A Review of
Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion
In the first chapter of Jason Bivens’s Spirits Rejoice! the author introduces a trumpeter named Lester Bowie, who satirically asked “Is jazz as we know it dead yet?” before charging ahead with a boundary-breaking trumpet solo. He follows this example with one of a saxophonist named Charles Gayle who alternated between live shows in clubs and playing on the streets as a homeless musician and clown, preaching against abortion and homosexuality in all of his shows. Bivens also mentions Anthony Braxton, a saxophonist/composer who merges metaphysics with his music. These three artists provide an introduction to some of the ways jazz transcends its own labels and constraints, especially those of language. It’s important to understand the way music as a medium defies categorizing, as many musicians consider the limits of the term “jazz” to be as limiting and offensive as a racial slur. Any attempt to categorize music or religion using language limits it, and, all too often, the people trying to use music to overcome the limits of music, religion, and culture. Attempting to capture this experience is as daunting a task as trying to write a book about jazz itself, a task Bivens rises to meet through the use of story.
The conventional understanding of jazz and religion, that it started out informed heavily by the African American church and then led to an enlightened secularism, fails to consider the complications Bivens bring to light. Jazz history, religion and spirituality inform and complicate each other, in ways that Bivens makes clear through the use of interviews with and brief glimpses into the lives and works of well-known and lesser known musicians. The second chapter begins with Christian musicians spanning as much diversity as that category allows (such as Albert Ayler and Charles Gale), before exploring Islam, Buddhism, the Bahai, Scientology, Radical Jewish culture, and Rovers. Each of these belief systems aren’t only shared by artists, but the artists themselves also claim the beliefs inform their music, and the process works in reverse as well. There is even variation between the religions, such as the eastern ideas of inter-relationship and meditation acquired by many of the artists mentioned. Religion, like music, is open to improvisation, provided that the traditions embraced in both empower and connect the people practicing them. Through traditions, narrations of American religions, community, ritual, meditation, and metaphysics, musicians challenge modern understandings of history, religion, race, and the limits of language itself. Music is the optimal vehicle for expression and community on the artists’ own terms, since it transcends the limits of language that can often be used to interpret and therefore limit or misconstrue what is being sad. The artists question, satirize, and defy categorization, finding freedom in these acts, which are inseparable from religions that also play a part in and are molded by these interpretations. Each of these musicians believes in the religious aspects of their music, and believe that the music itself is transformative. As I listened to some of the artists while reading, I was inclined to agree.
Bivens’s writing is at its strongest when he is telling the stories of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, The Black Artists Group, and others who created in community while guarding their work from limitations that would silence the creativity and in effect the thriving of all the musicians and composers involved. By noting the limitations of language to capture the fullness of music and religion, these musicians transcended such limits and transformed both religion and music. This narrative is not chronological, since that model wouldn’t fit the sequence of events, but the thematic organization of the interplay between music, religion and American history works to the book’s advantage. Using a framework of traditions, historical narration, community, ritual, meditation, and metaphysics, the narrative of what these artists were doing historically, why that was significant, and how religion and spirituality was interconnected comes alive. I closed the book with a richer understanding of American history and a desire to listen to more of the artists mentioned. After reading this book, it seemed wrong to be ignorant of many of these artists, or at least of their contributions to American history.
While its strengths are in narrative, Spirits Rejoice! is bookended by its weaknesses. Bivens spends much ink in the first and last chapters circling the fact that jazz, religion, and other terms enforced by language, are limited and therefore impossible to satisfactorily define. While I appreciate and understand the sentiment, the point seemed to be better made by the interviews and narratives than by Bivens’s non-explanations. I was exhausted by the end of the first chapter, which I was sure was intended, but the second chapter recalibrated me and encouraged further reading. The interviews and backgrounds of artists Bivens gathered doubled with his experience as a professor of religious studies and a jazz guitarist to provide an illuminating and complex glimpse into American history, religion, and music. If the reader finds herself frustrated with the first chapter, I would encourage skipping to the next chapter and reading a narrative or two. Then, after returning to the first chapter, the reader will be reminded that in categories that defy categorization itself, such as religion and jazz, and even improvisation, the frustration is part of the point. Or better yet, listen to a few of the artists mentioned, then, as Bivens says in Spirits Rejoice! “Pause. And begin again.”