18 October 2015


We take it for granted that hymns and spirituals have a place in our repertoires. But they still occasionally take people by surprise. For example, some weeks ago, friends and I were playing in Oakham, a market town in Central England. One of our tunes was The Old Rugged Cross. An elderly gentleman came up afterwards to tell us how much he had enjoyed it. He said he had never realised that a hymn could work well when played by a jazz band.
Marla Dixon, with all-star support, singing 'Over in the Gloryland'

You hardly ever hear a traditional jazz concert in which there is not at least one hymn or spiritual. Also, audiences no longer feel uncomfortable (as English people would have done a hundred years ago) about dancing to such religious music.

Among the most popular titles are:

At The Cross
Down By the Riverside
Does Jesus Care?
Sing On
God Will Take Care Of You
On Higher Ground
Only a Look
Over in the Gloryland
Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down
Royal Telephone
His Eye is on the Sparrow
In the Sweet By and By
The Old Rugged Cross
What a Friend We Have in Jesus
Just a Closer Walk With Thee
Take My Hand, Precious Lord
We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City
Where He Leads Me
It is No Secret
The Lily of the Valley
The Saints Go Marching In

I began to wonder how it came about that such tunes have a place alongside the old pop songs, blues and rags in our repertoire.

It's easy to believe the myth that spirituals were sung in the cotton fields by toiling slaves in the mid-Nineteenth Century and that - when jazz bands came into being - they would have played them and from about 1910 would have 'jazzed them up'.

But I'm not sure it's that simple. I have found no evidence that this happened. For example, can somebody please let me know of any recordings of spirituals or hymns by jazz bands before 1927? I think there's nothing in the early recordings of the ODJB, King Oliver, Kid Ory and so on.

Until somebody does, I prefer the following explanation.

In 1927, Columbia Records twice recorded the great Sam Morgan Band in New Orleans. The recordings were made in the Godchaux Building, 527, Canal Street. Four tunes were recorded on each occasion. The resulting eight recordings are still considered a hugely important part of the history of traditional jazz and have influenced hundreds of bands over the decades.

The legend is that - like other jazz bands - the Sam Morgan Band played mostly for dancing and did not include religious music in its dance hall repertoire. However, one of the recording engineers was very keen on such tunes as Down By The Riverside and suggested that Sam's band should record them.

So the Band included three 'spirituals' in the eight recordings - and the rest is history: if Sam could do it, why not the rest of us?

Apparently trumpet-player Isaiah Morgan (Sam's brother) in a later interview made the point that jazz bands such as theirs might have played hymns and spirituals at funerals but would not have used religious music for dancing.

By 1940, it became commonplace for the most influential traditional jazz musicians to record spirituals. Think of George Lewis, Bunk Johnson, Louis Armstrong.

Quite a few spirituals we play - including some in my list above - were composed not in the days of slavery but in the days when jazz bands were already well established.

Here's a stirring modern example of a spiritual in a jazz band performance. In this video, we see two of the best bands in the world joining together to perform Over in the Gloryland - one of those spirituals made famous in 1927 by Sam Morgan: CLICK HERE.