Part II: Black Spirituals and the Genealogy of Jazz

[Part I]
This resistance to a reduction of white sameness by enslaved blacks took many forms, ranging from physical violence to seeking a new life in free territories to purposely disrupting work routines.  Another area in which resistance manifested was in what we might call the specifically “religious” sphere.  “Slave religion” (Cone’s term), which asserted the dignity of blacks because they too are created in God’s image, not only affirmed freedom from bondage but also freedom in bondage (Cone 1972, 28).  That is, though it is the case that Christian slaves did seek an ultimate, definitive end to their sufferings in the new, re-created world, they also believed in and sang spirituals about a God who was actively involved in history now-in their history (Cone 1972, 32).  As Cone observes, black spirituals were often inspired by biblical passages that emphasized God’s care for and participation in liberating the oppressed.  While they expressed a deep trust in God’s promise to deliver his people, the spirituals also allowed the slaves to cry out in their suffering, asking the same question encountered so often in the Psalms, “How long, O Lord?”  In this willful act of turning to God in prayer, we see not only the manifestation of an eschatological hope on the basis of who God is and what he has done and is doing in history, but we likewise have an acknowledgment of the eschatological tension experienced in the present life where injustice so frequently prevails.  When the day finally came and God liberated the slaves from their bonds, these African American believers experienced what Cone calls an “eschatological freedom grounded in the events of the historical present, affirming that even now God’s future is inconsistent with the realities of slavery” (Cone 1972, 42).  In short, for black slaves, freedom “was a historical reality that had transcendent implications” (Cone 1972, 42).  Thus, given what we have said up to this point, we might summarize one of the central theological themes of black spirituals as the belief that God had not forsaken his people coupled with the conviction that he would one day deliver them from their present unjust human oppressors-a conviction that in no way promoted a passive strategy of non-resistance but encouraged them to speak against the injustices committed against them and to pursue the freedom and dignity that they deserved as human beings.

Not only did black spirituals play a significant role the genealogy of jazz, but the blues as well left its own particular imprint on the face of jazz.  Employing a slightly different analogy, one might say that black spirituals and the blues are in a sense the soul that to varying degrees continues to animate jazz.   In both of these musical styles, we encounter improvisatory elements, syncopated rhythms, call and response patterns, and the use of “blue notes,” that is, flattened third, fifth, and seventh scale tones.  These blue notes imitate musically a wide spectrum of human emotions yet are particularly apt at communicating deep, heartfelt sorrow.  Although, on the one hand, it is accurate to understand jazz as a fusion of European harmonic structures and practices with distinctively African elements such as syncopation, swing, and complex polyrhythmic layerings; nonetheless, on the other hand, jazz, having been in a very real sense birthed into being by black spirituals and nurtured by the blues, retains, reflects and continues to re-tell the Christian narrative of hope in the midst of suffering.   Such hope was regularly exhibited in the lives of jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Charlie Christian, who struggled moment by moment against the hatred of racism.  While both these musicians surpassed many if not all of their white contemporaries in musical talent, they and other black musicians were denied opportunities to play in the major venues, overlooked by the media, and made to stand in the shadows of white performers. Yet, in spite of this unfair and dishonest treatment, jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington (a professing Christian), Charlie Christian and numerous others were able to transcend these injustices by means of their music.

Though admittedly I have provided a mere sketch of the genealogy of jazz, my chief purpose has been to highlight the role played by black spirituals, and hence Christianity, on the historical development of jazz.  Just as the spirituals served as a way not only to tell the black story, but also the black story as understood within the history of redemption, so too jazz retains significant aspects of the Christian narrative, as it continues to communicate the joys, sorrows and hope of both African Americans and all others who are open to being changed by the narrative and the music.

Works Cited

Cone, James H, 1972.  The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation. New York: The Seabury Press.

5 thoughts on “Part II: Black Spirituals and the Genealogy of Jazz”

  1. Cynthia,

    This is a fantastic post! The “improvesatory elements” in jazz stand out to me as an imaginative element which is vital to re-visioning reality. The imagination plays with boundaries and therefore new possibilities. Jazz seems to engage the imagination as well as the emotions. Our readings of Cornelius Castoriadis this past semester emphasized the close connection between the imagination and revolution. Dr. Rosemann is just starting work on a book about trangressions in art, music, literature, poetry, and religion. Spirituals, jazz and the blues seem to be musical transgressions or ways of breaking the bondage of hegemonic constructions of social reality. No wonder it banned in places!

    I understand that a professor at UNT just published a book on philosophy and jazz. Have you heard about the book and do you know the title?

  2. Thanks, John. Do you happen to know when Rosemann’s book will be published and with whom? I can’t wait to get a copy and read it. Also, I had not heard about the book by the UNT prof. If you happen to obtain the title, would you send it my way? Lastly, I plan to add your blog to my blogroll soon.

    Best wishes,

  3. Cynthia,

    Dr. Rosemann mentioned that his publisher (I am not sure whom, but perhaps Broadview) wanted the book finished by September 2009 but he felt that was over ambitious. It will probably be Spring 2010. I will try to find out the name of the UNT professor and the title of his book this week and send it to you.

    Kind Regards,


  4. I have just found this blog and am particularly interested in the book that Mr. Macready mentioned. I’m having trouble finding it online and was wondering if it would be possible for you, Cynthia, to email me the book information (and/or any literature on related jazz/philosophy topics) Thanks, Stino

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