Marsalis' Mass Blends Gospel and Jazz
By CHARLES J. GANS Associated Press Writer
Apr 9th, 2008 | NEW YORK -- Wynton Marsalis will be turning the House That Jazz Built at the Time Warner Center into the House of the Lord when he premieres his first jazz Mass, which blends the gospel and jazz traditions in a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York State's oldest African-American congregation.
The 100-plus Abyssinian Baptist Church Bicentennial Choir will lift their voices in song as they make their way through the Rose Theater in the traditional Processional to join forces with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to perform Marsalis' "Abyssinian 200: A Celebration," a 19-part piece based on the liturgy found in many African-American Baptist churches.
"When we get in there, it's just a big musical auditorium, but when we do the Invocation, it becomes a sanctified place because God's presence enters into it," said Abyssinian's pastor, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, who will deliver a sermon on "the uniting power of prayer."
"I see this jazz Mass as an opportunity of not only bringing together the jazz and gospel traditions, but as a way of talking about the unique and important contributions of the African-American religious experience to life in America and around the world," he said.
The Mass, with "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" actor Avery Brooks serving as the stage director, will be presented Thursday through Saturday nights at JALC's main hall, with the last performance recorded for later broadcast on XM satellite radio. The following Saturday there will be two performances at the Harlem church.
Marsalis says that though the piece was commissioned by JALC to celebrate the Harlem church's bicentennial, the music has a deeper, personal spiritual meaning for him. The trumpeter says he wrote the piece for his grandmother and great-aunt, both born around the turn of the 20th century.
"Both of them were domestic workers and very religious and quiet spiritual people," said Marsalis. "I love those people because of the feeling they had and the religion gave them a large part of that feeling. It was a feeling of warmth and of a soulfulness and an engagement with the world ... not by escaping things but through confronting them with the power of love."
Before composing the music, Marsalis spent hours talking with Butts about the significance of each part of the prayer service. He further drew upon his diverse influences: his music professor father's lessons about traditional spirituals, hymns and gospel music; his own experience as a classical trumpeter playing the religious works of Bach, Handel and Palestrina; and his encyclopedic knowledge of all styles of jazz dating back to its roots in his native New Orleans.
Marsalis also highlighted the common links between jazz and the African-American religious rite by including call-and-response patterns and leaving room for improvisation.
Both Marsalis and Butts acknowledge that such a collaboration would have been unlikely a century ago when many black preachers denounced jazz as the "devil's music."
"A lot of that feeling came out of ignorance born of the fact that people of African descent had been stripped of a lot of our culture and followed the lead of those who enslaved us ... and were taught to really hate ourselves and our music," said Butts. "But now we've come to understand ... that this is truly the only real American music and it's beautiful music."
Marsalis says Louis Armstrong helped change attitudes when he recorded the first jazz version of a spiritual in 1938, "When the Saints Go Marching In," and many other jazz musicians drew inspiration from black church music, including Duke Ellington, Horace Silver and John Coltrane.
Butts says the Abyssinian Church has its own links to the jazz tradition. Nat "King" Cole was married there, and the church held memorial services for Count Basie and Art Blakey.
In the early '90s, Marsalis performed his only other major religious work at the Harlem church — "In This House, On This Morning," a suite the trumpeter wrote and recorded with his septet. Marsalis' adviser on that project: the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who preached a sermon on the trumpeter's album "The Majesty of the Blues."
Butts says the recent controversy surrounding Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor, has resulted in "a little bit of the maligning of the black church."
"I'm hoping that people will come away with a better understanding of the importance of our religious experience and what it's meaning truly has been for America and the world," Butts said. "I want this expression of jazz music and the African-American religious and sermon tradition to serve as a foundation for unity among all people. That's the height of our religious expression in America ever since we were enslaved people. We've been trying to make sense out of the madness, and reconciliation, unity, peace, prayer, this is what we hope for."
On the Net:
Jazz at Lincoln Center
The Abyssinian Baptist Church
And, click here to listen to Marsalis' first religious piece, "In this House, On this Morning"
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