October 7, 2016 by Helen Borgers

It could be argued that jazz is all music from the spirit and is, therefore, all “spiritual” music. But in this writing, I am referring to “spirituals” in their historical context as music that emerged from the religious beliefs of African American Christians in the South as they labored under the cruelty of slavery.


No matter what one’s religious beliefs, this music is powerful. It has sustained people in their most difficult hours…through bondage, civil unrest, and death. It is an outlet for lamenting, but also for rejoicing. As such, it is an antecedent to blues and jazz. No wonder, then, that so many jazz giants have recorded and performed the Spirituals, Hymns, and Folk Music of the American south.


I am not a member of any organized religion, and yet I am deeply moved by the spirit and courage of these songs, and I thought I’d share some of my favorites here. There are some that have roused me to my feet, and some that have provoked reflection, but I have found them all stirring.

Duke Pearson, "Go Tell it on the Mountain."



Mahalia Jackson with Duke Ellington at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. She had just finished singing "Come Sunday" for the first time. Thus, her spoken intro before "Keep Your Hand on the Plow."


Grant Green, with Herbie Hancock on piano, Butch Warren on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums.  Horace Silver chose this as one of his all-time favorite recordings during an old interview show we did together called "The Artist's Corner."


Shelly Manne & His Men with Ruth Price.

The Concord Jazz All Stars.  For a long time, this was the most-requested song on KJazz.


As we find ourselves still battling each other over race and religion, politics and money, I think it appropriate and exciting that John Clayton and Eric Reed are coming together to celebrate this music on Thursday, October 13th, at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center.


It is a natural continuation of the musical conversation between John Clayton and Hank Jones, recorded just before Hank’s passing, for John’s Parlor Series, Volume 2. It was called “Negro Spirituals Dialogue.”


Eric has a long association with gospel music. His father was a minister, and Eric was playing in the church from the age of 5. Many of his recordings are either traditional hymns or his own compositions, inspired by his religious beliefs.


Martin Luther King’s favorite song was “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which has been performed by numerous artists, including Mahalia Jackson, Leontyne Price, Aretha Franklin, and Nina Simone.  Eric recorded it with Marion Williams in 1993 during the sessions for the Wynton Marsalis project, "In This House, On This Morning.”


Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and pianist Eric Reed share this spiritual passion and have recorded many gospel and gospel-inspired originals. Here's a spirited version of "Oh, What a Friend We Have in Jesus."


For the second half of the concert, John and Eric will be joined by L.A. Treasure Ernie Andrews, a man who can find the soul in any song and who swings as hard as he did in his Central Avenue days.


Ernie Andrews from Kenny Burrell's two-volume tribute to Duke Ellington, just after Duke's passing. "Ellington is Forever."  Kenny called his friends and gave them the opportunity to choose Ellington songs they loved for this project. This was one of Ernie's choices, performed with pianist Jimmy Jones.


Ernie Andrews with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.  


In conclusion, one doesn’t have to be in love to appreciate a great love song, nor does one have to be unhappy to dig the blues, nor subscribe to any faith to be moved by spirituals, gospels and folk songs. We need only to embrace the Spirit of the Music and let it bring us together in peace and harmony!




On-air personality, Helen Borgers, can be heard on KJazz 88.1 FM from 2:00 pm - 6:00 pm, Monday through Friday. As a jazz broadcaster, Helen has been invited to give pre-concert lectures at various performing arts centers, served on panels in jazz conventions all over the world, and lectured about the history of jazz in middle schools, high schools, and colleges. She has also written articles for international jazz publications and regularly emcees concerts, festivals, and club dates throughout southern California.

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