Gospel music, in its broadest context, is sacred music that developed in Europe, based upon hymns that were sung as part of a religious service; however, the focus here is on gospel music in America that can be traced to the slaves and its connection to jazz.
“Black gospel music” is a unique style of gospel music that has its origins in early 17th century America. At that time slaves were required to attend their masters’ religious services, where they could be indoctrinated through the use of biblical passages to be good servants — loving, obeying and trusting of their masters — with their rewards to be received in the after-life.
Since slaves were forbidden from speaking their native languages, they were initially unable to freely express themselves in spiritually profound ways. The slaves therefore resorted to secret religious rituals such as spirit possession, shouts and chants. When they were toiling in the fields they sang work songs that made use of the call and response. As time passed this led to multi-part harmonies which were combined with a message of faith, hope and forbearance and these songs have come to be known as “Negro spirituals.”
The slaves’ early gospel songs were based upon traditional hymns and an oral tradition that the slaves brought with them from Africa. By using repetition to encourage those who couldn’t read to participate as part of a group at a worship service, a distinctive style began to evolve. By incorporating into religious songs call and response along with a syncopated rhythm, a distinct and highly stylized version of gospel music began to evolve. This music became the foundation for the music that African Americans would build upon for eventual use in their own worship services or meetings.
Initially these songs held out the hope for a better life and promised that salvation was near. The music was steeped in deep emotion and heart aching pain. When these passionate songs and the strong African music traditions and rhythms of the slaves were mixed in the “musical melting pot” that contained European musical ideas and concepts, blues and ultimately jazz were born.
Generally the slaves were denied the use of musical instruments, so they sang acappella style; however they did make percussive sounds, the most obvious of which is hand-clapping, made its way into their music. As they gained control of their religious services, they of course integrated instruments into the music, combined movement, shouts and communal interaction (the call and response) and other practices that made a “black church” experience unique.
Around the end of the 19th century a musical form began to emerge in African-American communities in the South that used narrative ballads that rhymed and were based upon spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts and chants – this is the music we know as the “Blues.” Based upon a 12-bar chord progression and using expressive “blue notes” — notes that are flatted in relation to the major scale — the performer was free to tell a story, generally about the performer’s personal experience, which invariably was laden with sorrow and misery. While the subject matter of the blues was much more earthy than gospel music, both are roots that joined together to give life to jazz.
Ever year on Sunday during Labor Day weekend (Sept. 1, 9:30 am), the Vail Jazz Festival presents the Gospel Prayer Meetin’ to recognize and pay tribute to the critical contribution that this music has made in shaping jazz. This year the ever-popular Niki Haris will once again lead the Prayer Meetin’, joined by the Mile High Gospel Ensemble, Wycliffe Gordon, Jeff Clayton, Byron Stripling and many others. Written lyrics of the spirituals that Haris will sing will be available at the show and the audience will be encouraged to sing along.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Now in its 19th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.