Inside the Vail Jazz Festival: Roots of the jazz tree |

Inside the Vail Jazz Festival: Roots of the jazz tree

Howard Stone
Inside the Vail Jazz Festival
Gospel queen Niki Haris performs at the 2018 Vail Jazz Party.
Jack Affleck | Special to the Daily

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 afterlife.

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 multipart harmonies which were combined with a message of faith, hope and forbearance and these songs have come to be known as “Negro spirituals.”

Making do

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 Black people would build upon for eventual use in their own worship services.

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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, the blues and ultimately jazz were born.

Generally the slaves were denied the use of musical instruments, so they sang a cappella style; however they did make percussive sounds, the most obvious of which is hand clapping and this made its way into their music. As they gained control over their religious services they integrated instruments into the music and their services combined movement, shouts and communal interaction 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 twelve-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.

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’ performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is readapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’s 25th Anniversary season in 2019. For information about upcoming performances, visit

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