The origins of spirituals in jazz

I take a quote from the Hampton Collection of Negro Folksongs collected and written by Natalie Curtis Berlin. Natalie wrote, "often in the south, I heard the same strange breathless effect of a song being born among groups simultaneously, descending, as it were, from the air. On a suffocatingly hot July Sunday in Virginia, in a little ramshackle meetinghouse that we had approached over a blinding road nearly a foot deep in dust, a number of Negroes had gathered from an outlying farm, dressed all in their dust stained Sunday best for the never to be omitted sabbath service. This intense and genuine piety with its almost barbaric wealth of emotion could not but touch a visitor from the cold north.

The poverty of the church was in itself a mute appeal for sympathy. A gaudy and somewhat ragged red tablecloth covered the crude puppet on which rested a huge and very battered Bible; it had probably sustained many vigourous thumps during the highflown exhortation of the gilt Spectacled preacher. A crazy lamp, tilted sideways, hung from the middle of the ceiling. Through the broken window shutters (Palace to keep out the diamond clear the morning sun) came slits of light that slanted in syncopated angles over the swarthy people, motes dancing in the beams. No breeze; the sticky heat was motionless; from afar came a faint sound of chickens clucking in the dust.

Service had already begun before we came, and the congregation, silent and devout, sat in rows on rough backless benches. The preacher now exhorted his flock to pray and the people with one movement surged forwards from the benches and down onto their knees, every black head deep bowed in an abandonment of devotion. Then the preacher began in a quavering voice, a long supplication. Here and there came an uncontrollable cough from some kneeling penitents or the sudden squall of restless child; and now and again an ejaculation, warm with entreaty, "Oh Lord!" or a muttered "Amen, Amen" – all against the background of the praying, endless pray.

Minutes passed, long minutes of strange intensity. The mutterings, the ejaculations, grew louder, more dramatic, till suddenly I felt the creative thrill dart through the people like an electric vibration, that same half audible hum arose – emotion was gathering atmospherically as clouds gather – and then, up from the depths of some sinners remorse and imploring came up pitiful little plea, a real negro moan, sobbed in musical cadence. From somewhere in that bowed gathering another voice improvised a response; the plea sounded again, louder this time and more impassioned; then another voice joined in the answer, shaping it into a musical phrase; and so, before our ears, as one might say, from this molten metal of music and new song was smithied out, composed then and there by now one in particular and by everyone in general."

My immediate reaction on reading this passage was what a wonderful description what a brilliant piece of prose. Indeed it is, but for our purposes here, it is an excellent description of how something is improvised by a group. Not intentionally music, but turning into music, metamorphose in from the linguistic to the musical.

So this describes in some ways the evolution of the Negro spiritual. This "musical composition" that emerged, would not have been an intentional intellectually considered event, it was something that suited the time and the place and involved. It had a place in this particular religious service, for the next service in the next would create different compositions or evolutions. One can see how this evolution might occur within a jazz band, but it is less likely to happen in the majority of barn dance or ceilidh bands, and I would argue would never happen within a string quartet.

The spiritual and soul that developed as described above, was not something that was created to achieve some specific goal, has perhaps the composition of a piece of music for a film or television programme. If they had been a musicologist present at the service, they may have written down some statures of the music that was sung, as people like Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote down traditional English songs and tunes that were performed for him in rural areas throughout the UK. This written down snatches of the spiritual may later have been performed, but would they have recreated the atmosphere, the expectancy, the emotional of the event that created it? Almost certainly not.

Perhaps at this point I should make some comment about political correctness. I refer to the music created in this way has Negro spirituals. The PC version is probably black Americans spirituals, but we are talking about historic events the historic development of jazz, and at this time black Americans referred to as Negroes. Used by some it would have been a derogatory term, and taken as such by the recipient of the comment. But to others it was not derogatory, nor intended as such. This reminds me of the sad demise of a show that I enjoyed very much when I was schoolboy, The Black and White Minstrel Show that was televised every week from The London Palladium. The singers and dancers were all white, with blackened faces, white lips, made up to look like gollywogs (for anyone who is not familiar with this, they were black faced dolls that would beloved by many children in those days). The show was taken off the air and eventually closed down because it was considered to be offensive to black people, and I think many people did take offence. Though this is perhaps understandable because of prevailing attitudes of the day, if you look at it as it really was, it wasn't an insult, it was in fact honouring tradition of black American music. The singers weren't useless, hack singers, they were top professionals. It was a quality performance. I currently play in a jazz big band, where one of the singers is the son of the person who used to sing "Old Man River" in the black-and-white minstrel show. The sons sings it is brilliantly as the father did. It is a song about the plight of black Americans the beginning of the 1900s. It is sung with sincerity and emotion. There is absolutely nothing insulting about the song all the way it is sung. So that is my little rant about political correctness, I feel better for it!

So the description that I quoted above, was of a religious service, but in general terms this way of creating music goes beyond the religious service and is part of this form of musicmaking in general. The music created in this way is not something to be listened to by an audience, it is something to be participated in. Although I'm not a jazz musician, this idea of music being something to participate in rather than to be listened to, is something that I've experienced myself when playing string quartets. I can enjoy going to listen to a string quartet concert, but I enjoy much more playing a string quartet, and probably enjoyed most when not playing it as a performance for others, but just to self-indulgence going along with some good wine or beer of an evening.

So there are two quite different ways of regarding music, there's the participatory process, as with the roots of jazz, and there is the separate composition and performance process, as happens with string quartet performance.

Let's now extend this participatory idea to the dancefloor. When I play with my barn dance band, the event from my point of view can be more or less satisfactory and fun depending on the dancers. If the dancers plod through their dances and fail to interact with the band will get emotional or excited about the event, then from my point of view it will be just an okay event. However, if the dancers give something back to the band in their reactions and behaviour, the band reacts to that and give something more to the dancers, so that eventually I dialogue is built up and the music and dancing grow and develop through the evening. When this happens, it's a really good evening for everyone.

Reading about early jazz, the same effect seems to have happened, but to a degree magnified many times, in the dance halls that were for black Americans. I've read reports written at the time that the jazz but was performed in the dance halls of Harlem and Chicago's Southside, were in many ways like the black churches of Alabama, in that all people participated in developing the music, creating a spontaneous rapport between the dances on the floor and the musicians in the orchestra. Improvisation wasn't just to do with the music played by the musicians, it was just as much generated by the dances, the only difference between musicians and dancers being that musicians were blowing trumpets or hitting percussion, whereas the dancers were moving their bodies and thumping the floor with their feet. The hall was an integrated event, where all participated in equal amounts.