When consulting what Ellison called the “lower frequencies” of American culture, we find that jazz registers in unexpected but meaningful places. Jazz music has not just been in conversation with American religions or served as their musical accompaniment, but is integral to the stories of American religions in the last century. But it is equally true, if uncommonly recognized, that jazz cannot be understood without its abiding, creative religiosities. This paper will explore how religious identity is made and contested through the senses, the disciplines, and the reception of jazz and improvised music, distilling a series of historical themes that also serve as broader interpretive angles of hearing. These themes demand a certain interdisciplinarity and a focus beyond prominent individuals and institutions. But in this, and because of the usually non-referential character of improvised music, they scramble the very codes they also establish. The paper thus engages the challenge of sound as exemplary of the study of religions more broadly, working through concrete portraits and sound examples to identify broader theoretical resonances and new scholarly formats.
Jason C. Bivins is professor of philosophy and religion at North Carolina State University. He is a specialist in religion and American culture, focusing particularly on the intersection between religions and politics since 1900. He is the author of Spirits Rejoice!: Jazz and American Religion (Oxford University Press, 2015), a study of the intersections of jazz and American religions in and across comparative themes/categories like ritual, community, and cosmology. Bivins has published most actively in the area of U.S. political religions, the subject of his first two books, Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2008) and The Fracture of Good Order: Christian Antiliberalism and the Challenge to American Politics (University of North Carolina Press, 2003). He is currently working on his next monograph in political religions: Embattled Majority, a genealogy of the rhetoric of “religious bigotry” in conservative Christian politics since the 1960s.
Sponsored by the Music and Sound Working Group of the Humanities Institute, Musicology, and the Department of Comparative Studies.