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The History of Spirituals in Jazz


Church music, at least the way that Western European people think of it, is normally regarded as very solemn and often rather prim.

Gregorian chants sung by monks in the pre-reformation days, gave way to hymns like "Jerusalem", "Abide With Me", and "The Lord's My Shepherd" in the Anglican communion.

Roman Catholics have had a variety of similar hymns such as "Soul of My Saviour" and "Sweet Sacrament Divine", which are also known for their rather restrained performances.
Baptists and Salvation Army brethren have usually put a bit more movement and excitement into their music, and in recent years all denominations have embraced the happy clappy, folky hymns.

In Africa, however, religious music is a celebration of different rhythms and voices, which overlay and cause intense excitement.

During the days of slavery, when Black Africans were cruelly plucked out of their own land and transported to the "New World", a phenomenal new music evolved - a combination of the blues and work songs of an enslaved people, with the church, classical and folk music of so called "civilized" Europeans.

According to the jazz historian, Marshall Stearns, the Catholic state of Louisiana provided an environment which enabled the enslaved African with his natural Vodun religion, with its hierarchy of spirits, to slip easily into the Catholic church with its hierarchy of angels and saints. Indeed, there is sometimes some confusion and superstition found in the religious attitudes of some early Jazz pioneers.

Jelly Roll Morton died with the last rites of the church, yet it is reputed that he still carried some of the Vodun superstitions. Oscar ‘Papa’ Celestin sings of "Marie LaVeau, the Voodoo Queen"

Given the conditions in which the slaves lived, robbed of their heritage, and traditions, it is no surprise that this people soon found a creative outlet through which their sorrows and woes could be expressed. The Blues took shape. Running parallel was the Spiritual - the Afro American's expression of praise to the white mans Deity.

Although this music had its foundations in the Catholic Church, it was not long before other Christian denominations found this music influencing their services. Today when one thinks of Black Gospel music it is usually in the context of southern Baptists or other Protestant denominations.

This new Black music would have first been performed vocally, perhaps accompanied by the banjo and whatever form of drum the slaves were able to make for themselves. The American Civil War was to significantly shape the path of Black American music, as the military discarded many old band instruments. These instruments found their way into the hands of uneducated Black musicians, who strove to produce music, often using unorthodox techniques for clarinets, cornets and trombones, etc.
From around 1880, Black brass bands could be found all over the city of New Orleans, playing for parades, functions and funerals.

A New Orleans funeral would process to the graveyard to the strains of "Just A Closer Walk With Thee", "Flee as A Bird" and other dirges. Returning from the cemetery the band would launch into a swinging beat with "When The Saints Go Marchin' In".

Vocal quartets were also found. Jelly Roll Morton said "In New Orleans one would often wonder where a dead person was located. At any time we had Somebody that was dead, we know we'd had plenty good food that night. Plenty of ham sandwiches, cheese sandwiches with mustard slapped all over the bread. Those days I belonged to a quartet and of course we specialized in spirituals for the purpose of finding somebody that was dead. And we could sing 'em too I'm telling you". Jelly would sing Spirituals like "Steal Away Home to Jesus" and "Nearer my God to Thee"

An example of a gospel quartet can be heard from the 1938 "Spirituals to Swing" Concerts at Carnegie Hall. "Mitchell's Christian Singers" provide a good illustration of how Jelly's quartet may have sounded.
Country Blues singers like Big Bill Broonzy and Brownie McGhee would include gospel songs and spirituals in their repertoire.

Gospel singers like Sr Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson also became popular. Although widely regarded by many in the church as music from the devil's workshop, Jazz, despite its red light district connections, has always lived in close communion with the church.

It was nearly ten years after the first recordings of Jazz, by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, that the first spirituals were recorded. Sam Morgan's Jazz Band from New Orleans committed to wax "Down By The Riverside" and "Over In The Glory Land. " Louis Armstrong made "When The Saints Go Marchin' In" a pop song and the anthem of every jazz band. But it was Willie "Bunk" Johnson - discovered in poverty and with no trumpet and no teeth, who became the first icon of the New Orleans Revival and the most important performer, (along with his clarinetist - George Lewis) of spirituals and hymns. Lewis recorded his famous "Jazz At Vespers" album in 1954.

 

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