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The Role of Jazz in Present-Day Spiritual Trends

by Levi Dayan


art by Priya Banerjee

[originally published July 2021]


America is at a spiritual crossroads, in multiple senses of the word. While the nation is more divided than ever, a rare trend that goes across partisan lines is the ongoing secularization of America. A Pew research study from 2019 found the percentage of Americans identifying as Christian declining at a rapid pace, while the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation has grown steadily. The trend holds steady across divides in race, gender, region, education, and, perhaps most shockingly, political affiliations, and though the decline is not as dramatic amongst republicans as it is with democrats, it’s still there. But a crossroads still splits both ways. While younger Americans in particular are a driving factor in America’s sudden secularization, many younger Americans have also embraced spirituality—albeit in forms greatly differing from Christian orthodoxy. The most noticeable example of this would be the resurgence of astrology.

While the discourse surrounding Astrology is still often relegated to desperate attempts at flirting that call to mind throwaway jokes from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, no amount of snark can change the fact that astrology has definitely become a legitimate spiritual practice for a lot of people. But Astrology is only one piece of a larger trend towards mysticism and esoterica, one I’ve seen reflected in approaches to Kabbalah, Tarot, and even Catholicism. I’ve seen multiple people attempt to hypothesize what is driving these trends, but to me, the answer is pretty clear: the world is fucked, on an existentially unprecedented level, and spirituality can provide answers to the difficult moral and philosophical questions that scientists and academics are largely incapable of grasping. In some ways, the QAnon cult is also a reflection of this; an ostensibly religious movement driven by a feeling of hopelessness towards a rapidly changing world that believers feel no control over. The similarities end there—even the most obnoxious astrologers I’ve met, at the very least, are not racist antisemitic extremists who believe in satanic pedophile cults—but they’re nonetheless thought-provoking.

For me, it’s impossible to think of any of these trends of spirituality as existing in a vacuum. I immediately think of the 60s and 70s, when white hippies and beatniks gravitated towards astrology, tarot, and most notably (and, more often than not, most cringe-provoking) Eastern religion. Just as younger Americans today feel alienated by Christian institutions that continue to prothletize against abortion and homosexuality while actual spiritual and existensial crises such as climate change, fascism and the collapse of institutions are brushed to the side, Americans in previous eras saw a generation of square, law-abiding churchgoers pushing for war in Vietnam while aiding and abetting racism in the US. The piqued interest in Eastern religion was owed to a number of specific events that coincided around this time, but disillusionment with Western religious traditions—and, perhaps, the entire material world—was undeniably a major factor.

For Americans who had associated religion with institutions pushing specific rules, and claiming that damnation awaited those who did not abide—while simultaneously ignoring the damnation that had already arrived—the ideals of Eastern religion, particularly meditation, introspection, focusing on the present, and thinking beyond the material world—were a welcome departure. However, the very term “ideals of Eastern religion” is a gross oversimplification of several religions, each with their own complications and problems. This essentialization is at the heart of how fragments of this “moment” that Eastern religion had in the 60s and 70s was able to survive the Reagan era while radical politics and counterculture did not. Meditation, yoga, and mindfulness could be decontextualized, repackaged, and employed in even the dullest corporate environments, just as long as it was separated from any radical context; meanwhile, Black people were mass incarcerated and queer people were left to die. Mindfulness continues to be mass-marketed as it metastasizes into different forms, and this marketing has played a major role in shaping present-day spiritual trends.

This speaks to how, though there are clear similarities between these spiritual trends, with half a century’s distance between now and then the present moment is something of an inverse of moments past. The spiritual movements of the 60s and 70s were (justifiably or not) perceived as one aspect of what is labelled as “the counterculture,” and the backlash to the counterculture (and the civil rights movement, of course) was the backbone of Nixon and Reagan’s appeal to the public. Fifty-something years later, the world continues to feel the consequences of Reagan, who once opined that trees cause more pollution than automobiles, while mysticism in practically every form has already been mass-marketed to the fullest extent. In short, younger people today crave spirituality not because of dramatic upheaval, but rather because the long-festering consequences of Reaganism, white supremacy and fascism are now infesting every aspect of human life.

For me, personally, music has long been a way of understanding culture and politics in ways that traditional education cannot always provide, whether it be Fela Kuti weaving scathing critiques of colonialism into his extended grooves, or Johnny Cash playing concerts in prisons singing about the uselessness of incarceration and the dignity of those abandoned by society.. Naturally, music has also provided a lens through which I can understand present-day religious trends, seen in everything from the New Age revival driven by indie labels such as Leaving Records, to borderline youth pastors such as Justin Bieber and Chance the Rapper, and in the lyrics of artists such as Megan Thee Stallion and Kehlani, which frequently reference astrology. The most curious spiritual trend in music, for me, has been the renewal of interest in “spiritual jazz.”

Like practically every form of music categorization , spiritual jazz is a weird, somewhat questionable term. Angel Bat Dawid, a composer and improviser at the center of contemporary jazz, perfectly summarized this in an interview she gave with the website Reverb, stating “I’ve always been a spiritual musician. My music has never not been connected to my spiritual identity—that’s Black music in general. I always have issues when people say ‘spiritual jazz.’ That term kind of bothers me—jazz is spiritual. There’s no such thing as non-spiritual Black music. Even our crazy music is spirited, there’s no Black music that isn’t tied to spirituality.” I’d say the ornate space-age orchestral freakouts led by Sun Ra, the ecstatic classical marches of Albert Ayler, and the communal improvisations of Don Cherry’s Organic Music Theatre defy any basic comparisons between one another, and those are three of the musicians who are most associated with the term. For the purpose of this article, I’d think of spiritual jazz less along the lines of any kind of sound or religious affiliation, but rather as a shared musical consciousness, one that views music and spirituality in a unitarian sense, where every different perception and expression is connected by its ecstatic capability.

I’m, in some ways, reluctant to look at this renewal of interest (and considering the terminology for “spiritual jazz” seems to be pretty recent, renewal of interest might not be the right word) through the lens of the renewal of interest in astrology and mysticism. Those are things I largely associate with millennials and Gen Z, whereas spiritual jazz, like a lot of jazz music, I associate with dads. But among the people I meet who are around my age who like jazz, musicians like Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Pharaoh Sanders often come up as favorites as often as Miles or Trane. Much of the most exciting jazz music coming out today exists in this lineage, particularly from players such as Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Yazz Ahmed, and, perhaps the most well-known player today, Kamasi Washington. Washington’s two most recent albums, which collectively amount to five discs worth of material, have received acclaim and exposure. He's also crossed over to hip-hop fans for his playing on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” and for his numerous collaborations with Flying Lotus (also Alice Coltrane’s grandnephew) and Thundercat. Beyond the niche world of contemporary improvised music, the “spiritual jazz” sound is more influential on popular music than ever before. The 2016 stage set of Solange, one of the most prominent artistsof the moment, was heavily influenced by Sun Ra and the Arkestra, and when a twitter user suggested a collaboration between Solange and the Arkestra, she responded “This would bring me THE most divine joy!” Pharoah Sanders, one of the most legendary musicians in this lineage, recently collaborated with UK electronic artist Floating Points on his first album is nearly twenty years, which was released to near-universal acclaim (including by me, in a review I wrote for The Grape when it first came out).

And, like so much contemporary music, the center is John Coltrane.

Coltrane’s musical arc is as legendary as that of The Beatles, and as storied as Robert Johnson at the crossroads. Coltrane kicked a nearly ten-year addiction to heroin and alcohol right around the time he first began recording sessions as a bandleader, and in the remaining decade of his life reinvented music several times over. Over the course of this ten-year odyssey, Coltrane’s music and spirituality were wholly intertwined. His masterpiece “A Love Supreme” is essentially a religious text, a tone poem of Coltrane’s own prayer. In the liner notes, he alludes to his past addictions and credits God in overcoming them:

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.

As time and events moved on; a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered into a phase which was contradictory for the pledge and away from the esteemed path; but thankfully now and again through the unerring and merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of His OMNIPOTENCE, and of our need for, and dependence on Him. At this time I would like to tell you that NO MATTER WHAT...IT IS WITH GOD. HE IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL. HIS WAY IS IN LOVE, THROUGH WHICH WE ALL ARE. IT IS TRULY-A LOVE SUPREME-.

This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say "THANK YOU GOD" through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues. May He help and strengthen all men in every good endeavor.

Coltrane notably doesn’t name any one god in these notes, reflecting his universalist beliefs. In his book The Dawn of Indian Music in the West, musician and author Peter Lavezzoli wrote of Coltrane’s interest in Paramahansa Yogananda, stating “Yogananda believed that both Eastern and Western spiritual paths were efficacious, and wrote of the similarities between Krishna and Christ. This openness to different traditions resonated with Coltrane, who studied the Qur'an, the Bible, Kabbalah, and astrology with equal sincerity.” This is reflected in his music, which incorporated influences from Indian musicians such as Ravi Shankar—years before his association with The Beatles, and long before Indian instrumentation became trendy within popular music. But the full extent of Coltrane’s universalist musical vision would not be fulfilled in his lifetime.

Alice Coltrane had a spiritual epiphany that, like John, was rooted in trauma—specifically the sudden and tragic loss of her husband. In her memoir Monument Eternal, she recounted a period, from around 1968 to 1970, of dramatic weight loss, hallucinations, and overwhelming spiritual visions that left her debilitated. Coltrane referred to this experience as tapas, which within the context of Hinduism refers to a period of spiritual cleansing. Under the guidance of Swami Satchidananda—whose name inspired her all-time classic album “Journey In Satchidananda”—Coltrane became devoted to Hinduism and opened her own ashram. Her music is, in my eyes, the quintessential example of the universal consciousness (also the name of one of her classic albums) that is a throughline for this music, in its many forms. Coltrane’s music is remembered in part for the influence of Indian music—the intro of “Journey in Satchidananda,” with its tambura drone and meditative bassline, is absolutely legendary—but her music from this time also incorporated influences from Islamic modal music, R&B, Gospel, Blues, and Romanticism. Her son Ravi spoke of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” (which Coltrane recorded her own version of) being played frequently in his childhood, and her daughter Miki recalled the Coltranes having a koto and bagpipes around the house. Indeed, more than perhaps any other musician, Alice Coltrane defied descriptions such as “spiritual jazz,” or even jazz in general. Just as John Coltrane gave his music as an offering to God while also humbly asking for the ability to bring pleasure to others, Alice Coltrane’s music was a full expression of her body and soul, a wish to be connected with God and to make that spiritual connection attainable to others.

As singular as the Coltranes’ genius may be, they too did not exist in a vacuum. The 60s and 70s were undeniably a cultural revolution led by Black people, even as the state continued to show its fangs. At the heart of this cultural revolution was a spiritual revolution, one that, to me, seems to be relegated to the sidelines. Sun Ra, one of the most influential visionaries of his century, was shaped by this revolution, and became a revolutionary figure himself. He moved to Chicago from the Deep South at the onset of this period of social change, and developed his visionary outlook in part from the influence of street preachers and pamphleteers. His records, hand-made with artwork possibly drawn by Ra himself, and his own pamphlets collecting his poetry, reflect these influences. Sun Ra was, in some ways, the catalyst for a musical movement inspired by the independent nature of his art. While the artists I’ve mentioned are tremendous formative influences for this movement, the backbone of the “spiritual jazz” sound is made up of several independent labels that cropped up in the 70s, such as Strata East, Black Jazz, and Tribe Records. Independent record labels always existed, but prior to the 70s and 80s, the vast majority of labels were releasing music in the interest of making money. Punk rock is often thought of as the time when independent music became a culture in and of itself, but jazz is more deserving of that distinction. It would be impossible to think of spiritual jazz as a subgenre of jazz rather than a (pretty questionable) description for certain artists: this is music that flourished in creative environments that allowed direct connections between the artists and their audience

But, while artists like Alice Coltrane and Don Cherry are given much-deserved recognition, the greater context for this music is not. I fear many listeners do treat this music as existing in a vacuum, a mere remnant of an alien time and place. This could be because of Spotify, and the damage algorithms have done to music consumption, or it could be an inherent factor of discovering older music from a different time period. It makes sense that people associate music with where, when, and how they listen to it rather than when it was released, especially if that was before they were born. Regardless, even as individual music is recognized, the larger movements in Black art and spirituality are overlooked. This is part of a greater pattern of the Black experience being retrospectively separated from what Angel Bat Dawid referred to as its inherent spirituality. Rather, it is talked about as if it is exclusively entrenched in trauma and violence. Perhaps this is best typified by the fact that Malcolm X, whose life journey was shaped by religious experiences and whose pilgrimage to Mecca was a pivotal moment in a lifelong search for peace—for himself and for the world—is still remembered by far too many as the more militant counterpart to Martin Luther King. Furthermore, the Nation of Islam is still referred to by some as simply the “Black Muslims,” something considered a grotesque generalization going back to X’s own autobiography. Black Muslims have existed in America as long as Black people had been forcibly brought to America, but Black spirituality is only ever recognized in conjunction with political struggle and militancy, and never as an element of day-to-day life. Within the public discourse, any practice of indigenous African religious traditions is bundled together as a part of a cultural trend, or mocked and disregarded entirely. And I’ve never heard any dialogue about the interactions between Black spirituality and East and South Asian religion. Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Bennie Maupin all practice Buddhism; Don Cherry and Alice Coltrane both practiced Hinduism; Sonny Rollins practices Yoga, and Joseph Jarman of the Art Ensemble of Chicago was a Jodo Shinsu priest. These artists are certainly not lightweights, and yet for many, to the extent that Buddhism and Hinduism exists in America, it exists within the realm of white hippies and new age storefronts.

This is not to say religion is not, or should not, be political. When wars have been fought over religion since the beginning of religion itself, of course it’s political. But when Black music is decontextualized from movements and traditions, and from the experiences of Black people, the sociopolitical power of both music and religion is diminished. This is what makes this music continue to be so relevant and valuable, and why it continues to be “rediscovered” again and again over so many decades. Jazz music is a form of creative, and accessible, improvised music where spiritual and political consciousness exist hand in hand. Subsequently, the music provides a framework for the abolition of borders, and the fusion of different cultural traditions, in a form that does not diminish or appropriate said cultural traditions. In the midst of a spiritual trend that was being capitalized and whitewashed from the very beginning, this music is more valuable than ever.

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