Historian David W. Stowe’s most recent article, “Both American and Global: Jazz and World Religions in the United States,” offers a quick overview of one of America’s most enduring styles of music, then neatly connects this uniquely American music to religious belief and experience. By the end of the piece, one is left viewing jazz as a music which compliments embodied religious practice. Moreover, it becomes clear that for many musicians, jazz became its own religion.
Stowe begins by considering the “Saturday night ⁄ Sunday morning dichotomy” which defined early jazz musicians’ dualistic lives, and goes on to consider how jazz performance (once considered secular) also signified something deeply sacred. After noting the place jazz occupies as counter-hegemonic, Stowe considers the influence of West-African rhythms “that engendered possession states and summoned or communicated to specific deities.” He argues that this tradition influenced American Pentecostalism and a number of canonical jazz composers, who found ways to connect ethnic heritage and jazz to religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, the Ahmadiyya Movement, Baha’i, Egyptology, theosophy, numerology, Kabbalistic mysticism, Buddhism, and Vedanta Hinduism. For Stowe, the Immigration Law of 1965 and Vatican II served to encourage musical and cultural diversity within the context of religious practice. In the end, the combination of jazz and American religion models the complexities and paradoxes of American culture.
That jazz is connected to Pentecostalism warrants other investigations. Are there parallels between jazz “scat singing,” (vocal improvisation) and the pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues? The next progression of Stowe’s analysis concerns how African-American inspired music—such as rock ‘n’ roll—has influenced non-African-American churches. His forthcoming project on Christian rock and the Jesus Movement will undoubtedly connect the dots, bridging a uniquely American style of music and the ever-changing landscape of American evangelical Christianity. Read the full article here.
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