A few days ago I put up a short clip of The Train and the River taken from the opening moments of the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day. This post contains the two last numbers to feature in the film, and the last one in particular is very very special.
At the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Mahalia Jackson (“The world’s greatest gospel singer”) played a lengthy set on the Sunday evening, and the whole concert is available on CD. She wasn’t really a jazz singer, but she was born in New Orleans (in 1911) and her style developed in the shadow of both the jazz and blues traditions that had their origins in her home town.
Three tracks from her 1958 concert made it into the film. Two of them are the sort of exuberant up-tempo stompers typical of Southern gospel music; there’s something about that beat that sets your pulse racing and makes it almost impossible to resist clapping your hands on the off beat. A fine example is this highly locomotive rendition of Didn’t it Rain, a tune written by the world’s greatest composer (“Trad”) which has the crowd of jazz fans leaping about in the aisles.
As you can hear, Mahalia Jackson’s voice is simply phenomenal. She has so much power and emotional expressiveness that she is in a class on her own when it comes to this kind of music. In fact she gave singing lessons to the young Aretha Franklin, the one “soul “singer who came anywhere close to that quality of voice. But if you really want to hear music with from the soul, listen to Mahalia Jackson.
Although she had a number of hit records, Mahalia Jackson refused to sign for any major record label and performed throughout her life almost exclusively on gospel radio stations. I think she could easily have become a pop star if she had wanted to, but she saw her mission in life to communicate her faith to others through music. She also used a great deal of her earnings to help others by founding school bursaries and through other charitable works.
As in this concert, she usually performed with a backing band of piano, bass and organ but despite the lack of a drummer they build up a tremendous forward momentum.
Terrific though that track undoubtedly is, what comes next is truly sublime. The Lord’s Prayer is such a familiar piece of text to anyone brought up in the Christian tradition that it is difficult to imagine in advance of hearing this performance that it could be sung in such a way. The contrast between this and the previous track is immense, which makes it even more effective. This is no rumbustious rabble-rouser, just a simple and pure expression of her own deep religious faith.
Almost as moving as her singing are the cuts to the audience reaction – the same people who were leaping about a few minutes earlier sit in deep and respectful contemplation. And who wouldn’t.. I’m not a religious man but there is certainly religious music that moves me very deeply, and this is a prime example.