The Church of Jazz – an interview with author Vaughn Booker

July 16, 2020 by

360°Sound spoke with Vaughn A. Booker, assistant professor in the Department of Religion, including the Program in African and African American Studies, at Dartmouth College about his new book Lift Every Voice and Swing: Black Musicians and Religious Culture in the Jazz Century. The book discusses how jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Mary Lou Williams became unofficial religious leaders in the Black community. Drawing on live performances, recordings, press interviews, private reflections and other sources, Booker details the ways in which these jazz musicians embodied religious practices and beliefs that echoed and diverged from Black religious culture.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Has the intersection of African American religion and jazz been an interest of yours throughout your academic career? What was it that inspired you to write Lift Every Voice and Swing?

Vaughn A. Booker

Thanks to my maternal grandparents, I have been a jazz fan since elementary school. I first began to consider the ideas that eventually came together in Lift Every Voice and Swing while I was an undergraduate Religion major at Dartmouth College. I took a course in the Music department, “History of Jazz,” taught by saxophonist and composer Fred Haas, and we watched the 1967 documentary On the Road with Duke Ellington. Viewing Duke in the process of composing and performing his Sacred Concert series in the 1960s made me begin to think seriously about jazz, race and religion. My professors at Princeton University, Wallace Best and Judith Weisenfeld, encouraged me to research jazz artists. This allowed me to think differently about the issues of religion and race in the world of popular culture.

Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and other jazz greats of the 20s, 30s and 40s are more associated with secular music than spiritual music. What were a few of the factors that led to them becoming unofficial religious leaders in the Black community?

The way that I think about Duke, Mary Lou, Ella, and Cab is the concept of race representation. Popular black jazz professionals became de facto race representatives because of their extensive coverage in the Black and white press and their travel and publicity. The emergence of jazz music criticism as a form of intellectual discourse also brought major attention to African American cultural creativity. These jazz artists bore representative racial authority and the ability to represent African American religious belief and practice.

In the Jazz Age, the 20s and 30s, were jazz musicians and singers the biggest stars of the day? Did they seem to have more influence than athletes, actors, and other public figures?

In the first half of the book, I situate my study of jazz artists’ rise to prominence against the Jazz Age Black religious authorities. These men and women became voices in the press, pulpit, and academy who made no room for jazz as an emerging popular art form to serve as a meaningful alternative for moral representation of African American culture and society. They failed to thwart the popularity of jazz and swing in the 20s and 30s, but their work as public voices for Black religious institutions set the example that race representation was an inherent duty for African American professionals.

When Black youth emerged as professional jazz musicians, aficionados, and advocates in the black press, they shaped the music into an art form they believed an appropriate, alternative vehicle for race representation. So, Black communities in various media arenas began to hold prominent jazz artists to the same standards of race representation that Black actors, athletes, and political leaders were also facing. The book’s focus on Cab and Ella in chapters 2 and 3 illustrates the complex realities of jazz artists who became consequential race representatives.

Did Ellington, Fitzgerald, Calloway and Williams record and commercially release gospel music? If so, any particular recordings that you would recommend to our music fan readers?

Mary Lou’s sacred music, which contained elements of gospel and her unique jazz styles, includes Black Christ of the Andes, Praise the Lord in Many Voices, Mass for Lenten Season, and Mass for Peace. And while we often think of Duke’s most significant religious music through his three Sacred Concerts that premiered in 1965, 1968, and 1973, my study of Duke reveals that African American religious themes appeared in his music in the 1920s and 1930s, even before “Come Sunday,” his famous tribute to spirituals in the 1940s. Ella released Brighten the Corner, an album of white Protestant hymns, white evangelical songs, and African American Spirituals and Gospel. What I find most interesting about Cab is that he recorded songs like “Harlem Camp Meeting,” “Is That Religion?,” and “Miss Hallelujah Brown,” which irreverently played with the scenes and sounds of African American religion.

What do you think is your book’s main contribution to the body of knowledge on the subject?

Overall, this book is a work of jazz history and African American religious history. It takes seriously the careers of Black jazz women and men, instrumentalists and vocalists, as artistic professionals with the authority to voice religious belonging, perform religious belief, and demonstrate religious practice for their vast audiences. It provides unique and nuanced portraits of racial identity, humor, profession, and religion that break down any easy assumptions about Black people’s religious and cultural identities. The chapters on Duke and Mary Lou, which spotlight their previously unexamined private religious writings, will really call us to reckon with their significance to the history of jazz in new ways.

Despite being an academic work, do you think your book will be accessible to non-scholars, especially jazz music fans and those with a more casual interest in history and religion?

My storytelling approach is to write as if I were giving a lecture, and a student asked me to break down what I just explained. It is important for meaningful scholarship to invite readers to think deeply about concepts that have many layers to digest, so my book presents the stories of important jazz musicians in an accessible way while highlighting the historical, racial, and religious significance of their lives in interesting ways. Very importantly, readers should know that the book contains a music appendix with YouTube links to most of the song recordings and performances I discuss—you can read, pause, listen/watch, pause, and return to the text.

Lift Every Voice and Swing is out on paperback and hardcover on July 21. To order a copy, click here.

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