“Lord, hear our prayer.” That was the sound of religion to me growing up, Sunday mornings in the darkened warmth of Saint Mark’s Episcopal on Capitol Hill, D.C. I heard these intonations not as the sound of heaven and earth mediated so much as a response to silence, and the courage to overcome it while also dwelling in it. Indeed, there were vast expanses of silence in this part of the service, some of them seeming to stretch out almost audaciously. Even as an altar boy (a pretty bumbling one, I admit), I wondered, was this how people did and sounded out religion elsewhere? Years before I knew about Quaker meetings or the range of meditative practices in religious traditions, the oscillation between prayer’s orality/aurality and those silent chasms unnerved me. But always, almost mercifully, a lone voice would rise up from some distant corner of the church, those vast vaulted ceilings giving the prayer a gravity, a context: a plea for strength as a relationship frayed, or for comfort during illness, to which the congregation responded as one, “Lord, hear our prayer.” I remember being stunned when my father became one of those voices, praying in 1985 for Uncle Bill, in 1989 for Grandma, in 1992 for himself. The possibility that one of those voices might be so close by, his hand in mine, had never even occurred to me. It terrified and consoled me at once.
We often think of prayer by following the recognizable features of the prayerful themselves (what they wear, the gestures they make, the architecture in which they pray, and so on) or through an assessment of the object of prayer (a being, an outcome, a relation). I have long been struck by prayer’s sonics, though: a collective mewling, as in a thickened chord; an assemblage of contrasting registers; an echo, a resonance, an oscillation or timbre. Prayer has always sounded to me like a quickened moment, the heard of some kind of transformation, an aesthetic intensification of time rather than mere recitation or formalism. I note this not only to challenge dusty notions that prayer is silent, interiorized; I mean, too, that the impossibility of capturing its intensities with language emerges nowhere more (or is it less?) vividly than in its aurality. So to take up my own earlier musings about how prayer “moves fluidly among and beyond distinctions and dichotomies,” I want to explore prayer’s sonic resistance to language and its simultaneous vibrancy and resonance because of this resistance: it is not merely wispy and esoteric in these registers, but fully present, material, and intoned in the world of shared experience. But it is momentary. As the late multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy said in 1964, leaning into the microphone at the end of his final concert—just days before he would die, at age thirty-four, from complications due to diabetes—“when you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air; you can never recapture it again.” Prayer, like performance, holds out the possibility that some meaningfully similar experience or context can be conjured repeatedly. But as and in time, it is always already gone.
Jazz musicians know this, and pray routinely despite it. Listen:
If we look for prayer in particular buildings, articulated with familiar bodily comportment, and listen for words that announce the religious, how can we hear the above performances as prayers, locating them with confidence under the umbrella of “religion”? How do we know what to listen or look for? How do we think about and analyze what we choose to focus on? Scholars of religion are accustomed to attending to the centrality of the senses to religious experience, and to the role of sound and music in religious worlds. Yet when challenged by the sheer uncontainability of a phenomenon like prayer, we are confronted with the often unacknowledged limits of our thinking about sound. Many otherwise sensible authors fall into the trap of mistaking song or sound as simply a vehicle for some antecedent noumenon, or as an enlivening gloss on the texts that, qua referential, properly orient the religious. Sound might be an important repository for religious language or expressive of a religious feeling, some interpreters acknowledge, but it is to texts and functions that we ultimately must redound. Too frequently we assume that we know what religion or the sacred is in the adjectival sense; that is, we might sloppily assume that religious music is music which tells us it is religious by virtue of its texts or its settings, that music thus occurs in religion, that preposition doing analytical work on and for us. The study of religions is always itself an engagement with multiplicity, sitting at the intersection of a wide range of human activities both imaginative and embodied; or perhaps it is more accurate to say that religions are dispersed throughout such activities, their qualities scrambled. How like music they are, then. For the musicians captured above, improvisation is not simply part of a free-standing religious tradition but a way to bridge the worlds of sacred and profane, to cross boundaries that language alone, that history alone, that community alone cannot.
So listening to the sounds of prayer both clarifies and muddles things, perhaps doubly so with the prayers of jazz, that dimly understood, mostly wordless, improvised sound. Jazz brings into sharper relief some of the problems and the possibilities of asking after prayer. Musicians certainly pray, dance, and recite on stage, and they sometimes even scratch our epistemological itch by telling us what they intend and what they mean. But if musical performance can alter the world of those who experience the music, the very sensualism, emotionality, and immediacy of improvised music means that, when that music is understood as religious—or even as religion itself—one is participating in the production of a sacred world that takes shape in sound and breaks down therein too. For all we might look to the structural parameters of prayer, and the way audiences are alerted to the form’s enactment, jazz’s spontaneity and unpredictability suggest that rupture, flouting expectations, and subversion may be prayer’s salient characteristics in this context.
Ted Joans called the sound of Albert Ayler’s early trio the equivalent of hearing the word “fuck” shouted in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. One stunned reviewer described Ayler’s music as a “dualism of horror and euphoria.” Another recoiled from Ayler’s “intense cacophony the likes of which the human ear has not heard outside of medieval insane asylums.” Ayler’s music was a barbaric yawp, a sound beyond the self; it was a history, a resonance of tradition and memory. Breathy and ululating, Ayler’s tenor sounds equal parts holy shout and Ben Webster flutter, like a full immersion baptism of sound. Ayler, one of the key figures in the free jazz revolutions of the 1960s, once said “Trane was the Father . . . Pharoah [Sanders] was the Son . . . I am the Holy Ghost.” Ayler believed that he “soared with the spirits,” convinced his music contributed to a larger propagation of truth, which would lead humanity to a new age. He sought to use recognizable musical forms (especially the Gospel tunes of his youth and his faith) to find freedom within sound, saying, “I’m not trying to entertain people, I’m playing the truth for those who can listen.”
Since embracing Islam in his early twenties, South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim has contended that the universality of the ummah is analogous to the kinds of connections – racial, religious, aesthetic – that good jazz could create. Throughout his career, Ibrahim has regularly included devotional pieces on his records, featuring prayers offered in thanks to Allah or vocalizations intended as musical replications of an imam’s call to prayer. For Ibrahim, improvisation does not simply recapitulate a formal setting but reorients listeners and performers in their relationship with God: jazz’s emphasis on concentration and readiness for the moment is, for Ibrahim, analogous to prayer and meditation in Islam (and even in the martial arts he also practices). What knits together these various pursuits is, for Ibrahim, “that I know about what God commands me to do . . . one day I’ll be able to play 10 seconds of pure beauty . . . God willing one day.” Ibrahim links this mentality to the “high” he gets from both improvising and prayer, explaining that “jazz comes from what we call in Islam Tariqa, a state of trance.”
Reedist Oluyemi Thomas and singer Ijeoma Thomas of Oakland’s Positive Knowledge believe the practice of improvisation confirms human spiritual potential, believing that “music comes from the world of the beyond . . . to convey collective reality.” Practicing Baha’is, the Thomases strive to “channel musical light,” understanding that positive transformation is possible because “this earth world is a reflection of the invisible world.” Referring to the tradition’s emphasis on unity and progress, he believes that souls earnestly seeking reunion with the Creator can build “a new civilization, a new creation” with the example of “divine prophets”: “first from community to society all the way to humanity.” Thomas approaches each musical performance and attempts to “lay it out prayerfully, since the sound is not coming from the musician . . . [i]t’s coming from silence, which is really the Creator . . . so you’re having a conversation with God, which is prayer” (Personal Interview).
Tenor saxophonist Greg Wall’s Later Prophets is animated by a desire to update historical traditions. Combining idioms from traditional Azhkenazic music to funk, and linking improvisation to the practice of Torah cantillation, Wall credits his tutelage of a Lubavitcher Hasid as opening him up to a deeper exploration of his own Judaism. As part of their saxophone lessons, “Wall began davening mincha, or the afternoon prayer service” and became involved with a Jersey City minyan. Now an Orthodox rabbi, Wall even performs (in both liturgical and improvisational settings) on the shofar, or ram’s horn, contending that “the sound of the shofar emanating from the heavens was heard at Mt. Sinai . . . [and responding to its sound] is a mitzvah.”
And others, indeed too many to mention. Vocalist Abbey Lincoln: “I know that a song is a prayer, because it’s something you speak over and over and it’s put to music . . . it will manifest in my life one way or another.” Archie Shepp said his music was about “the sudden, wonderful, intuitive, transmogrification of one’s entire biological, sociological, political being into a single living line—so that the moment of performance is less a technological feat than a prayer.” Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians—one of many counter-academies in jazz history—frames all collective activity as ceremonial in nature, including regular prayer, invocations, and meditations. And some jazz musicians have pursued even more formal housings for sonic prayer: the Church of Saint John the Divine, an affiliate of the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church that reveres the late saxophonist John Coltrane, uses his music to form “a traditional Christian liturgy, comprised of prayers and confessionals”; Mary Lou Williams wrote three “jazz masses,” combining traditional Catholic liturgical music with improvisation; and since the 1940s, Afro-Cuban jazz has had a steady stream of Santero performers among its more visible practitioners, some of whom (like Yoruban priest Chief Bey) play on instruments designed to summon the orishas or who (like Babatunde Lea) play sacred bata drums using the technique known as the toques de santo, sometimes called “the secret hand.”
So, we have a serious conjunction between jazz and varied religiosities, many of which insist that polymorphous sound is a form of prayer. But so what? What do we learn about sound through the study of prayer, and about prayer through sound? We can only study prayer in its particularities, of course: its discrete historic and social locations, the occasions and intentions of its practice, and with an ear for the self-understandings that characterize it. These prayers are the product of very particular disciplines, and are often learned in communal contexts: in music lessons, in the exchange of ideas, and most importantly in the intense bloom of performance. As scholars, we might focus on the practice of this sound: musicians’ comportment and motility in performance, the ritualization of playing, or the grammar of real-time interaction in creativity. But “practice” seems to miss out on some of what is going on—the centrality of sensory registers, the fleetingness of experience, and the radical insufficiency of language when thinking about sound’s superfluity. Yet what is fascinating about the contention that music is a form of continual prayer—and that this prayer is not distinct from, say, ritual or meditation or communication—is that these prayers are not silent, yet are generally wordless. So scholars almost always have access only to post hoc descriptions generated after reflection, or to formulations uttered in advance.
And even in such accounts, from musicians themselves in all their variety, the form of prayer is largely improvised, its syntax the grain of a horn’s tone, the way a drummer works the bell of the ride cymbal, the intensity of a contrabass double-stop. The “love cry” of Albert Ayler’s saxophone, the bracing electricity of John McLaughlin’s high-strung guitar, or the sky-cracking force of Cecil Taylor’s pianism ask us to think about prayer and ritual as more than doing things with words that then, in the right contexts, do things back to us. Certainly the notion that we lack words is common in the study of religion—all the way from those theorists of the numinous in the disciplinary past to the constructivists of the present, who focus on the fabrications of the keyword itself. But to “pray” through sound, along with sound, drenched in sound suggests not so much that praying musicians and audients are making up the religious—since the sound doesn’t always announce itself in this way—so much as always grasping at a protean, sensate experience that we can never jot down quickly enough, because in the act of writing it we keep experiencing, and all the while those doubled experiences change and change again. We can never recapture them.
Yet fascinatingly, this felt assurance and presence of what is exterior to the praying self is avowed to come through that self and be made anew through the praying, even if it can never be “recaptured.” This means, I think, more than simply observing how the formal structure of prayer makes possible an encounter or limns a context in which the other can be made proximate. Prayer, here, is more than simply in-spired; it is con-spired in a way that facilitates co-presence. Musicians still arrange their bodies and objects in ways that remind us of the materiality and embodiment of sound. But intentionality, and the sonic response to what players affirm is the already-present presence “in the air,” is always blended with open-endedness, surprise, and transformation that they help produce, rather than simply witness or formalize. We know, of course, that prayer is not (merely) a matter of interiority. But jazz prayer also bids us to note how exteriority is less certain, less stable than we thought, configured differently in different traditions: in a throng, a gesture, a melody.
Open-ended, subject to contingency and revision, something about improvised music gets to the very staged, unstable qualities of “religion” as it structures and eludes identity. Jazz musicians seek to create the conditions for spirits to manifest in and through prayer. It is this emphasis on communication, and on sounding out relationships, that is salient when we cock our ears just so to jazz prayers. We are not left to conclude that jazz is simply overwhelming drift, a nameless smoke. Bob Brookmeyer once described jazz as “ritual gone mad,” but mad form is still form. So we may listen with fascination to religions as they are heard through music, through jazz specifically. And we find that jazz religiosity is not just an interesting, mostly—untold sidebar to the stories we know; nor is it as simple as positing that “religion” and “jazz” are like devotional spices, adding something piquant but elusive to each other’s extant recipe. The vexatious “and” dissolves in the surplus of the prayerful moment. The sound is the religious, becoming and already arrived and receding at once. Notes as invocations, pulse as ritual, the very interactivity of jazz exemplifies the relational qualities of prayer, with protean sound transforming the practicing self into vessel and recipient.
These are some of the other dimensions to the practitioner’s disposition and relation to that expanse of silence and formlessness, the non-linguistic, that icy bridge across which William James said we can only will ourselves, believe ourselves to have arrived. In order to understand the various forms of presence that believers insist are there—the universe in fact not mute, not blank—we must attend, too, to its regular aurality. Jazz prayers reverberate in the literal as well as the metaphorical sense, then, and thus may help us to understand prayer’s multiplicity beyond the music that announces and constitutes it: the shapes given to prayer, the ways it is housed and set adrift. All religions announce their difference from the generalities that would lend coherence to our fragmentary languages. That we harbor doubts about what we are hearing or seeing, about how it is indexed to our formal definitions of “prayer” or “religion,” or that an awareness of our limits intrudes continuously on our attempts to make sense of things—these do not undermine a scholar’s efforts so much as they remind us that we, like the aspirant, are staring across James’ icy bridge. We can have no certainty as to the listener’s experience or the presences avowed. But we can take it to the bridge anyways.