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Lift Every Voice and Swing

Black Musicians and Religious Culture in the Jazz Century


Vaughn A. Booker


New York, NY: New York University Press, 2020

Paperback. xi+331 p. ISBN 978-1479890804. $35


Reviewed by Babacar M’Baye

Kent State University



Vaughn A. Booker’s Lift Every Voice and Swing : Black Musicians and Religious Culture in the Jazz Century is an excellent contribution to African American Studies. The book revisits the periods from the 1920s through the 1960s, when, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, African American society reflected its most diverse music produced by inventive artists who have made some of the longest-lasting influences in American society. As Booker shows, this period was uniquely significant since it was the moment when a few of the most creative African American artists, including Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, and others popularized Swing and Jazz in American culture. Booker examines how these artists brought religious life into American popular culture during the Jazz Age and its succeeding decades.

Booker’s book is very important because it tackles the antithetical separation between African American faith and music that historically prevailed in the perspectives of black ministers who tended to perceive jazz, entertainment, cabarets, and dancing as contrary to true Christian beliefs and religious worship. Booker reverentially addresses this sensitive issue by showing that many iconic African American racial representatives perceived this opposition as superficial. One of these leaders was the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) clergyman Rev. W.W. Evans who “addressed” W.E.B. Du Bois’s “criticism of African American churches as too conservative and moralizing on matters of leisure and recreation, too encouraging of Christian prayer as a solution to worldly problems, and too dependent on religious revivals” [28]. Rev. Evans’s response to the question of “revivals” in Du Bois’s criticism was on point. According to Booker, Rev. Evans “prescribed the use of religious revivals in moderation, writing that ‘they are essential to the spiritual awakening of the Church. Like everything else, like dancing, drinking, smoking, and card-playing, they are subject to abuse and must be used discreetly, advisedly and discriminatingly’” [28]. This disagreement between Du Bois and Rev. Evans reflects the tension between African American Church leaders and intellectuals during the early part of the twentieth century. Booker successfully explores this conflict by showing how both groups somewhat overcame the tension by mutually fighting for the advancement of African American people despite their particular religious beliefs.

Another major aspect Booker examines is how, during the twentieth century, a selected group of African American artists had a sense of religious authority that allowed them to represent their race while they were creating a space for their culture in mainstream American society.  These artists were therefore not devoid of responsibility and allegiance to African American civil rights struggle, history, and culture, let alone to the religious traditions out of which they came. However, they were able to transcend the major challenge that Lionel Hampton had also faced, which was the difficulty to leverage their popularity to represent both their race and the sanctity of the African American music they had received from their cultural origins.  “Hampton conveyed his religious opposition to artists and producers of any race who sought to profit by popularizing African American religious music” [1]. Though, like Hampton, he perceived African American music as “sacred,” Ellington did not find it as antithetical to amusement, dance, and cabarets. He did not regard the deployment of African American music as “entertainment” as an art form that conflicted with religious significance. Ellington stayed with his convictions even if he shared the other artists’ perception of themselves as individuals who should represent their race and propagate its values and dignity in American culture during racist contexts in which admissibility and integration were still denied to blacks in the United States.

Another major quality of Booker’s book is its interdisciplinary methodology. Booker does an excellent job at reflecting how the African American singers and musicians negotiated or overcame the relationships between their faith and music by relying on the songs and personal writings of these artists. He combines archival research, musical history, and historical and literary interpretations of songs to provide a clear understanding of how a selected group of African American artists infused their faith into their music or represented this art as something sacred that should be kept away from entertainment. This is an excellent methodology that other scholars could use to study the vast and rich reservoir of knowledge and practice that African American music represents.

Furthermore, Booker’s study is a form of intellectual history since it shows the role that African American artists played in representing their race and people through positive ideas and postures. Yet it is also a form of religious history because it explores the role of propagators of African American religiosity, Protestantism, or Pentecostalism that these artists played by infusing these values through their music or their attempts to separate their faith from it. A case in point is the opening of Ellington’s song, “Supreme Being” which, as Booker argues, “allowed Ellington to marshal many familiar religious descriptors for this divine concept” [171]. Another example is Ella Fitzgerald who, as Booker suggests, “did produce ‘religious’ representations of African Americans in the studio and live performances that arguably provided more a cultural portrait than genuine reflections of her own beliefs and practices” [103]. In this sense, it seems that African American artists could not all be categorized as being either in favor of or against the mixing of religion and music since they individually regarded the music as sacred even if their role as entertainers and cultural ambassadors ultimately led them to convey religious or spiritual sentiments into the popular realm. For all these above reasons, Booker’s study is a pivotal and much-needed contribution to the study of African American music.



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