An essay studying the origin and development of the Jazz State of Mind by Kenneth Moore
"The music of my race is something that is going to live, something which posterity will honor in a higher sense than merely that of music of the ballroom.” (Duke Ellington)
SPIRITUALS - THE SPIRIT RITUALS
Is Jazz America's most deep and original form of spiritual expression?
The word “spirit” refers to the mysterious invisible something within human perception that relates to the supernatural or to the soul or to God. Some people are said to be spiritual because they are of “a mind or emotions of a high and delicately refined quality.”
Rituals are the concrete signs, symbols, systems, and procedures, etc. that are often used in the context of formalizing religious beliefs and spiritual ideas, etc. These beliefs and ideas, etc. can be quite abstract and difficult to decipher by the uninitiated or outside of their original culture. Such rituals are are easily denigrated. A ritual's fundamental meaning can be lost when its underlying and overlapping context is no longer understood, but a need arrises for that context, the ritual can be revived.
In the book, THE HEALING WISDOM OF AFRICA, Malidoma Some' describes ritual as "the most ancient way of binding a community together in a close relationship with Spirit...Ritual has always been the way of life of the spiritual person because it is a tool to maintain the delicate balance between body and soul." In summary, Some' said our souls and spirits require ritual to stay whole as much as the body requires food for nourishment.
As a noun the word “spiritual” is often used with regard to “Negro Spirituals,” a style of singing that, uses numerous rhythmical and sonic elements that can be traced to African sources, but more to the indigenous and religious experience of Africans enslaved in the United States and their descendants. Negro Spirituals are, according to an article posted on the Internet, “a result of the interaction of music and religion from Africa with music and religion of European origin. Further, this interaction occurred only in the United States. Africans who converted to Christianity in other parts of the world, even in the Caribbean and Latin America, did not evolve this form.”
It is important to note that the sense of spirituality at the heart of the Negro Spiritual is neither Christian nor European although many of the words and the style of singing have been influenced it. The fundamental influence on the Negro Spiritual, however, was the enslaved Africans who cultivated highly refined collective state of mind among their people. It was the mystical, yet very real common ground that was the source of resistance against what W.E.B. DuBois described as "all the hateful powers of the underworld" when all the “joys of this world” seemed to be lost.
The Negro Spiritual was more a self-inspired reaction. The Negro Spiritual was opposed the European/American culture that tolerated the enslavement of African people. The Negro Spiritual posed challenges to the dominant society and exposed its contradictions within the context of the Christian religion.
“During slavery in the United States,” the Internet article asserted, “there were systematic efforts to de-Africanize the captive Black workforce. Slaves were forbidden from speaking their native languages, and were generally converted to Christianity. Because they were unable to express themselves freely in ways that were spiritually meaningful to them, enslaved Africans often held secret religious services. During these ‘bush meetings,’ worshipers were free to engage in African religious rituals such as spiritual possession, speaking in tongues and shuffling in counterclockwise ring shouts to communal shouts and chants.”
Reading and writing was against the law for enslaved people of African descent before “the peculiar institution” collapsed in America. African languages, religions, drums, musical instruments and all forms of ritual were forbidden too, but the essences of all these things were kept alive and cultivated in their underground slave societies over many generations. In time, they learned some elements of English vocabulary and codified certain words for use in their resistance. In a society that not only prided itself in its own cultural achievements, but also where the people were often filled with high levels of cultural prejudice, the Africans were able to use those code words in songs they sang in public.
A MYSTERIOUS STATE OF MIND
“Deep unspeakable suffering may well be called a baptism, a regeneration, the initiation into a new state.” (Ira Gershwin)
Is Jazz the process of being initiated into a new state of mind? The deep sense of melancholy that embodied field hollers and their rhythmic, “repetitive call-and-response patterns” were among the most vital of the spiritual elements that formed what Duke Ellington called the Jazz state of mind.
Duke Ellington said Jazz is a state of mind; suggesting that the music springs not from the field of entertainment, but rather from something more significant: a spiritual entity. This mysterious entity can’t be contained by many of the words that are often used to define “Jazz” as a mere style of making music. Any serious discussion of this entity, however, must begin with a definition of the word “Jazz.” In THE MUSIC OF BLACK AMERICANS, Eileen Southern says the word "Jazz" undoubtedly circulated orally for some time before anyone found a need to see it in print. "Some historians trace its origin back to about 1912, when the press began referring to the white dance bands that flourished in the larger cities as “Jazz Bands.”
An article on the Internet about Jazz hones in closer to Jazz’s spiritual root, reminding readers that Jazz can be traced back to a style of music that reached its peak between 1897 and 1918: Ragtime. Jazz is defined in the article as a "form of art music which originated in the United States through the confrontation of Blacks with European music” suggesting that Jazz is the spoils of a war that pits a people (African Americans), not against another people (Whites or European or European Americans), but rather against their music and that the spoils of this conflict is the embodiment of African American people by Jazz.
So Ellington’s mysterious entity begins to take shape.
In 1913, less than half a century after the collapse of the institution of slavery in America and the spiritual music of the enslaved people being described as the "curious and bizarrely spontaneous expression of a primitive people," Scott Joplin, the man known as the Father of Ragtime, observed: "There has been ragtime music in America ever since the Negro race has been here, but the White People took no notice of it until about twenty years ago.” In explaining further, Joplin left clues about a vital element of his enslaved ancestor’s spiritual common ground: Rhythm: “Ragtime rhythm is a syncopation original with the colored people," he said, an assertion collaborated by a Ragtime historian who said "syncopation was always a prominent feature of African-American music" and that, while European music explored counterpoint and complex harmonies, the music of African Americans was based on the complex rhythms mastered by their Africa ancestors.
Indeed, rhythm was joined by a deep sense of melancholy as vital elements in the formation of the spiritual common ground that sustained an enslaved people for many generations. That spiritual common ground exists today as a state of mind and in listening to the the spiritual strain of the music called Jazz, listeners around the world are often initiated into it.
An essay studying the origin and development of the Jazz State of Mind by Kenneth Moore
RITUAL OF IMAGINATION
"All classes of people under social pressure are permeated with a common experience; they are emotionally welded as others cannot be. With them, even ordinary living has epic depth and lyric intensity, and this, their material handicap, is their spiritual advantage." ( Alain Locke)
Think of men, women and children, most of them "endowed with a rich tropical imagination and a keen, delicate appreciation of Nature” as described by W.E.B. DuBois in THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK. Now think of them having lived rather peacefully and of them suddenly attacked, overwhelmed, captured and robbed of everything of material value. Think of them being branded like livestock and sold like merchandise, then chained down, packed up and transported over a great ocean where they, and their offspring too, were to be enslaved forever.
Think, if you can, of those people being bound, not just with chains, but also with the pressing fear that, perhaps, “all the hateful powers of the Underworld had rose up against them” as they were thrown to the abyss of an inexplicable nightmare with nothing to protect them from the impact but imagination wrapped in a "keen, delicate appreciation of Nature." In the end, for most, there was no protection, only slavery.
In every generation, however, a few survived with their imaginations in tact and that imagination has survived even until today in the music of their descendants. The music can't escape the haunting echo of that past, yet a sound that is strangely enchanting and hopeful. That echo, that sound, is something of a collective imagination, the spiritual essence of the music many people call Jazz. It is the mysterious “something more than the American idiom" Duke Ellington declared is in the music of his people.
To listening to this music is to participate in a ceremony. It is a ritual that some listeners understand and some don't, but it is nevertheless the essence of the music.
Imagination is the key. Imagination unlocks the door to understanding the essence of rituals of every kind. In order to enslave people it is necessary to capture them, to hold them and then, to dispirit them by damaging or destroy their rituals. Many millions of African people were captured and held against their will, but some of them could not be totally enslaved because they were involved in the resurrection and reforming of their ancient rituals. They worked against the wishes of their captors. They did this, not through lofty words, for they were forbidden to speak openly, but rather through the things they did, mainly in secret, at night, deep in the forests and elsewhere and the things they did fired their imaginations.
In the fire of imagination, they welded symbols and individual feelings and other things into a “common experience:” a cultural common ground, a revolutionary spiritual entity that is, today, the Jazz State of Mind that is its ritual.
The Jazz State of Mind, the ritual of imagination, is beyond comprehension for some listeners and of some Jazz commentators, historians, musicologists and others, but it exist nonetheless.