Jazz, Hope, and Perverse Modernism
The great jazz singer Kurt Elling gave us a real sign of hope in a difficult year on August 30, when he presented a live-streamed concert from the Green Mill, Chicago’s legendary jazz club. “We got a gig, dad,” Elling said as he took the stage. His tone was joyful, and he sounded like someone seeing the ocean for the first time in several years.
This is just what America needs right now—a gracious nod to the best of American culture, and a dose of sonic holiness. There has always been a strong element of the sacred in Elling’s music. He is a former University of Chicago divinity student. Of course, there is also a sense of the sacred in the music of Duke Ellington (“Come Sunday”), John Coltrane (“A Love Supreme”), Aretha Franklin, and Mahalia Jackson.
When I first saw Elling sing in 2006, he combined the classic romantic ballad “My Foolish Heart” with “The Dark Night of the Soul” by Saint John of the Cross. The sacred part came halfway through the song, which those familiar with the Great American Songbook should already know:
The night is like a lovely tune
Beware my foolish heart
How white the ever–constant moon
Take care my foolish heart
There’s a line between love and fascination
It’s hard to see on an evening such as this
At the break, Elling began to chant in his five-octave baritone:
One dark night
Fired with love’s urgent longings
Clothed in sheer grace
I went out unseen
My house being all now still
On that night
In secret for no one saw me
With no other light that the one that burned in my heart
This guided me more surely than the light of noon
To where she waited for me
It was St. John of the Cross. Elling was combining “My Foolish Heart” with the words of a 16th-century Christian mystic, eros with agape.
In Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, Martha Bayles argues that too much contemporary pop music gets its inspiration from perverse modernism, which “makes obscenity and serious artistic value synonymous.” Rock and pop, argues Bayles, have been warped by decadent European ideas. Bayles observes that there are three kinds of modernism: introverted, or art for art’s sake, which includes atonality and experimentation; extroverted, which revitalizes tradition and reaches out to its audience, the way artists like Duke Ellington did; and finally, perverse, whose goal is simply to goad, shock, and blaspheme.
Jazz has always been a kind of extroverted modernism, and always allowed the atonality and experimentation of introverted modernism (see Coltrane’s later works). However, it has always rejected perverse modernism. That has much to do with religion and the Christianity of the black churches. In the newly restored 1958 documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, there is a brief shot of the audience, including a person who might be considered a forefather of Kurt Elling. His name was Father Norman O’Connor. Largely forgotten now, Fr. O’Connor was once an omnipresent figure in the world of jazz. Known as “the jazz priest,” O’Connor was born in Detroit in 1921. He was ordained a Paulist priest in 1948, and in 1954, three years after becoming the Catholic chaplain at Boston University, he was named to the board of the first Newport Jazz Festival.
In the 1960s, after moving to New York, he was the host of a local television show, Dial M for Music, and a syndicated radio show. He was even heard on landmark recordings, introducing John Coltrane at the festival in 1965 on the record New Thing at Newport and pianist Dave Brubeck on The Last Set at Newport. Later, he had his own television show, Jazz with Father O’Connor.
At the 1958 Newport Jazz festival, Fr. O’Connor was there as gospel great Mahalia Jackson transfixed the audience with her rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.” Jazz on a Summer’s Day is a gem of American history and culture. The musicians are spectacular: Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarten juice up standards; Dinah Washington belts out “All of Me”; Sonny Stitt, George Shearing, Chico Hamilton, and Thelonious Monk all perform; Chuck Berry duck-walks through “Sweet Little Sixteen”; Anita O’Day charms and Big Maybelle brings down the house with “All Night Long/I Ain’t Mad at You.” The rich atmosphere was well summarized by a critic writing recently in Movie Nation: “It’s not just the music . . . It’s the look, the feel, the optimism of this moment in time. Integrated audiences sitting (mostly) in rapt attention, men in sport coats, women in hats, performers on stage dressed for the occasion as well. Watching this documentary, you could sense a country of reasonable, smart people ready for any change the world threw at them.” This was a galaxy away from today’s Twitter idiocy, sensitivity cults, and urban riots.
As the film nears its end, the sun is coming up and Mahalia Jackson takes the stage to perform a trio of songs: “Everybody Talking ‘Bout Heaven,” “Didn’t It Rain,” and “The Lord’s Prayer.” Before rage mobs, before cancel culture, before lawsuits over Christmas, Americans were once comfortable with moments of charged grace in the public square. As Jackson sings, the dancers in the audience slow to a stop. Conversations and laughter grow silent in respect. Faces become rapt. God is in the house.