In the book The Spiritual and the Blues, James Cone explores the aesthetical and musicological connections between these genres and how they reflect the fluid relationship between the sacred and secular in African-derived culture. The message of transcendence advanced in the spiritual and the blues mirrors the aesthetic practices that Africans represented in both vocal and instrumental music. These practices are rooted in the principle of “nommo,” which means the “power of the word,” and is emblematic of the belief that people have the ability to transform their present condition through their words. Because of the tonal nature of many African languages, the idea of nommo was easily translated into instrumental performances and reflected also in accompanying dance practices. This is further strengthened by the Africans’ beliefs regarding the sacred and secular aspects of life. Rather than view these as separate and interdependent spheres, they are intertwined. The foundation of every aspect of life and culture for Africans extended back to God as the creator, and he was reflected in a confluence of multiple identities (orishas) and traditional dogma (e.g., Islam, Christianity) that engaged in the full spectrum of the everyday lives of Africans (Floyd, 1995; Gioia, 1997; Small, 1998; Stuckey, 1995). This belief system survived the displacement of Africans from the continent via the slave trade and emerged in new forms in the cultural centers these people inhabited.

African Spirituality and Cultural Transformations in the United States.

In jazz, like many forms of African-derived culture, the social, political, spiritual, and cultural spheres of life are linked. Despite the different restrictions and changes that slavery invoked on practices brought to the American colonies, the ethos of nommo as well as the confluence of the sacred and secular was prevalent in the African American cultural forms. The spirituals are emblematic of this as the premise of nommo shapes the theological perspective of these songs. Consisting of texts that drew on the characters and stories of the Old Testament, American slaves developed a theology of transcendence that was rooted in God’s deliverance of his chosen people. While these songs were initially performed unaccompanied, they, like Protestant hymns, came to form a central part of the repertory of instrumental aggregations. This is represented in the brass band and parade culture that preceded the jazz culture in New Orleans.

Although brass bands were initially associated primarily with the recreational life of New Orleans, these aggregations shaped a core part of the city’s burial rites. Brass bands were central in these ritualized practices and were generally charged with leading the mourners to cemeteries, facilitating mourning rituals and transitioning the mood through the celebratory postburial march through the performance of a vast repertory that consisted largely of dirges, hymns, and spirituals.

The Intersection of Jazz and Gospel.

The relationship between jazz and black sacred music grew considerably during the early decades of the twentieth century and can best be described as

  • (1) a continuous transference of performance praxis that is reflected in the adaptation of harmonic and rhythmic phenomenon between various generations of jazz musicians and gospel musicians;
  • (2) the “crossover” of gospel and jazz musicians to the different musical scenes that define these two genres throughout much of their respective histories;
  • (3) a shared repertory of spirituals and hymns that serve as a core part of the standard repertory for each genre;
  • (4) the use of the black church as a social, historical, musical and political guidepost in situating and re-establishing African American culture as the foundation of jazz culture; and
  • (5) the creation and promotion of liturgical jazz music that is integrated into the practices of many denominations.

The transference of performance praxis between gospel and jazz was precipitated by a number of social factors during the first two decades of the twentieth century: the Azusa movement or Azusa Street Revival, which bridged the Holiness movement of the late nineteenth century with the rise of Pentecostalism in the early twentieth century; the Great Migration, which was marked by significant population shifts in the North and West as southern blacks sought new opportunities; and the emergence of gospel music, which is marked by the publication of the hymnal Gospel Pearls in 1922.

The Azusa movement gave rise to African-based practices that had been suppressed in the Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopal denominations, such as dancing in the spirit, speaking in tongues, and performance practices that emphasized rhythmic, harmonic, and textual improvisation spurred by the “Holy Spirit.” These churches also gave rise to a number of instrumentalists who drew heavily on blues and jazz traditions. Among them was Arizona Dranes (ca. 1891–1963), a blind piano virtuoso and vocalist who came to prominence serving as song leader for a number of the early leaders of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC; Boyer, 2000, pp. 36–37). Her piano style—rooted in the barrelhouse piano style advanced by itinerant pianists throughout the South and Midwest—was defined by its strong rhythmic left-hand groove articulated in the form of walking octave bass lines, chords played in the middle range of the piano, and the typical oom-pah figure (low bass note followed by a chord). This groove was juxtaposed against syncopated chords drawn from the traditional chords of hymns played in the right hand (listen to the recording “Crucifixion” on Goodbye to Babylon). The few recordings Dranes made during the 1920s reveal that this style was used in a more tempered manner during her vocal performances (listen to “He Is My Story” on Goodbye to Babylon).

Dranes’s piano style reflected the fluidity of performance approaches that linked black church practices with jazz and blues traditions. This was furthered by a number of people in the early years of gospel’s history, but most notable is Thomas Andrew Dorsey, the former pianist and musical director for Ma Rainey, that precipitated the rise of gospel as a distinct form of black sacred music in Chicago during the 1930s. Dorsey used as the foundation for his gospel songs the harmonic and rhythmic nuances of the New Orleans jazz and vaudeville blues that were the staple of his early career. As gospel became increasingly popular and the Pentecostal denomination gave birth to new churches and religious personas, the confluence of jazz and sacred music became more pronounced. Where mainline denominations such as the Baptists and Methodists restricted instrumental performances during worship to primarily the piano and/or organ, Pentecostal and Holiness churches subscribed to the form of worship advanced in Psalm 98, which says “with trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King the LORD.” In the United House of Prayer for All People churches, this was reflected in the formation of shout bands.

Founded in the 1920s by the evangelist Charles Manuel “Sweet Daddy” Grace, the United House of Prayer offered recreational activities to its congregants as a means of ensuring righteousness and holiness. For men this included the organization of shout bands. While no one is entirely sure when these brass bands were first used in the church, by the 1940s they constituted a central part of the worship experience. These bands combined practices associated with New Orleans brass bands with gospel quartet traditions and moved beyond the structured collective improvisation of jazz bands. In shout bands—composed primarily of trombones, tubas, and drums—the group plays the melody first, supported by chords arranged in four-part harmony. This is sometimes repeated with some alterations to the original melody or accompanying harmonies, but the next section of a performance features the shifting into a sort of rhythmic figure (“the drive”) that is repeated again and again as the lead instrumentalist improvises. As the performance grows in emotion, two trombonists begin engaging in call and response over the other instruments. The performance generally ends with the return of the melody or might move into another song (Wicker, 2008). These bands generally play throughout the entire service and rarely announce the songs played. Much like the second line tradition that is associated with the brass bands in New Orleans, the congregation serves as an important part of each song performed. There is no separation between the call and response between voices, bodies, and instruments as they cooperatively frame the practice of worship. Shout bands are largely unknown to many, but as gospel moved beyond the collective of churches that musicians traversed throughout the 1930s, its connection with jazz increased. The guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe recorded her first records with Lucky Millinder’s jazz orchestra in the 1930s. Although secular audiences embraced the confluence of swing rhythms and religious text, these recordings sparked controversy in church circles. To counter criticisms, for her subsequent recordings with Decca during the 1940s, Tharpe was accompanied by a trio. The sound helped precipitate the “crossover” of gospel to jazz audiences and jazz to gospel audiences (Jackson, 2004; Wald, 2007). During the last two decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century, a generation of gospel musicians, including but not limited to Angella Christi, Ben Tankard, and Kirk Whalum, began to advance the genre of “gospel jazz”—vocal and instrumental performances based on well-known spirituals, hymns, and original compositions.

The Black Church as Cultural and Musicological Source for Jazz Musicians.

The black church proved to be just as important in the development of a number of jazz musicians as it had in performance approaches of rock ’n’ rollers like Little Richard and the R&B purveyors Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, and Sam Cooke, who emerged as important voices on the post–World War II music scene. Thelonious Monk, who helped sparked the modern jazz age with the advancement of bebop in the late 1940s, spent his early years serving as pianist for a traveling evangelist. Although he spoke very little of religion or spirituality throughout most of his life, Robin Kelley (2009) writes that the years he spent working the “Gospel Highway” were important in his development as a musician. Sarah Vaughan developed as a vocalist and keyboardist in the Newark-based Baptist church she attended before being “discovered” after winning the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Contest (Gourse, 1993). Dinah Washington spent her early years singing, under her birth name Ruth Jones, with the famed Roberta Martin Singers, who developed the early mixed voiced gospel group aesthetic (Cohodas, 2006). But these artists only reflect one way in which black church culture intersected with jazz during the 1950s and 1960s.

In an effort to reaffirm the black cultural roots of jazz, a number of musicians began to draw on the culture of the church. While this was reflected in a continuation of some of the practices mentioned above (e.g., adaptation of repertory; harmonic progressions, and nuances associated with sacred music), this also extended to biblical or religious references in song and/or album titles. Significant instrumental works that tried to capture the “spirit” and essence of the black church from this period include “The Preacher,” “Moanin’,” “The Sermon,” and “The Prayer Meeting.” All were associated with the East Coast–based hard bop school that emerged in the late 1950s and became increasingly popular in the 1960s (Rosenthal, 1992).

Other jazz musicians that also reflected this trend but were not associated directly with the hard bop movement included Charles Mingus, whose “Prayer for Passive Resistance” and “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” reflected the bassist’s roots in the church and the growing influence of the civil rights movement on jazz. Monk opened the album Monk’s Music with a rendition of the hymn “Abide with Me,” and the guitarist Grant Green recorded a full album of spirituals and gospel songs called Feelin’ the Spirit in 1962.

In 1959 Louis Armstrong released the album Louis Armstrong and the Good Book, which featured his band and the Sy Oliver Choir. The album contained a number of songs drawn directly from the Old Testament (“Shadrack,” “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel,” “Jonah and the Whale”) and Negro spirituals (“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”), arranged and performed in the Chicago style of jazz that Armstrong had helped advance through his recordings with his Hot Five and Hot Seven bands in the late 1920s. The album also contained two “sermons” rendered by Armstrong’s alter ego, Elder Eatmore. Although for many this album was rather obscure, it was not Armstrong’s first time recording religious songs. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s he recorded a number of spirituals and hymns that were later compiled as an album.

Lastly, Jimmy Smith’s use of the Hammond Organ—an instrument first associated with gospel music—and his recordings of religious songs gave rise to the style of “soul jazz.”

By the early 1960s jazz’s avant garde was also advancing spiritual themes in their music. John Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme (1965) serves as one of the most famous examples of this fusion. It was a musical and textual testimony of his evolving religious beliefs and their growing importance in the creation and execution of his music. Although the liner notes and thematic scope of each movement of A Love Supreme reflected Coltrane’s roots in the black church, subsequent albums marked a departure from the type of organic dogma and reflected more of a synthesis of different faiths, including Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam. Albert Ayler, a saxophonist who had developed his musical style playing in R&B bands during the 1950s, recorded several albums in the mid-1960s that featured spirituals like “Goin’ Home” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” reconfigured in the language of the avant-garde style.

Liturgical Jazz and the Redefinition of Worship.

The 1960s also marked a period in which jazz was integrated into various liturgical practices. In the Catholic Church this move was prompted by two important ecumenical factors:

  • (1) the convening of the Second Vatican Council and the reformation of church practices and
  • (2) attempts by black Catholics to advance a black liturgical aesthetic that reflected their cultural heritage.

The result was the emergence of the gospel mass and hymns that were celebrated within the liturgical body of the church throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Ed Summerlin is believed to have produced the first liturgical jazz mass in 1959 in honor of his deceased daughter. Called “Requiem for Mary Jo,” the work was performed at Southern Methodist University. Although Summerlin continued to compose liturgical jazz works, his compositions did not receive the same type of national acclaim and exposure that the works of the jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams did.

Having spent four decades performing, arranging, and composing with a number of different configurations of musicians, Williams, citing exhaustion and disillusionment, suspended her career in 1954. She converted to Catholicism in 1957 and began composing religious compositions in the early 1960s. Her first work in this vein was “A Hymn in Honor of St. Martin De Porres.” The text commemorated the life of De Porres, the first black saint canonized by the Catholic Church. In subsequent years Williams would write other hymns, most of which would draw directly on spiritual themes of perseverance, faith, and love. Examples include “Amina Christi,” a swinging jazz hymn whose lyrics are drawn from a fifteenth-century prayer of contrition and repentance, and “Thank You Jesus.”

In 1966 Williams composed her first jazz mass while teaching at Seton High School in Pittsburgh. Simply called “Mass,” the work was performed at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh in 1967 (Kernodle, 1997, p. 152). For this work Williams combined the traditional setting of the Ordinary of the mass with blues and jazz nuances. Although she discarded this work soon after the initial performance, this confluence of liturgical texts, blues, and jazz harmonies and nuances would serve as the blueprint for subsequent religious compositions. Each work featured texts that were drawn from biblical scripture or the liturgy of the Catholic Church or represent Williams’s observations of the social conditions that defined much of the 1960s (e.g., civil rights, the Vietnam War, poverty).

Over the next five years Williams would continue to compose works in this genre. In 1968 she wrote Mass for Lenten Season, and in 1969, during a visit to the Vatican, Williams was commissioned to write a “Mass for Peace and Justice.” The latter was performed in 1969 at the Holy Family Church in Harlem at a memorial service for the assassinated Kenyan leader Tom Mboya (Kernodle, 1997, p. 152). A year later the choreographer/dancer Alvin Ailey and Williams collaborated on a ballet using the music of the Mass. Williams subsequently rescored the piece incorporating some elements of jazz-rock fusion and soul music and in 1971 recorded the work, renamed Mary Lou’s Mass, under her own imprint Mary Records. In addition to settings of the Gloria, Sanctus, and Kyrie, the work also consisted of several hymns that drew directly from biblical scripture. The responsorial hymn, “In His Day, Peace I Leave with You,” is based on Psalms 71 and 72, and “Lazarus” is the parable of the rich man and poor man recounted in Luke 16. Williams’s work was paramount to the revitalization of the Catholic Church liturgy in the years following Vatican II.

Between 1965 and 1973 Duke Ellington also composed liturgical works that combined his unique jazz orchestral style with sacred text. Called “sacred concerts,” these works differed from the compositions of Williams in that she intended for her masses and hymns to be used as liturgy, not concert pieces (Ellington, 1973; Kernodle, 1997). The First Sacred Concert reflected Ellington’s interpretation of various themes taken from the Old and New Testament represented in the opening song, “In the Beginning God,” which takes its text from the first words written in the book of Genesis. The subsequent pieces were similar in form and content. They too were performed in various settings and recorded. Despite the prolific nature of his oeuvre, in his memoir Ellington described these works as the most important thing he had done (Ellington, 1973, p. 269).

Spirituality continues to be a common theme in the works of many contemporary jazz musicians as the twenty-first century progresses. The pianist Cyrus Chestnut drew on his roots in gospel music with the album Blessed Quietness: A Collection of Hymns, Spirituals and Carols. Wynton Marsalis has followed in the footsteps of Mary Lou Williams and Duke Ellington with the production of three important works that explore spirituality in a variety of ways: the cantata Blood on the Fields, the album In This House, On This Morning, and the liturgical work Abyssinian Mass. All of these works speak to how jazz has evolved into worship music in various denominational and worship contexts.



Primary Works

  • Boyer, Horace. The Golden Age of Gospel. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
  • Cohodas, Nadine. Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington. New York: Billboard, 2006.
  • Cone, James. The Spiritual and the Blues: An Interpretation. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1995.
  • Ellington, Duke. Music Is My Mistress. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973.
  • Floyd, Samuel A., Jr. The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Gourse, Leslie. Sassy: The Life of Sarah Vaughan. New York: Scribner’s, 1993.
  • Hanchett, Tom. “God’s Trombones: The Shout Band Tradition in the United House of Prayer for All People.” In Making Notes, Music of the Carolinas, edited by Ann Wicker, pp. 7–11. Charlotte, N.C.: Novello Festival Press, 2008.
  • Jackson, Jerma A. Singing in My Soul: Black Gospel Music in a Secular Age. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  • Kelley, Robin D. Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. New York: Free Press, 2009.
  • Kernodle, Tammy. “ ‘Anything You Are Shows Up in Your Music’: Mary Lou Williams and the Sanctification of Jazz.” PhD diss., Ohio State University, 1997.
  • Rosenthal, David H. Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music 1955–1965. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Small, Christopher. Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in African American Music. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1987.
  • Stuckey, Sterling. “The Music That Is in One’s Soul: On the Sacred Origins of Jazz and the Blues.” Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interartistic Inquiry 1 (1995): 73–88.
  • Wald, Gayle. Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Boston: Beacon, 2007.
  • Wicker, Ann. Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas. Charlotte, N.C.: Novello Festival Press, 2008.

Secondary Works

  • Brown, Leonard L., ed. John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Burnett, John. “Wynton Marsalis Goes Back to Church for ‘Abyssinian Mass.’ ” NPR Special Series: Ecstatic Voices, 19 October 2013.
  • Himes, Geoffrey. “Sweet Inspiration: Cyrus Chestnut Looks Back to Gospel to Find the Future of Jazz.”
  • Jones, LeRoi. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Perennial, 2002.
  • Kernodle, Tammy. Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004.
  • Metzer, David. “Shadow Play: The Spiritual in Duke Ellington’s ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’.” Black Music Research Journal 17, no. 2 (1997): 137–158.
  • Tucker, Mark. The Duke Ellington Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.


  • Armstrong, Louis. Louis Armstrong and the Good Book. Verve, 2001.
  • Ayler, Albert. Goin’ Home. Black Lion, 1994.
  • Chestnut, Cyrus. Blessed Quietness: A Collection of Hymns, Spirituals and Carols. Atlantic Jazz, 1996.
  • Coltrane, John. A Love Supreme. Impulse, 1964.
  • Dranes, Arizona. “Crucifixion.” Goodbye Babylon. Dust-to-Digital, 2003a.
  • Dranes, Arizona. “He Is My Story.” Goodbye Babylon. Dust-to-Digital, 2003b.
  • Green, Grant. Feelin’ the Spirit. Blue Note, 1962.
  • Marsalis, Wynton. In This House: On This Morning. Columbia, 1993.
  • Saints’ Paradise: Trombone Shout Bands from the United House of Prayer. Smithsonian Folkways, 1999.
  • Sanders, Pharoah. Karma. Impulse, 1969.
  • Tharpe, Sister Rosetta. Complete Recorded Works, 1938–1941. Document Records, 1996.
  • Williams, Mary Lou. Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes. Smithsonian Folkways, 2004.
  • Williams, Mary Lou. Mary Lou’s Mass. Smithsonian Folkways, 2005.

Tammy L. Kernodle