the secular respectfully right to the heart of the church with a huge impact. The performance of jazz music in a concert setting, particularly with the added acoustics of church architecture, can be potent. Ellington's Sacred concerts were performed in churches, but jazz masses also lend themselves to a concert hall setting.
Many jazz musicians cite Mary Lou Williams as a spiritual jazz composer. In 1963 she released Black Christ of The Andes on her label. The work was inspired by the canonization of St Martin do Porres, a Dominican Order monk who dedicated his life to serving the poor and became the saint of those seeking racial harmony. It combines Latin jazz (do Porres was the son of a formerly enslaved person and a Spanish man) with sacred numbers. Mary Lou Williams took her faith seriously and gave ten percent of her earnings to support thrift stores which she set up in Harlem to help musicians in financial straits. She later composed Music For Peace ( Mary Lou's Mass) which tackled social issues in America. Its structure includes Prologue, Entrance Hymn: The Lord Says, Kyrie, Creed, Offertory Psalm, and Recessional. It is perhaps still her most acclaimed composition. In 1968 she composed a jazz mass to honor Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination. Another of her three masses was commissioned by a papal committee and performed in St Patrick's cathedral in NYC. Williams saw sacred jazz as a divine vocation
Trumpeter and band leader Wynton Marsalis is both a classical and jazz musician, and his Abyssinian Mass transcends genres. Marsalis has produced several works which reflect his faith, and his The Majesty of the Blues (Columbia,1989) centers around a sermon directly aimed at jazz and commercialized music.
Marsalis wrote In This House, On This Morning (Sony, 1994) for his septet, which brought together religious devotion and emotional, evocative jazz music. Yet it is his All Rise, commissioned by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic in 1999, which seems to encapsulate Marsalis' belief. It was commissioned to mark the bi-centenary of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and scheduled to mark the centenary of the Tulsa race massacre (when white residents of green Acre, Tulsa, went on a mindless spree, burning the homes and businesses of black residents). It was played in part at the Hollywood Bowl on September 13th, 2001, just two days after the unspeakable acts of terrorism of 9/11. The effect was dramatic and powerful.
There are many other musicians and composers who have explored the spiritual side of music. Vince Guaraldi (1928 - 1976) is an innovative jazz pianist who combined church chorale arrangements with jazz music. In 1965 he released Jazz Mass (Fantasy Records), and in 1966 Joe Masters recorded Jazz Mass for Columbia. A jazz ensemble was joined by soloists and a choir using the English text of the Roman Catholic Mass. In 1998 Argentinian composer Lalo Schiffrin released Jazz Mass In Concert (Aleph Records). In 2018, classical composer Will Todd recorded his Jazz Missa Brevis with a jazz ensemble, soloists, and the St Martin's Voices (Signum Records).
Pianist Horace Silver (1928 - 2014) played with The Jazz Messengers, Art Farmer, Joe Henderson, and other musicians. His mother died when he was very young, and although he was catholic and enjoyed gospel singing, Silver rebelled and got into trouble. His Aunt Maude became his primary carer. Because the church did not hold all the answers for Silver, he explored several different religions, taking the good from each and forming his own belief system, including studying Yoga and Indian philosophies. His music holds blues, gospel, and Latin elements, and his songs with titles like The Preacher ( Blue Note, 1955) and Peace (Blue Note, 1959) imply his faith. Of peace, he said he felt an angel was beside him when he wrote it. He later ventured into a funkier style and added lyrics to some of the tracks on his United States of Mind releases on Blue Note, which comprised three phases Healing (1970), Total Response (1971), and All (1971), with tracks including titles like Soul Searching. Silver provided vocals on some of the tracks, and the albums were not received well until later when critics understood Silver was trying to fuse spiritual music with other styles. Even after Silver returned to his hard bop style in later releases, he never lost his faith or search for the spiritual path.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk was a player with immense stage presence. He arranged tubes in an array around his head, enabling him to play three or more instruments simultaneously, including a flute, which he played with his nose. On Prepare Thyself to Deal With A Miracle ( Altlantic 1973), Kirk directs the listener toward something higher than the plane we currently travel. It is an attempt to document miracles. Kirk also changed his name from Ronald to Roland and added Rahsaan after being told to in a dream. His religion was based on dreams, and in one, he saw himself playing two instruments at once, so he began to do this in real life, often increasing the number to three or four.
Their faith and spiritual journeys still inspire many jazz musicians. Cyrus Chestnut grew up performing gospel and hearing jazz in Baltimore, where his father played hymns on the piano. He found deep joy in worship music. Chestnut went to the Peabody Preparatory Institute before attending Berklee and obtaining a master's degree. His two-year work with Betty Carter was pivotal to his learning, and in 1994 he released his debut album as a leader, Revelation (Atlantic). He took his gift of music seriously and saw it as an instrument to connect with more people and uplift the human experience. He has worked with Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, and many other jazz luminaries, and always, in his music, there is a sense of a spiritual element.
Pharaoh Sanders, mentioned before for his work with Alice Coltrane and Coleman, proved a deeply spiritual player - and still engages on a scale, not of this world. His 1971 release Thembi (Impulse), is a powerful spiritual journey, as are many of his recordings. Watching Sanders today, there is a drive, a sense of something he is immersed in, which he is sharing with the listener, and he remains one of the most engaging players of all time.
English guitarist John Maclaughlin is a modern jazz musician influenced by Coltrane and other musicians. He has explored spiritual elements, including Hinduism. During the 70s, Maclaughlin explored facets of spirituality with his fusion band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and later with Indian-classical music-based group Shakti.
Sons of Kemet's Black To The Future (Impulse 2021), The Comet is Coming Trust In The Life Force of The Deep Mystery (Impulse 2019). Kamasi Washington's The Epic (Brainfeeder 2019) all have a sense of spiritual development, and there are many tracks on albums by other musicians, including Spiritual on Dwight Trible's Mothership (Gearbox 2019).
The connection between jazz and spirit is natural for some because much of jazz's essence comes from the spiritual side of music - hymns, gospel music, religious songs, and spirituals sung by African-Americans. Many jazz musicians come from a gospel or church background and have faith, and the passionate delivery of jazz music is one way their faith manifests.
So many jazz vocalists, including Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, and Tiffany Nicole Feagin, first found syncopation and expression in gospel choirs. Jazz has been part of many church services because many Christian hymns are transformed when mixed with blues and West African rhythms.
Some believe that jazz, with its allowance for free improvisation, and the broad parameters for expression, brings them closer to God and the spiritual side of our nature. One musician told me he feels drawn toward another place when playing jazz music. There is, he insists, another dimension, and music - especially jazz music- can take us ever closer.
Overwhelmingly the spiritual side of jazz is for the power of good. I have never heard a jazz musician talk about being taken over by something evil or dark. Invariably, the spirit is empathetic, generous, and peaceful. Even in the darkest times of their lives, the music has provided a sense of calm and home.
For many, their journey in music is also a journey of the soul, which gives their music an intense emotion and a need to express their adoration and produce music of the highest quality.
Music creates a response in the brain. Whether that response is pure chemistry or if music somehow taps into a deeper part of the brain is unknown, but there is no doubt that jazz music touches parts of the soul few arts reach. With jazz, the swung beat and syncopated rhythms allow a pulling and pushing effect which can be particularly effective in conveying emotion such as awe or adoration.
From the strange, disjointed belief system of Sun Ra to the devotional praise of God found in Coltrane's music, the spiritual side of music, delivered by masters, engages with many. The music is phenomenal, but the driving force behind it is something more powerful and meaningful still.
For many, music and spirituality are irrevocably intertwined