The History of the Abyssinian Mass: Part I - God's Prayer

(Photo by Frank Stewart for Jazz at Lincoln Center)

News | Feb, 15th 2016

In honor of Black History Month and the upcoming release ofTHE ABYSSINIAN MASSalbum, we look back at the inspiration for Wynton Marsalis' sweeping suite of spiritual jazz and the reception it received.

In 1808, 16 African Americans declined the segregated seats they were offered in New York City's First Baptist Church and instead created the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

In 2008, that institution had a big anniversary to celebrate.

"There are not many African American churches in this nation that are 200 years old," says Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, the Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. "So in thinking about how to celebrate 200 years, what would have been better than to ask a genius—a musical genius—to compose a piece of work for us?"

So, Dr. Butts commissioned the help of Wynton Marsalis. The result was The Abyssinian Mass: an epic, 23-movement composition that charts two centuries' worth of history—and the pivotal role that the church has played in African American culture—through jazz.

Well, jazz and gospel. Marsalis expanded his palette even beyond the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra's robust tonal spectrum, enlisting all 70 voices of Damien Sneed's Chorale Le Chateau to provide some additional soul to the proceedings.

There are not many African American churches in this nation that are 200 years old. -- Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III

The goal was to wed the full range of jazz idioms—from swing to bebop and beyond—to soulful, full-throated gospel. The blend of styles and mix of the sacred and secular underscored the piece's main message: "Everyone has a place."

“Our music is so rich: songs like ‘Go Down Moses,’ ‘There Is a Balm in Gilead,'" Marsalis said just before the piece's first performance in 2008. "What was in these songs was the depths of our ancestors’ tears. We’re going to spend much time studying and researching the material and it will be performed with heft and intellectual weight and integrity that befits a celebration of 200 years of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. The music will be performed by some of our greatest musicians, many of whom have deep roots in the church. It will be about our lives, and about our great and great, great grandmothers’ and grandfathers’ lives.”

The inclusive message of The Abyssinian Massand the wellsprings of history and spirituality that it tapped into made its appeal universal. In 2013, five years after its debut, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis took the piece on the road, cramming into tour vans with Damien Sneed and Chorale Le Chateau. Their 5,347-mile journey took them to 16 cities throughout America in 24 days. (More on that soon.)

What was in these songs was the depths of our ancestors’ tears. -- Wynton Marsalis

Now, Blue Engine Records has announced that it will release THE ABYSSINIAN MASSon March 18th. The double-disc album will come with a bonus documentary DVD with more from Marsalis on the influences behind the composition.

Stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes history of THE ABYSSINIAN MASS and preorder the album:

--From the Jazz at Lincoln Center webstore

--From Amazon

--From iTunes


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