Jazz, Holiness, and a Pentecostal Aesthetic

By: Dale M. Coulter
Thursday, October 10th, 2013

Charles+Mingus+-+Blues+&+Roots+-+LP+RECORD-494063Sometimes I wonder how Noll missed so much, but then I read on the opening page of his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind that evangelicals have largely abandoned “high” culture. Ah, that’s it: it did not produce a J. S. Bach like Lutheranism did. No high culture, you see, that’s part of the problem.

And then, I listen to the Jazz bassist Charles Mingus bang out “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” and I think, “that’s my music, that’s my culture.”

No, it’s not Bach, but it’s deeply American and it comes right out of Mingus’ experiences at the Holiness Pentecostal church in Watts his step mother took him to. As Mingus once said, “The blues was in the Holiness churches–moanings and riffs between the audience and the preacher. People went into trances.”

Mingus captures the call and response of the holiness worship dynamic, complete with moans and cries, shouts and call outs. It’s all there in the voices and the instruments. It is the ebb and flow of testimony in the form of improvisational bursts that ring out and then return to the fundamental order. It is a Dionysian procession and return, a fundamental dynamic of creation in which all things come forth from God and return to God. The instrument bursts into life through the gift of the musician and then returns.

There are moments when the music can barely contain the ecstatic flights of creativity, when the spirit bursts forth and order must give way to a new order. And then, at the very end, the song flattens as though all the wind–the breath–has gone out like the exhaustion one feels at the end of a red hot worship service when you’ve cried, prayed, shouted, and danced your way through anguish and pain to joy and victory.

I turn from Mingus and listen to the Jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd play “Pentecostal Feelin’” from his Free Form album in 1962 (CD or new download for you millennials). Byrd grew up the son of a Methodist minister and he modeled his music on the spirituals sung by visiting ministers as they came through the church.

As each instrument steps up in “Pentecostal Feelin’” and makes its distinctive contribution, I hear the sound of many tongues, the democratized Spirit of Pentecost flowing in and out of the people to the point that the distinction between minister and laity begins to blur as all take up their place in the bass line of the service. It is a reflection of that deeper harmony in which the Son gives the fundamental shape to the divine music while the Spirit is the breath that breaks forth from the bass line, contracting and expanding in improvisational creativity.

Jazz is activist music for an activist culture. The holiness and pentecostal churches have an aesthetic. It’s reflected in their own liturgical movement, a movement that privileges the spontaneous over the planned, the improvisational over the arranged; and yet, everyone knows when the artist has gone too far and broken the song. The Lutheran culture that produced a Bach could not have produced a Mingus or a Byrd, but the holiness and pentecostal cultures could.

This does not mean that we should reject so-called high culture although I prefer not to place such a value judgment on one kind of cultural expression over another. It does suggest, however, that holiness and pentecostal culture does have something to say about aesthetics.

I’m not the first person to draw links between Jazz and the holiness-pentecostal movement. Harvey Cox famously did in Fire From Heaven

Yes, there was a lot that was “worldly” and from which you knew you had to keep away in pentecostal and holiness culture–but not music. Music and musical instruments were viewed as divine gifts to be used for God’s glory.

If I moved into gospel and its close relationship to early rock-n-roll I could mention folks like Sister Rosetta Tharpe who was Church of God in Christ or even Elvis Presley who grew up Assemblies of God. You can run this thread straight through to modern praise and worship music, but none of it warrants a “high” designation.

How can a tradition that is so earthy, so visceral, that thrives amidst the saw dust of the camp meeting floor, the hot embraces and spontaneous shouts of its adherents, the symbolic gestures of conversation, call and response, hope and desperation–its people are its iconography–be labeled manichaean, gnostic, and docetic? And yet, Noll manages to do just that. Maybe, a pentecostal aesthetic is just not “high” enough for his sensibilities.

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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Thursday, October 10th, 2013 at 9:20 pm and is filed under Church History, Renewal Studies, Spiritual Formation, Worldview. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Jazz, Holiness, and a Pentecostal Aesthetic”

  1. epi ligairi says:

    dale you missed island music !