ODD TRUTHS: TWO MYSTICS OF AMERICAN JAZZ

In its early stages, jazz was publicly scapegoated as The Devil’s music. Much like the moral watchdogs who would later comment on the Satanic nature of soul and rock and roll, anti-jazz writers were concerned about the perceived social degrading of Western culture and channelled their prejudices into hateful polemics. This statement from the General Federation of Women’s Clubs sums up the sentiment:

“Jazz was originally the accompaniment of the voodoo dance, stimulating half-crazed barbarians to the vilest of deeds.”

Fortunately, the scare tactics did little to stem the tide of the “decadent” music.  Songs by musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong sent harmonic shockwaves that were felt–and danced to–around the world. By the time of the Civil Rights Movement, jazz was generally acknowledged as a natural encapsulation of the transgenerational struggles of African-Americans.

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. via Wikimedia Commons.

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. via Wikimedia Commons.

At the Berlin Jazz Festival of 1964, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr declared that jazz music evoked life’s ups and downs:

“Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.”

“Modern Jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.”

Some artists took this idea further, setting their sights on humankind’s transcendence. For Sun Ra (born Herman Blount) the ultimate goal was a type of self-empowered elevation to the stars. Ra was a self-declared anomaly. After an abudction experience in which he claimed aliens entrusted him with a mission to enlighten humanity, Ra began to describe himself as a “different order of being”, not a man but an “angel”. Unlike other beings, Ra had the power to sense “rays” and vibrations.

Album cover for "In the Orbit of Ra" via Strut Records.

Album cover for “In the Orbit of Ra” via Strut Records.

Through the medium of his band Arkestra, Ra sought to reveal cosmic truths in the form of Dionysian and Saturnalian compositions that evoked higher levels of consciousness. In his poem, The Neglected Plane of Wisdom (1966) he writes:

“Music is a plane of wisdom, because music is a universal language, it is a language of honour, it is a noble precept, a gift of the Airy Kingdom, music is air, a universal existence … common to all the living.”

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Sun Ra Promotional Poster via aadl.org

Similarly, in his song Enlightenment, Ra expresses his devotion to the illuminating power of “strange mathematics” and “space world” vibrations:

The Sound of Joy is Enlightenment

Space, Fire, Truth is Enlightenment

Space Fire

Sometimes it’s Music

Strange Mathematics

Rhythmic Equations

The Sound of Thought is Enlightenment

The Magic Light of Tomorrow

Backwards

are those of Sadness

Forward and Onward

Are those of Gladness

Enlightenment Is my Tomorrow

It has no planes of Sorrow

Hereby, our Invitation

We do invite you

be of our Space World

This Song is Sound of Enlightenment

The Fiery Truth of Enlightenment

Vibrations

come from the Space World

Is of the Cosmic

Starry Dimension

Enlightenment is my Tomorrow

It has no planes of Sorrow

Hereby, our Invitation

We do invite you

to be of our Space World.

Ra’s philosophy was eclectic, combining elements of Gnosticism, Theosophy, and Illuminism. Overall, Ra hoped for a posthuman, intergalactic utopia. In a series of lectures given at the University of California, Berkeley in 1971, he encouraged students to break through the bonds of reality by reading good books and banishing the ignorance within themselves.

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Like Ra, John Coltrane was interested in the spiritual potentialities of music. His album A Love Supreme (often described as his magnum opus) was initiated by his “spiritual awakening” in 1957. His voracious appetite for books must have played a part in his transformation. According to Jason C. Bivins, Professor of Religious Studies at North Carolina State University, Coltrane was an avid and well-read student of religion:

“He read Edgar Cayce, Madame Blavatsky, and Cyril Scott’s Theosophical book Music: Its Secret Influence Through the Ages, scientific and mathematical theory, the New Testament, and Hazrat Inayat Khan’s The Mysticism of Sound and Music. He became influenced by the notion – popular among Swedenborgians, Theosophists, and various mystical traditions – that insight was to be gained by establishing correspondences between temporal-physical locations, musical tones, and celestial spheres.”

coltrane

The principles of Coltrane’s sonic spirituality were later taken up and consecrated by the Church of Saint John Coltrane, a unique community which is based in San Francisco.  In 2015, Ultraculture spoke with Marlee-I-Mystic, one of the church’s deacons. She outlined the church’s stand on Coltrane’s universalism:

“Coltrane Consciousness also revolves around the understanding of the Divine Trinity of Melody, Harmony and Rhythm, and an understanding of the Divine Formula held within the album A Love Supreme: Acknowledgment, Resolutions and Pursuance (to reach a ‘love supreme’).

Through ‘sound baptisms’ in John Coltrane’s music, parishioners are brought to the understanding of the “Mind of God”.

Both Coltrane and Ra used musical initiatives to achieve the divine in everyday life. While Ra, a pioneer of Afrofuturism, envisioned the infinite possibilities of futurity, Coltrane proclaimed a gospel of immanent unity. Their mystic fruits of labour are a far cry from the imaginative accusations of early twentieth-century moralists.

2 thoughts on “Two Mystics of American Jazz

  1. Leland McGee

    I believe the life is about continuous growth and development. The young author of this piece reflects a passion for insight that sets on a path toward wisdom.

    Reply

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