Sacred Jazz: Read an Excerpt from Leon Wieseltier's Essay on THE ABYSSINIAN MASS


Learn more about THE ABYSSINIAN MASS'S musical predecessors

News | Mar, 15th 2016

“Many of the greatest jazz musicians today come out of the church. The church is one of the last places that retain the actual feeling of the blues in sound and also the call-and-response rituals that are central to our music… The principal fact of The Abyssinian Mass—the feeling that we want you to come away with—is uplift through the way that we all come together.” — Wynton Marsalis

Commemorating the 200th anniversary of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, The Abyssinian Mass is a celebration of the church's enduring spirit and the intimate relationship we seek with a higher power. But the music has universal appeal, too, as its jazz and gospel elements combine to form music that’s both spiritual and secular. The Abyssinian Mass follows in a long tradition of sacred jazz: for more than half a century, jazz composers and bandleaders have been fusing blues and the church.

Sacred jazz began in the 1950s when composers started to incorporate both jazz and religious elements into their works. In 1958, Ellington recorded his Black, Brown, and Beige symphony—originally performed in 1943—with gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, underscoring the work’s spiritual subtext. In 1960, Ed Summerlin wrote Liturgical Jazz, one of the first significant extended works of spiritual jazz. And in the 1960s, Mary Lou Williams returned to jazz after converting to Roman Catholicism in 1954. She released an album entitled Black Christ of the Andes, which was inspired by and dedicated to St. Martin de Porres, the first black saint in the Americas. For his part, John Coltrane described A Love Supreme was his “humble offering to God.”

The Abyssinian Mass’sclosest touchstones are perhaps Ellington’s three Sacred Concerts, which were composed and performed between 1965 and 1973. “Every man prays in his own language, and there is no language that God does not understand,” Ellington said—and he and his ensemble prayed through performance. The massive works involved not only his musicians but vocalists, choirs, and dancers as well.


The Abyssinian Masstakes on the mission handed down by past works of sacred jazz and seeks to give voice to the silent and faith to the hopeless. Marsalis was acutely aware of the history behind him when he set out to write the piece. “When I did the Abyssinian mass, I went through the whole history of the church music and the gospel music, even with the Anglo American hymns, the Afro American hymns, the spirituals and how it developed, up to Thomas Dorsey and the Dixie Hummingbirds, going through the history of the music, jazz musicians,” he says.

In the liner notes forThe Abyssinian Mass,renowned public intellectual Leon Wieseltier writes an essay that dives deeper into the spiritual antecedents for the work. As he writes, the Mass is about the plurality of ways in which faith and our everyday lives intersect:

The Abyssinian Mass falls into the time-honored current of sacred music that seeks to represent the tremendous abundance of the religious universe, inner and outer. This is not an austere devotion. It is a plenitude of musical forms for a plenitude of spiritual circumstances. It describes lowliness and it describes grandeur, and it describes the grandeur in lowliness. It traverses theology (“Now he sits at the right hand of God/ Waiting to judge the quick and the dead”) and sociology (“Stop by the hospitals. Set the wrongly imprisoned free”). Like the Psalmist, it finds God everywhere. And the ubiquity of God demands a great deal of music. Musically, too, Marsalis’ offering is vast and multifarious: so many styles of African-American music, from the rollicking to the suave, contribute to these supplications and exclamations. The intellectual and compositional range for which Marsalis is renowned is amply in evidence here, the breathtaking diversity of rhythms and harmonies, infectious even when esoteric. Marsalis has a rare gift for making joy out of complexity. In the Abyssinian Mass he has joined intellectuality to enthusiasm, the thought to the shout.

Elsewhere in his essay, Wieseltier traces Marsalis’ inclination to use jazz as a form of prayer back to Ellington:

Indeed, the sense of cosmic scale that is conveyed by religion may promote in us a preference for modesty of expression, for a humble and even inarticulate voice. Ellington continues, inventing a Hasidic parable of his own: "It has been said once that a man who could not play the organ or any of the instruments of the symphony accompanied his worship by juggling. He was not the world’s greatest juggler, but it was the one thing that he did best. And so it was accepted by God." Jazz is a juggle, prayer is a juggle, existence is a juggle. The juggler is an artist of rises and falls whose medium is the air. He works with more than he can handle, but he handles it. What he drops he picks right up, and swiftly enough to prevent a disruption of the flow of the elements. The quality of his soul is established by his perseverance, his training, his wit, his precision, his cool, his familiarity with the experience of failure and recovery. He, the common juggler, is a spiritual figure.

You can find Wieseltier’s full essay in the liner notes for The Abyssinian Mass, which will be released on March 18. Preorder today from the JALC webstore and get it in time for Easter!

Buy the album

Buy the deluxe package with a 2013 Tour diary and an Abyssinian tote bag

Buy the deluxe package with a 2013 Tour diary signed by Wynton Marsalis and an Abyssinian tote bag


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