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Does God Play Jazz?

I don’t know whether he does, but we had jazz in church this week. My little church at Addlestone is used to hosting concerts in the annual Addlestone Arts Festival, but on Wednesday night we not only hosted a concert, we organised it as well – complete with a pre-gig supper for anyone who also booked that.

One of our church members, Phil Brown, is a jazz trombonist, who leads a band called the Phil Brown Swingtet. Jazz musicians don’t always feel comfortable in church, but we were glad to have Phil and his crew with us. Footage I shot with our Flip Mino can be found below.

I was asked to introduce the band with a short talk. I didn’t want to sermonise (and besides, I’m speaking on Sunday night at the thanksgiving service at the end of the festival – text to follow in the next day or so). That meant doing some research.

Firstly, I found a piece by a Christian jazz musician called David Arivett. He quotes some of the prejudice launched against jazzers. From the Women’s Home Journal of 1921 comes this tirade called ‘Does Jazz Put The Sin In Syncopation?’:

“Jazz originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds. The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has also been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality. That it has a demoralizing effect upon the human brain has been demonstrated by many scientists.”

And – perhaps even more worryingly because it comes from as recently as 2007 on an extreme fundamentalist website:

“Like the blues, boogie-woogie, and ragtime, jazz was born in the unwholesome and sensual environment of sleazy bars, honkytonks, juke joints, and whorehouses. The very name “jazz” refers to immorality.” This website goes on to list just about every negative quote on jazz that has ever been written and their main purpose for posting this is to “provide information to assist preachers in the protection of the churches in this apostate hour”!!!! Are you shocked yet? Read on, “the world’s music, in any era, has never enhanced the Lord’s message. The devil was not able to be as blatant in the jazz era as he is in the rock generation, but the same raunchy fellow is behind both styles. Both mediums represent classic worldliness.”

Worse is the thoughtless criticism that he quotes British Christian jazzer Mike Brett as having received:

“I feel that in many Christian’s minds Jazz is a dirty word, so I think for many years now it is music that has been ignored in the church. I have been taken to task for playing jazz as a Christian, the reason given is because of the unsavory and sinful places it has come from in past years. I have been told to get away from it and ‘Touch not the unclean thing.’ Yet the same people who have told me this might have an interest in things like photography which could be used for much more unsavory and sinful purposes like pornography…”

(Oh, and I cite that as one who enjoys photography.)

Well, yes, I know many jazzers have lived deeply broken lives. I recall the line in Steely Dan‘s song ‘Parker’s Band’ (about hearing Charlie Parker):

We will spend a dizzy weekend, smacked into a trance

However, Arivett develops some thoughts about a spirituality of being fully, physically alive that enables us to see things rather differently from these blinkered comments.

Elsewhere, in a sermon I found by Michael P Brown from Canada, we have an argument from history that effectively the roots of jazz are in the church. He refers to two groups of people that moved continent to the USA. One group willingly did so: they were Gaelic-speaking Scots, who brought with them their Presbyterian tradition of ‘line Psalm singing’. One person would sing a line of a Psalm, and others would respond and improvise.

These Scots, to their shame, were slave owners, and that is where the second people group comes in: Ghanaians, who were forcibly transported from their homeland to be slaves to the Scots in North and South Carolina. When the Scottish slave owners took their Ghanaian slaves to church, the Africans heard this call-and-response-plus-improvisation style of singing. They added their own rhythms. Out of that came spirituals, gospel music and eventually jazz.

So we took jazz back to its church roots on Wednesday night (without the slavery, of course). Ladies and gentlemen, will you please welcome the Phil Brown Swingtet:

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About Dave Faulkner

I'm a British Methodist minister, married with two children. I blog from a moderate evangelical-missional-charismatic perspective, with an interest in the 'missional' approach. My interests include Web 2.0, digital photography, contemporary music and watching football (Tottenham Hotspur) and cricket.

Posted on June 24, 2011, in Music, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I wonder what those fundamentalists would have made of “Jonah-man jazz” which I took part in may years ago as a teenager? Or would that have been ok as it was telling a Bible story?

    Ive had several debates with people who say that a certain style of music is “sinful” or “of the devil”. I don’t know what it is that they believe makes it so. The 8 notes of the scale are the same for saint and sinner and have no moral value; they are sounds. Maybe they meant that it’s the character of the musician/composer which bestows a value on the music played or heard? In which case, Maybe we’d better find another tune for “behold the servant of the Lord”, as Mozrt was a freemason.

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    • Indeed, Gill, and no more choirs singing Schubert’s Sanctus, as he had syphilis. There’s a whole mythology about which types of musicians live dissolute lives, and which don’t. And besides, can (they and) their work not be redeemed when it is used for holy purposes?

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  2. Hi Dave,

    Another Christian jazz artist worth investigating is the Philadelphia-based vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd. She’s released several albums and does a lot of public speaking on the subject of the spiritual roots of jazz music. I first encountered her when I reviewed her debut album for Cross Rhythms, and we’ve been friends ever since. There’s a short documentary about her on Youtube: http://youtu.be/qLRkIgsBF50

    Love the sound of the swingtet, by the way!

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    • Hi George,

      Welcome here – not least because I’ve enjoyed your writing in/on Cross Rhythms over the years. (Which reminds me: I have another pile of CDs to work through for them.)

      Thanks especially for the heads-up on Ruth Naomi Floyd, I’ll check her out. Glad you liked the sound of the swingtet, too. Phil will be encouraged!

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  3. Hi everyone,

    Very interesting post! We have recently started running a jazz service at my church in the West Midlands…
    http://www.jazzchurch.org.uk
    I think God plays jazz all the time 🙂

    Adam

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  4. Jazzz comes from the word jism which means semen…. enough said
    The bible said don’t mix the sacred with the unsacred

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    • The word may indeed have come from that derivation – but the meanings of words are not fixed and static, they change over time. And what about the possibility of redemption?

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