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God Is In The House: Five Sacred-Jazz Recordings

Following her conversion to Catholicism, pianist Mary Lou Williams began to compose and record religious music.
William Gottlieb
Library of Congress
Following her conversion to Catholicism, pianist Mary Lou Williams began to compose and record religious music.

When jazz emerged in the early decades of the 20th century as music of liberation, entertainment and modernism, it provoked a backlash among cultural and religious-establishment figures, many of whom went so far as to suggest that it was "the music of the devil." By the middle years of the 20th century, however, jazz had found its way into the church, sometimes employed in the ritualistic proceedings of liturgies and other traditional ceremonies, or presented in other thematic ways that paid homage to a deity (usually Christian). How did the devil's music get religion?

The religion, in some respects, was there all along. Many African-American musicians grew up attending and performing in church services, and the imprint of that experience can be found in albums ranging from New Orleans clarinetist George Lewis' 1954 album Jazz At Vespers to saxophonist John Coltrane's landmark 1965 LP A Love Supreme, which Coltrane offered as a sort of musical prayer to God. Even Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue was inspired in part, in the words of its leader, by "some other kind of sound I remembered from being back in Arkansas, when we were walking home from church and playing these bad gospels."

The most direct examples come from sacred-jazz compositions — pieces written explicitly to either mirror or supplement religious ceremonies. With Christmas in mind, here are five examples of jazz in the service of the Lord.

Copyright 2015 WFIU

David Brent Johnson
David Brent Johnson is the host of Afterglow and Night Lights. An Indianapolis native and IU alumnus, David began his radio career at Bloomington community radio station WFHB, where he hosted the weekly jazz program All That Jazz. A writer who’s published frequently in Bloom Magazine, The Ryder, the Bloomington Independent, and Indianapolis Nuvo, he has won two Society of Professional Journalists awards for his arts writing.