All of the sudden, Jason Bivins needed to know if he could write two books, not one.
In the summer of 2013, the N.C. State religious studies professor was taking a broad sword to Spirits Rejoice!, his 700-page exploration of the profound effect of world religions on jazz. He hoped to cut the book in half, but he was sweating every sentence.
Nearly two years later, squinting at a picnic table in Durham, Bivins laughs at the memory with relief. With photos, the book—released in early May by Oxford University Press—lands at less than 400.
"I was panicking about that," he says. "How am I going to do this?"
Bivins wasn't worried about the time he had put into the text, even if he had been squirreling away bits of the book for nearly 20 years while teaching history-of-religion classes at N.C. State and writing freelance reviews of jazz records. Instead, he wanted to make sure the subject got its due, as the implicit, almost-understood effect of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and even Scientology on jazz had never received a full scholarly analysis. The case studies and the theoretical underpinnings they revealed flooded his text.
After the cuts, Spirits Rejoice! remains a revealing read, even for those far removed from its academic audience. Often contradictory, sometimes funny and always meticulous, Spirits Rejoice! functions as a reminder of the protean manner from which the best art typically emerges. It's not a direct response to discrete influences and antecedents, but instead a byproduct of or reaction to a world teeming with inputs—from the Sunday School of Charles Mingus' youth to the Buddhist chants of Herbie Hancock.
For Bivins, it's about time jazz gets this critical treatment.
INDY: There's a lot of writing about jazz and a lot about religion, obviously. When you began building Spirits Rejoice!, were you surprised that a clear predecessor that combined the two in this comparative way didn't exist?
JASON BIVINS: On some level, I still can't understand. When I was in graduate school and reading all these cool things in jazz studies, they didn't know what the fuck to do with religion. They just said, "There's this spirituality," or "It sounds spiritual." That's pretty unsatisfying. What does that mean? Where does that come from? You had all these studies between the 1890s and the 1930s, and a lot of that scholarship is really good and really subtle. But we only get up to Louis Armstrong. What about the rest of the century? For the rest of the century, if it's not vague references to spirituality, it's these fantastic individual portraits. But I wanted to say something about religion broadly.
Why didn't such a book exist until now?
The disconnect is maybe just academic training. The jazz studies folks don't know what to do with religion. Religious studies people have often tried to make good scholarship out of popular culture. They make cool stuff boring and don't write about the cool stuff. Religious studies is a pretty boring field. It's a field that's purportedly focused on one of the most interesting things—maybe the most interesting thing—to think about, but a lot of people make a lot of boring stuff. There's stuff on religion and film. We do great stuff on religion and other kinds of music. But the religious studies people tend to shy away from music where there's no words. If the words say, "Hello, I'm religious," then great. But it seems to me the most interesting things about thinking about religion come because you can't fucking know anything. Jazz musicians embrace that.
Were you excited to discover how much territory remained unexplored and undocumented?
There were little snippets here and there. Lots of books have glanced at the subject and said a couple of pages worth. But it's often written about as part of the Civil Rights movement: "Yeah, dude, they told us it was about the Civil Rights movement. You don't have to work very hard to get to that conclusion." But this is an actual historical theme that goes back to the early 19th century. Let's talk about that. I was colossally disappointed, but I was also really excited that I could get the conversation started. I really do hope it's a conversation. I hope that books are written criticizing my book, saying what my book didn't do, and then going on to do it. That would be great, just in the name of getting into what this music is about. Everyone who ends up making music, regardless of genre, is thinking about this stuff, even if they're thinking about it negatively. There's something about music where you're grabbing nutrition from the air.
You mention "grabbing nutrition from the air." Throughout the book, religion starts to become this kind of universal influence, something that just exists for musicians to use. Do you think the relationship between religion and jazz remained under the radar just because it was so obvious?
From the musicians' point of view—at least most of the folks I read about or talked to—it's so obvious that that's where things are coming from, whether it's from a very specific tradition or a more mystical sense. It's so obvious they either refer to it briefly and elliptically or not at all: "Yeah, well, of course, it's all there." It's implied. That's such an obvious connection to so many of those folks: "I couldn't play that on my own. That's not even me."
That was the coolest thing I discovered—the stuff about becoming a vessel or a messenger. From the most straight-ahead musician to the most wild avant-garde musician, that same language keeps cropping up. It's like Arthur Blythe and his quote: "I just opened up, jack, and became a receptacle for this shit." I almost named a chapter "A Receptacle for This Shit."
Such talk from artists often gets perceived as craziness, too, and you deal with several people who have been called worse here—Albert Ayler, Charles Gayle, Sun Ra. Is academia guilty of that?
Here's where religious studies is great: If you can convince scholars of religion to look at something, they're usually going to look at it as best they can on its own terms. Sometimes, depending on the subject matter, that creates a different kind of frustration. When you write about religion and politics, as I've done, you just get to, "Say something." In terms of Ayler or Sun Ra, there would be a desire to say, "OK, where's this coming from?" That part of my book is definitely my religious studies training: Let's let people speak to us on their own terms.
But in a lot of other scholarly literature, and certainly in a lot of music writing ... Sun Ra is the classic case. So many douchebags know about Sun Ra because of Saturn. He's the crazy space guy. That's really insulting, and it misses out on what's most interesting about him, musically as well as intellectually. That's with Ayler, too, and Charles Gayle—with the clown nose, talking about the wickedness of abortion. Some scholars are really nervous about otherness, whether it's political otherness or the weirdness of a 90-year-old Italian grandmother taking seriously a relationship with the apparition of the Virgin. But to me, that's like ground zero for religion. What's it about if it's not about a relationship with the unseen or the self developing in these bizarre ways? That's why people like us like the music we listen to. You can step out and have a different way of experiencing the world. How could we not be interested in that in religious studies?
Many of the case studies in the book focus on avant-garde jazz. I know that's your primary interest in playing and listening, but was the religious connection stronger there, too?
I've always written about subcultural stuff in scholarship, I now realize, so it's just another iteration of that. It's impossible to ignore the avant-garde since the '60s, anyway, and everything that is not avant-garde is influenced by the avant-garde. If you scan the range, I do think there's more of this religion in the avant-garde. I think that has more to do with this restless pursuit of authenticity, as well as my own focus on a particular kind of music. This is where I try to be real careful as an author and say, "Look, different authors would select different case studies. This is my improvisation."
Yes, the avant-garde is a tradition, and in some ways, it can be really dusty. But it's not surprising that the folks most invested in religious investigation are the folks deeply invested in musical experimentation, too. There's something about that that picks up on a broader American interest in looser forms of religiosity, too. Clearly, there is still jazz for churches. Clearly, there's the whole world of Marsalis. What's interesting to me, though, is the working musician who has to hustle and get door gigs and give lessons. When it gets hard is when it gets interesting—and when it gets interestingly religious, too.
So much of the book is about the influence of religion on jazz, but you do reference the ability of jazz to influence religion. What could modern American religion learn from that interaction?
This is the perfect world part. If only, right? I tend to associate jazz music with a certain kind of ethic. There ought to be a generosity of listening, a receptivity, a certain self-limiting. I can't help but ascribe those as political virtues, too. Democracy ought to be improvisatory, too. That's how theorists write about it, but it never is. It's just people shouting at each other. If our democracy isn't jazz, what is it? It's Five Finger Death Punch or something stupid. If jazz was to have an effect, it could help develop a better way of listening and responding to other people. Don't shout people down so much.
But in the book, you actually poke fun at that old canard about jazz as a representation of democracy. Does it come back to that idea, though?
It's true. For folks who say that, it's more sloganeering than anything else. I don't think they've thought robustly about democracy. If they champion the music, that's good. But jazz is this democracy stuff—small d, all lower case.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Almighty power."