In the 1960s, the fusion of the worlds of jazz and the Church created one of the most interesting, yet one of the most under acknowledged subgenres of jazz.
Throughout jazz’s history, the genre has always been influenced by many other musical styles. Think of Afro-Cuban jazz in the 1940s, gospel-laden hard bop in the 50s or jazz-rock in the 1970s. A quite unusual influence that snuck into jazz was that of religion, leading to the genre spiritual jazz.
The birth of spiritual jazz was much aided by modal jazz, a style of jazz first developed by Miles Davis on his album Kind Of Blue. Modal jazz was groundbreaking because it was no longer based on chord progressions, but on modes. These modes are derived from centuries old Gregorian church music and allowed jazz musicians much more freedom in their solos. Soon, musicians started to experiment with elements of church music and composers from France (Jef Gilson) to Mexico (Tino Contreras) wrote complete jazz masses, in which they set the Catholic liturgy to jazz music.
In 1960s and 1970s America, spiritual and avant-garde jazz was the soundtrack to a time with difficult political and racial issues. It was the era of the Civil Rights Movements and Black Power. Many African-American jazz musicians converted to the Islam and artists likes The Last Poets, Gil-Scott Heron or the Association For The Advancement of Creative Musicians spread implicit or explicit political message with their music. Labels like Black Jazz and Strata East are only the best-known examples of hundreds of private, DIY-labels that specialized in independent, afro-centric and spiritual jazz.
On Sunday March 23rd, we celebrate spiritual jazz with ‘Deeper Still’, a day of concerts and DJ-sets during the Leuven Jazz Festival (RSVP). On the roster are concerts by the Nat Birchall Quintet (UK) and the Dree Peremans Quintet (Belgium), who play contemporary spiritual jazz, and DJ-sets by Francis Gooding (UK) and myself to guide you through the genre’s history. And what place better to host such an event than in a real abbey? The Abdij van Park is today partly a museum, but also partly still inhabited by canons and lies in one of the most beautiful parks of Leuven (see cover picture).