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  • Writer's pictureJOHN OSLER'S UPBEAT Admin


Our family accompanied me on spring break to St Louis where I had some business to do. The trip was timed so that we could spend time at the St Louis Ragtime Festival. We had friends who were going to be part of the gathering. The Mother’s Boys Ragtime Band was a group of traditional jazz geeks who played weekly gigs in Detroit in addition to their day jobs.


It was a warm spring evening, and the bars selected for jam sessions were filling up, mostly with musicians. A kind crowd made room for our family and I made room for a beer or two. This is good time music, and when musicians play for other musicians it can be a special evening.

At a point it was decided to accommodate the overflowing crowd by having the bands lead us down a few blocks to the levee. The sunset was interrupted by dark threatening clouds and then thunder claps, wind and lighting. In response the array of ragtime jazz musicians began en masse to play Nearer My God To Thee and then Just a Closer Walk with Thee.

In the west strips of blue sky appeared and the music continued late into the night.

God listens when jazz musicians speak, and jazz musicians listen when God speaks.

I am a serious advocate for a wide separation of Church and State, but welcome the inclusion of spiritual messages when expressed with passion by those who believe.


Through the years jazz musicians have felt free to worship God with their music. There are reasons for this. The structure of jazz is also the freedom from structure. Jazz musicians’ earliest and often most influential music was what they heard in the Church. The first command that they heard each Sunday was to shout and sing out, so that God could hear them.

The Psalmist urged worshipers of God to “praise Him with the sound of trumpet, praise Him with psaltery and harp”,  I regularly attend a church where we stand very still and whisper our songs to God. Then from time to time I  visit a black Baptist Church where they will have a drum set backing up a Hammond B organ playing in front of a standing and often rocking congregation. It is no wonder that the black churches have had a lasting influence on our internationally acclaimed jazz.

In the first half of the 20th century black musicians were barred from playing in white clubs and concert halls, so they held jazz concerts for touring musicians in their churches..

As Ragtime and African-American spiritual music evolved, jazz was taking its shape inside the church. It was reintroduced to the congregations sometime in the 1960’s in the jam sessions at churches like St. Peter and St. John the Divine in New York City. Many of the era’s jazz legends would come to perform.


Sacred-jazz compositions — pieces written explicitly to either mirror or supplement religious ceremonies.

Jazz in the early 20th century was a liberating music for many and “the music of the devil” for others. Then in the 1960s  it found its way into the liturgies of the church.

How did the devil’s music get religion?

The religion, in some respects, was there all along. Many African-American musicians grew up attending and performing in church services. The imprint of that experience can be found in saxophonist John Coltrane’s landmark 1965 LP A Love Supreme, which Coltrane offered as a sort of musical prayer to God.  A more subtle example of sacred jazz would be Miles Davis’  Kind Of Blue which was inspired  by “some other kind of sound I remembered from being back in Arkansas, when we were walking home from church and playing these bad gospels.”

For the Easter season,  here are five examples of sacred jazz.

JOHN COLTRANE (1926 -1967) Saxophone player, composer, eminent jazz innovator. Coltrane’s faith in God was a powerful healing force in his overcoming addiction to heroin. He testifies to God’s omnipotence, our need for God, dependence on God and God’s power to remake us on his seminal album “Love Supreme”, and dedicates his music, saying “Let us sing all songs to God.”

DUKE ELLINGTON  Jazz pioneer and bandleader Duke Ellington was instrumental in the movement of sacred jazz, and wrote three sacred concerts which are still being performed in churches, cathedrals and synagogues throughout the world.

When the Duke presented his “Sacred Concerts” they stirred a wave of controversy about whether the terms “sacred” and “jazz” should even be used together.  Duke Ellington knew that this special music was inspiring and reverent in its purpose and that made it sacred. Duke Ellington felt that, “Every man prays in his own language, and there is no language that God does not understand.”

VINCE GUARALDI (1928 -1976) Meanwhile on the West Coast even before Duke Ellington’s more famous Sacred Concert Vince Guaraldi  presented his concert of sacred music in 1965 at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. This concert combined church choral arrangements with his jazz trio. I think that Vince Guaraldi’s recording of Charlie Brown Christmas album was also for me a spiritual masterpiece.

DAVE BRUBECK  Dave Brubeck expresses the joy inspired by Christ’s Resurrection through a blend of jazz and classical music. Dave Brubeck was the thinking man’s jazz artist. Brubeck discovered that a church theme of Bach’s called “Oh sacred head now wounded,” was actually a drinking song. “So what is profane and what is sacred? It’s in how you do it, how you approach it, and what you bring to it”. The First Baptist Church has one of his songs in its hymn book. His composition “Blessed Are The Poor” is a musical portrait of Christ’s “Sermon On The Mount,”

WYNTON MARSALIS, trumpeter and composer grew up in the firm musical grip of his father, Ellis Marsalis. But he also grew up in New Orleans where he became inspired by all those around him who were soaked in spirituality. This led him to write his sacred-jazz epic,  In This House, On This Morning.  He is quoted as saying,”Listening to all of [his fellow players] made me want to put that feeling in a long piece and reassert out here the power that underlies jazz by constructing a composition based on the communal complexity of its spiritual sources,”.  Throughout his jazz work we can hear familiar calls to prayer, hymns, scripture readings and sermons that finish with the congregants lingering to converse as they return to the world beyond the church’s doors, spirits set anew in the noontime Sunday light and air.

Dee Dee Pierce  oil/canvas / John Osler


Sacred jazz music is currently being composed and played by today’s Detroit jazz artists. Equally important is the church’s role in education.

Detroit, I believe, is where jazz went to school. Detroit jazz musicians are known to be well schooled and disciplined, and that explains why they are in demand around the world. Detroit’s churches still remain a training ground and venue for some of our best musicians.

For many years the outstanding music programs in the Detroit schools jump-started many jazz artists’careers. In the City of Detroit it is a sad fact that music programs are slowly disappearing from our schools. The Church today is returning to be our youth’s principle source for musical instruction.

At the Dirty Dog a question I often ask musicians is “How the heck did you learn to play so well?” “In church” is now the most common answer. The artists seldom assert that their musical talent is of divine origin and purpose, but humbly give thanks for the opportunity the churches have given them.

Detroit drummer Jeff Canady didn’t hesitate to say “in church” when asked.. He is quick to credit his Church with giving him the tools to create music with both force and meaning.  The church has provided him with the confidence and the authority we expect from Detroit musicians. We don’t expect there will be a separation between Church and Jazz anytime soon.

John Osler


March 28 -March 31


Don’t miss this chance to witness some high energy jazz that comes only from Detroit and our young artists.

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