ArtWay

The way to avoid blandness in religious art is immersion in Scripture. Jonathan Evens

Jazz, Blues, and Spirituals

Hans Rookmaaker (Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker ed.), Jazz, Blues, and Spirituals. The Origins and Spirituality of Black Music in the United States. Phillipsburg – P & R Press, 2019. First published in Dutch by Zomer en Keunings, Wageningen, 1960. In 2000 published in English in Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker ed., New Orleans Jazz, Mahalia Jackson and the Philosophy of Art: The Complete Works of Hans R. Rookmaaker, Vol. 2 (Carlisle, UK: Piquant, 2002). 

BOOK REVIEW

by Jonathan Evens

It was 1936 when the young Hans Rookmaaker discovered jazz. Reading ‘Jazz World’, attending the Dutch Jazz Club, frequenting record stalls and shops, swapping records with fellow young aficionados, he graduated from Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong  to Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver. The blues and spirituals were also there in the mix of this teenager’s expanding musical horizons.

That story is positioned chronologically two-thirds of the way through ‘Jazz, Blues and Spirituals’ but is fundamental to the story that is told and is synergistic with the experience of all who grew up to the sound of needle on vinyl whether it was jazz, blues, spirituals, gospel, rock or soul that was being played. Rookmaaker was simply a jazz, blues and spirituals enthusiast, who was unable to work as an adult without jazz on the turntable in the background.

As such, he has the enthusiasts concern for completeness making this is a thorough, though relatively fast moving, telling of the story of these three genres through to the 1940s with obscurer figures rubbing up against the greats. The telling of the story is all the better for its scope. As a fan who is also a wordsmith, Rookmaaker provides us with marvellous descriptions of the music that he loves: New Orleans ensembles are pure polyphony expressing resourcefulness and ingenuity, their open and subtle rhythms incite striking joy.

There was another passion in Rookmaaker’s life, however, and that was his commitment to Reformational Philosophy, the belief that the lordship of Jesus Christ extends to every area and aspect of life including music. Enthusiasm for jazz, blues and spirituals preceded Rookmaaker’s Christian conversion and was not overtaken by it, as, on the one hand, Reformational Philosophy believes that art needs no justification and is to be cherished for its own sake. Yet, on the other hand, art does need justification in the sense that there would be no good art if Christ had not come to lift the curse from this world and save it from becoming hell itself.

Rookmaaker believed a conflict arises with the lordship of Christ when art is placed on too high a pedestal, lifting it out of its ties with daily realities to the level of museum art, the work of a genius. When this occurs art becomes art for art’s sake, a kind of irreligious religion, in a world where religion has no clearly defined practical role. The jazz, blues and spirituals for which the young Rookmaaker developed such a passion did not experience such a conflict deriving, as they did, both from the daily realities of racism and discrimination experienced by the black community in America and the connection to church, spirituals and gospel that informed both jazz and blues. However, as jazz developed a sense of individualism, primarily through improvisation, for Rookmaaker a conflict did arise and jazz partook of the existential spirit that he perceived to be expressed in modern art’s experiments with the irrational and the abstract.

Rookmaaker was a revelation to many who had grown up within churches which created an absolute divide between the Christian community and the culture of the world, because here was someone who clearly loved the Arts and valued creativity as an expression of our being made in the image of God. Someone who loved and valued the Arts so much, that he was prepared to argue for expressions of God deriving from a Christian worldview while contending with those which did not. For me, in the early ‘70s, that perspective opened up the Arts and was a breath of fresh air in a stale environment. Rookmaaker was an engaged and thoughtfully critical voice who actively opened doors to the Arts for many, particularly those with broadly similar experiences of the dismissive and distancing attitudes towards the Arts found in my church experience as a young person. One of the pleasures that my own writing on the Arts has brought to me has been opportunities to talk with some of those who benefitted personally from knowing Rookmaaker and who experienced transformative debate with him about the Arts.

In this book the principal point of contention is with modern jazz, which on the basis of the use he makes of Philippians 4:8, is seen primarily as an expression of existentialism. Philippians 4:8 is used at several points in this book as providing a Biblical ‘norm for art’. It is on the basis of these norms that he then justifies his love for ‘the purity of New Orleans jazz, as played by King Oliver in the early 1920s, to the more individualistic jazz of Chicago style, exemplified by Louis Armstrong.’ The spirit of New Orleans jazz, he writes, is ‘lively, joyful, with unity in diversity, individuality within a collective, inner peace and vitality, freedom within the confine of a set musical structure’. These qualities are an expression of the norms found in Philippians 4:8, as the ‘fierce outbursts’, ‘vehemence and letting go’ of Chicago jazz are not.

Reading ‘Jazz, Blues and Spirituals’ has revived my gratitude for Rookmaaker’s teaching, writing and passions. It has revived my appreciation for the significant part his ideas and understandings played in my own appreciation of the Arts, and that of many others. It has enabled reflection on the personal journey I have made in appreciating the Arts, both in terms of understanding where that journey began and where I am in the present.

Most of all though, reading ‘Jazz, Blues and Spirituals’ has introduced me to musicians about whom I knew little previously and enlivened my appreciation for the roots of the music with which I am most familiar. That was always the principal motivation and strength of this book – to convey Rookmaaker’s evident love and enthusiasm for jazz, blues and spirituals. It succeeded on those terms when first published and retains that strength in the present, making it an informative and passionate introduction to the early history of these genres and the marvellously moving music they contain.

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Jonathan Evens is Associate Vicar, Partnership Development at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, England. A keen blogger, he posts regularly on issues of faith and culture at http://joninbetween.blogspot.co.uk. His journalism and art criticism ranges from Pugin to U2 and has appeared in a range of publications, including Artlyst and Church Times. He runs a visual arts organisation called commission4mission, which encourages churches to commission contemporary art and, together with the artist Henry Shelton, has published two collections of meditations and images on Christ's Passion. Together with the musician Peter Banks, he has published a book on faith and music entitled ‘The Secret Chord’.