Jazz: Sinful Or Spiritual?

"Tain't no sin to step out of your skin and dance around in your bones"

In an article published in the Women’s Home Journal in 1921 entitled, “Does Jazz Put The Sin In Syncopation?” the following words are found: “Jazz originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds. The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has also been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality. That it has a demoralizing effect upon the human brain has been demonstrated by many scientists.” Sounds incredulous doesn’t it? But back in 1921 there was an outcry from many segments of society, coming from both religious leaders and music educators, that jazz music had an evil influence on its listeners! Some felt that it led to immoral dancing and promiscuity while others went so far to say that jazz could cause permanent damage to the brain cells of those who played or listened to it!

Fast forward in time to 2007, where an extreme religious fundamentalist website contains the following words: “Like the blues, boogie-woogie, and ragtime, jazz was born in the unwholesome and sensual environment of sleazy bars, honkytonks, juke joints, and whorehouses. The very name "jazz" refers to immorality.” This website goes on to list just about every negative quote on jazz that has ever been written and their main purpose for posting this is to “provide information to assist preachers in the protection of the churches in this apostate hour”!!!! Are you shocked yet? Read on, “the world's music, in any era, has never enhanced the Lord's message. The devil was not able to be as blatant in the jazz era as he is in the rock generation, but the same raunchy fellow is behind both styles. Both mediums represent classic worldliness.”

Here are several questions that I will attempt to answer in this article. Is listening to secular jazz a sin? Is it wrong to play jazz in church? Even further, must I only listen to what has been labeled “Christian” music to please God? Do I have to be doing something religious to be truly glorifying God? Must all the music I play have a religious or evangelistic theme? These questions have been raised by many Christian jazz musicians who are sincerely seeking answers. All these questions usually stem from a Christian’s desire to do the right thing and please the Lord.

Many people often associate jazz exclusively with the secular, the carnal, and that which is sinful. Why? One reason is because jazz
has been widely used and found to be effective in environments where “booze, broads, and drugs” are used. And it is a well documented fact that many great jazz musicians from the past have had a history of drug abuse and an immoral lifestyle. In addition, in our present culture, almost every movie that contains a romantic or sexual encounter has to have a breathy saxophone playing in the background. Many jazz artists have chosen to think “way outside the box” not only musically but in their entire outlook on life in general. Yet to say that jazzers have been typecast would be a huge understatement! Both jazz music and jazz musicians have been associated with a sin and a sinful lifestyle in our culture. Louis Armstrong once said, “What we play is life.” But in fact, when jazz musicians speak of jazz as a “way of life” or lifestyle, they are primarily pointing to the severe and unrelenting demands the music places upon its artists, including the fact that one must totally immerse oneself in the jazz vocabulary - not that a jazz musician’s way of life must be that of a sinner, womanizer, or drug addict!

A careful study of the history of jazz reveals many moments where jazz music has become a very expressive and powerful vehicle that points to a spiritual dimension in life. Whether it’s been jazz funerals in New Orleans, Duke Ellington’s beautiful sacred jazz compositions, or John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”,  jazz music has been created and played for spiritual purposes. In fact, many of its musicians and fans understand both jazz and improvisation to be of a spiritual nature.  Dizzy Gillepsie once shared that...”the church had a deep significance for me musically…I first learned there how music could transport people spiritually”. Many of those considered founding fathers of jazz music from New Orleans, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong were all brought up in church and church music played a very important roll in their musical development. The Negro spirituals also played a most important role in the birth of the music we today call “jazz”.

The Reverend Alan Kershaw poignantly states, “ …jazz played with a feeling and inspiration seems to me more truly an act of worship than singing some of the religious songs I learned back in Sunday School…life is so big and wide and deep that you just have to go beyond what’s superficial, and banal, and what’s phony. Faith rises above the streets, above the slime and the suffering men, to the source of goodness Himself. In this sense, jazz becomes a glorious anthem of praise”. As jazz music is played and improvisation takes place both the audience and the performers can get caught up into a higher place. Entering into another world of euphoric awareness and deep sensitivity, they can experience a deep sense of reverence for life and all living things – they become “jazzed”! But is Jazz music really spiritual? Can music that swings, that makes you want to get up and groove be truly spiritual? Can a Christian be jazzed? To answer this we must proceed by looking back into Church History and the Bible.

Over much of the course of history the church has frowned upon dancing as pagan, fleshly, and unspiritual. As early as the fourth century John Chrysotom, the archbishop of Constantinople proclaimed, “For where there is a dance, there also is the Devil”. Even up to the present day many religious leaders have spoken out on the fleshy dangers and frenzy that dancing to jazz or rock music can bring to those who yield themselves to its carnal beats. But this thinking was not always the case. The Hebrew people were a dancing people. They celebrated life and had discovered the joy and ecstatic pleasure that music and dancing could provide them. In fact, the most prominent musician in the Bible was King David, and as everyone knows David “got down and boogied” before the Lord – and even danced almost stark naked in the streets in front of everyone to the glory of God! If you take time to read the book of Psalms you will discover that King David and the Hebrew people grooved!! Yet many Christian people believe and have taught that dancing and certain beats are evil and at all costs to be avoided!

How about the music of J.S. Bach? Is the music that Bach wrote spiritual? After all he is considered one of the main musical influences upon the Hymns that churches sing every Sunday. Many well respected music scholars have pointed out the many dancing elements contained within Bach’s music- even in many of Bach’s cantatas that were written specifically to be performed in church, to the glory of God! This could also be said of many of the religious works by Handel, Mendelssohn, and others. And almost no one would deny the spiritual elements and extravagant passion inherent in Bach’s music. (And the cat could improvise and even throw in an occasional Major 7 chord!)

The French composer Debussy once said, (when speaking about listening to music), “pleasure is the only law”. If God is the giver of the gift of music don’t you think that He would want us to enjoy and find deep pleasure when listening to music? “In Thy presence is fullness of joy; at Thy right hand are pleasures forevermore” – these words were written by the psalmist David! In addition, even a casual look at God’s creation reveals a playfulness and sense of humor. How many times have you delighted in watching puppies or other animals at play? How many times as a child have you totally lost track of all time, experiencing deep pleasure as you played with your friends?  Robert Capon even pictures God, when creating the heavens and earth, as a child in a bathtub, “blowing the bubbles of creation!” It is more than obvious that God is playful, loves to design things for its own sake, and delights in His work. Why shouldn’t we? Therefore music can have a playful or even non-sensical vibe without being sinful. All music that Christians create doesn’t have to be serious, evangelistic, make a point, or tell a story. It is simply to be enjoyed!

Unfortunately, much of the Christian life has been portrayed as an endless project of self-denial to the exclusion of all pleasure and personal enjoyment. God is viewed as a “cosmic kill-joy” instead of the giver and provider of joy! An eighteenth-century medical doctor confirmed this view when he said “…many persons of a religious turn of mind behave as if they thought it is a crime to be cheerful. They imagine the whole of religion consists in certain mortifications, or denying themselves the smallest indulgence, even of the most innocent amusements. A perpetual gloom hangs over their countenances…” In fact, many Christian people actually think it’s unspiritual to laugh, (even in spite of recent scientific evidence confirming that laughter has been found to be physically, mentally, and spiritually good for your health and general well being!)

The chief influence behind this “party pooper” mentality doesn’t come from the Bible or the Hebrew people. Instead it can be traced directly back to Greek and Platonic thought! When translating the Hebrew words for spirit, ("ruach" which literally means wind and "nephesh" which means the breath of God) the Greeks chose the word "psyche" which leans toward the thinking of the mind or the non-physical aspect of our being. The King James version of the Bible translates the word "spirit"  into, “ghost”, (hence the tern “Holy Ghost”). The word "ghost" conjures up thoughts of anti-matter, disembodiment, and the non-physical realm - hinting more of the realm of the "spooky - natural" than anything else!

In addition, to the Greek mind there was a dualism or separation between the physical and spiritual, between God and the world He created. A duality of spirit and matter separating the two was seen to be the two predominant eternal realities. Of course the spiritual realm was perceived to be the most important one and spirituality became a way of viewing God and spiritual things as non-physical and other-worldly. The physical body was considered fleshly and carnal, imprisoning the spirit or soul which was pure. This thinking stems directly from the Greek philosopher Plato and has had a most detrimental effect on church history and Christian thinking even up to our present day.

But in contrast, the Hebrew’s outlook of spirituality was this: to be vitally alive physically! God’s spirit (wind or breath) was viewed as the energizing life giving presence that animates everything, body and mind! Moreover, God was seen as the creator of all the physical stuff (earth, matter and our physical bodies ) and He even pronounced that it was all good! To be ‘spiritual’ is to be fully alive! What an incredible contrast! From escaping the world or enjoying the pleasures God has made to instead fully entering, living, and enjoying life in the world – that is a liberating paradigm shift and mind-blowing truth!

How does all this apply to us as Christians who play jazz? It means that we can enjoy jazz music, secular or religious to the glory of God! Why? Because God has made all human beings in His image and creativity is one of the main ingredients in being made in His image. We can have the complete freedom to listen to jazz music played by anyone, regardless of their faith or religious persuasion, knowing that God is the source and giver of all creativity! And we can praise God and give God the credit and glory when anyone, sinner or saint, creates and plays beautiful music and be totally jazzed about it!

A Christian jazzer from the UK Mike Brett shares "... I feel that in many Christian’s minds Jazz is a dirty word, so I think for many years now it is music that has been ignored in the church. I have been taken to task for playing jazz as a Christian, the reason given is because of the unsavory and sinful places it has come from in past years. I have been told to get away from it and ‘Touch not the unclean thing.’ Yet the same people who have told me this might have an interest in things like photography which could be used for much more unsavory and sinful purposes like pornography...” You see, the ones who said this to Mike are those blinded by the, “I’m more spiritual than you” mentality that pervades so much of the life-denying theology running rampant in today’s church world. Once more read the words from a present day extremely legalistic religious group, “the work of jazz greats like Brubeck, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane is finding its way into churches, where saxophonists and drummers in sports jackets are replacing organists and choirs in robes. Sometimes, the music is a familiar hymn with a jazzy twist. Often, though, it's straight ahead jazz, the same tunes heard in smoky clubs...”. The evidence is crystal clear from these examples, (and a multitude of others) that those who deem themselves to be the most ‘spiritual’ are the same people that consider jazz music to be inherently evil, and give a legitimate musical expression and gift from God a bad rap. (By the way, I am currently in the process of writing a jazz song entitled, “I’m More Spiritual Than You”. The account of the Pharisees from the four gospels will provide me with more than enough examples of this type of attitude!)

Yes, we do live in a world where many things in life aren’t perfect and art in general can become twisted, distorted, and used for purposes that don’t reflect the image of the Creator. We as humans have the freedom to take the good gifts that God has made and pervert them and even make them into ugly. Jazz, music, or any art can be used for inappropriate purposes. But I don’t think too many people today would say to a photographer, “touch not the unclean thing” concerning his profession unless the photographer was producing pornography. But they would probably encourage him to stick with photographing material containing religious themes exclusively!

I believe that God doesn’t want us to try and escape or take flight from the world He has created, so we can be content to gather into our little “holy huddles”, and sing hymns to each other and pat each other on the back! Jazz has a right to be played in the world or in church as a legitimate art form and musical style that can communicate much beauty and truth. Dave Brubeck once said "To me, if you get into that creative part of your mind when you're playing jazz, it's just as religious as when you're writing a sacred service,"

In truth there is no secular/sacred division in this world: only the one world in which God is fully alive and present! You see, God really wants us to be jazzed, totally tuned in and turned on to life, and enjoy the ride! I have often imagined God asking us Christians, “Why do you spend all your time groveling? Why such a sour face and sad countenance? Wake up, smell the coffee, and start looking around at all that I have created for you to enjoy!” Indeed, the whole earth is full of His glory and presence! His presence is everywhere and in everything – we need only to open our eyes to see it and enjoy it!

Written by David Arivett © 2007 Songs Of David
All Rights Reserved