I’m told that two different TV series are in development about jazz and prostitution in New Orleans. That kind of combination is irresistible to the entertainment industry. After all, sex sells, and jazz is the obvious soundtrack for the sinful lifestyle. Put the two together and you have the makings of a hit show.
Some will even tell you that jazz is inseparable from transgressions, both moral and legal. According to this account, the music was born in the brothels of New Orleans, came of age in the illegal speakeasies of Chicago in the 1920s, and reached maturity nurtured by organized crime in Harlem, Kansas City, and other corrupt communities in the 1930s. Religious authorities have often given credence to this interpretation, condemning jazz as a gateway to a dissolute life. Many Catholics even saw Pope Pius X’s attack on instruments “that may give reasonable cause for disgust or scandal” as a specific warning against the evils of the saxophone.
I prefer a different view of jazz history—one that emphasizes its origins in spirituals and religious services. This lineage is just as valid as the TV show version, and certainly deserves to be better known. Buddy Bolden, credited (by legend) as the originator of jazz, was a regular churchgoer. According to one friend, “That’s where he got his idea of jazz music.” Louis Armstrong, baptized a Catholic but ecumenical in religious matters, also turned to spirituals for inspiration. He single-handedly transformed “When the Saints Go Marching In” from Christian hymn to the very emblem of the jazz life. The other founding father of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, is famous for inventing the whole mythos of jazz and prostitution, but was also a “very devout Catholic,” according to his longtime companion Anita Gonzales. His burial marker excludes all musical imagery, instead featuring an elaborate rosary with all fifty-nine beads clearly demarcated.
Then we arrive at the greatest jazz composer of them all, Duke Ellington—a man who seemed, to his fans, as secular as they come. He rose to fame as bandleader at Harlem’s Cotton Club, run by gangster Owney Madden, where well-heeled white patrons would go “slumming” and enjoy (in the words of a Harold Arlen song that made its debut at the club):
drums that’ll start thump-thump-thumpin’ in my heart . . .
horns that’ll blow-blow-blow-blow the blues apart . . .
thrills that’ll break the Ten Commandments with a wham!
Ellington himself was not unfamiliar with many of those thrills. He avoided the scourge of hard drugs that left so many other jazz artists incarcerated or dead before their prime, but his extramarital affairs were the stuff of legend. Five musicians in the Ellington band married women who had previously enjoyed flings with their boss. Different mistresses fought over him, even up to his final days. One used to phone me sporadically, anxious to have a friendly ear for her stories about the “real” Duke.
Yet there was another side of Duke Ellington, pious and even prim. “I’d be afraid to sit in a house with people who don’t believe,” he once remarked. “Afraid the house would fall down.” Ellington’s biographer Terry Teachout tells us that the bandleader engaged in “daily Bible study and private prayer in hotel and dressing rooms.” Ellington’s son, Mercer, has noted that his father was “so religious . . . anything that downed religion had to be wrong.” The musician’s sister, Ruth, went so far as to claim that the whole Ellington mystique was based on the “philosophy of life in which he profoundly believed, namely Christianity.”
Ellington’s religious sensibilities took on greater prominence in his music during his later years. At age fifty-eight, he invited gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to record with his band, and Ellington was so delighted with the resulting version of his hymn “Come Sunday,” performed mostly unaccompanied, that he brought Jackson back to the studio the next day to sing it again—not for the record, but just for him. For this follow-up rendition, never released, Duke had the lights turned off in the studio, and required his band to sit quietly in attendance like parishioners in a darkened church.
Jackson herself later noted that no rehearsal was held for this collaboration with the famous bandleader, and when she requested more guidance on one track, he simply advised her: “Just open the Bible and sing.” In his autobiography, Ellington admitted that “this encounter with Mahalia Jackson had a strong influence on me and my sacred music.” Irving Townsend, Ellington’s producer at the session, said, “Duke treated this first performance like a kind of divine revelation.”
This new phase in Ellington’s music reached its peak seven years later when he gave his first “Sacred Concert” at the newly completed Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. It’s hard to exaggerate how much importance Ellington assigned to this event. A surviving film, available on YouTube, captures some of the music and behind-the-scenes activity of the concert. Ellington can be heard declaring that this is “the most important statement I’ve ever made.”
Ellington would go on to present follow-up Sacred Concerts with new music at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York (1968) and at Westminster Abbey (1973). Ellington would die exactly five months after this last performance. He already knew he had cancer in both lungs when he mounted this final testimony to his faith, which was built around the theme of love.
The lyrics of Ellington’s sacred music are so insistent and repetitive that it would be easy to dismiss them as mere formulas. At the start of this final Sacred Concert, Alice Babs sings Ellington’s text, which repeats the word “love” seventeen times in less than two minutes:
My love, my love, my love, my love,
My love of my life,
My love, my love that brings me
love, the love of heaven above.
Oh say, my love, I pray, my love,
we stay my love as we are.
Of all the lovely love I love, love is
the loveliest, my love.
But we would be wise to see this constant reiteration as testimony to Ellington’s unwavering core values. They were so straightforward that, to his mind, no extraneous words were necessary to convey them to an audience. Indeed, the most aptly named song at the Second Sacred Concert was the enigmatic “T.G.T.T.”—which stood simply for “Too Good to Title.”
Of course, Ellington had testified to the power of love in so many of his popular songs over the decades, albeit carnal and romantic love. His signature phrase to his fans was “love you madly”—which he employed the way others might use “best wishes” or “warmest regards.” But the love in the air at these Sacred Concerts was something different, imbued with the spirit of prayer.
“I feel a little bit blessed at being exposed to so much beauty,” he told those gathered at Westminster Abbey that day before sitting down at the piano to play his updating of the “Lord’s Prayer.” But we are the ones who have the longer-lasting blessing in this extraordinary meeting of potent music and deeply held faith. Too bad they don’t make TV shows about that kind of combination.
Ted Gioia is author of several books, most recently How to Listen to Jazz.