In improvisational forms of music such as jazz, musicians often find they can reach a transcendental state similar to that achieved by Buddhists during meditation. Ronald Shannon Jackson speaks of a oneness his group reaches when the mood is right.
With certain groups, like Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Blood, and now my own group, The Decoding Society, there is a level of playing which we try to reach which is the same thing that people do when they do transcendental meditation and yoga. They talk about "out of the body" experiences. That's what this music is. It's chanting; it's meditation; it's yoga. It's all these things. In order to play, something transcends. Something happens with the physical, the spiritual, and the mental state in which they combine, and their energy is turned free. It's a cleansing experience which in a religion they would say, "It's of another world." The state I'm talking about even transcends emotions. It's a feeling of being able to communicate with all living things (Berliner 393).The feeling, as Jackson says, is one of universal communication. Music can cross boundaries in a way few other forms of communication can.
This universality, combined with the depth at which music reaches us, make music a good medium for the conveyance of religious ideals. That is why music is an important part of many religions. For example in India, the arts (including music) are more than mere entertainment, they are a crucial part of religion and life.
Some scholars argue that nothing in India can be regarded as completely secular and separate from religious connotation. Social structure, eating habits, in fact every action is related to a religious philosophy, be it Hindu, Muslim, or another. So it is with Indian music. Before a musician of the classical tradition begins to practice or to perform he offers prayers, and the musical training of a child begins with worship (Wade 83).
Huston Smith shares this view of Indian religion and art: "In India, art is religion, religion art." He goes on to describe the purpose of Indian art: "[India's] arts are strictly utilitarian. Their purpose is to inform and transform. Inform us of the way things truly are, and transform us into what we might truly be" (Moyers).
India is one of many places where music is used as a religious tool. That music is an important part of so many different religions is a testament to its power and utility.
Religious 'texts' have been sung, not written, throughout most of human history; and religious behavior has found musical articulation in almost every religious tradition. Navajo priests are `singers'; the primary carriers of Sinhala traditional religion are drummers and dancers; and the shamans of northern Eurasia and Inner Asia use music as their principal medium of contact with the spirit world. Through the centuries, priests, monks, and other specialists have sung the Christian masses, Buddhist pujas, Islamic calls to prayer, Hindu sacrifices, and other ceremonies that form the basis of organized religious observances in the world's major religions (Ellingson 164).Music is very important in the religion of black Americans as well. James H. Cone writes that black music "tells us about the divine spirit that moves the people toward unity and self-determination. It is not possible to be black and encounter the Spirit of black emotion and not be moved." (Cone 6).
A musician creating and communicating new ideas could be compared to a preacher spreading the gospel. Dizzy Gillespie compares the jazz musician to the preacher: "In jazz a messenger comes to the music and spreads his influences to a certain point, and then another comes and takes you further. In religion--in the spiritual sense--God picks certain individuals from this world to lead mankind up to a certain point of spiritual development" (Leonard 41). Perhaps Art Blakey was thinking along similar lines when he named his band the "Jazz Messengers."
McCoy Tyner, a jazz pianist, believes that John Coltrane and Charlie Parker communicated messages from God: "John and Bird were really like messengers. In other words, God still speaks to man" (Leonard 42).
Many other jazz musicians also note similarites between preachers and performers:
A good deal of such ecstasy--reminiscent of a shamanic seance with its rhythmic kinesis, music, words, and audience participation--carried over into jazz. And in some ways the jazzman was like a preacher. Guitarist Danny Barker noted, in connection with Bessie Smith, "If you had any church background, like people who came from the South, as I did, you would recognize a similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists from there did, and how they moved people. Bessie did that same thing on stage...she could bring about mass hypnotism." Charles Mingus liked to think of the bandstand as something like a pulpit. "You're up there...trying to express yourself. It's like being a preacher in a sense" (Leonard 48).