Musicians bring spirituality to their music
By Jay Nachman
Philadelphia’s legendary music history includes many greats, such as Kenneth Gamble and Leon A. Huff, the songwriting and production team that developed the Philadelphia soul music genre of the 1970s. Many local musicians still feel music has a soulful and spiritual dimension.
Multi-instrumentalist Aaron Graves played piano on the award-winning documentary, “Eyes on the Prize with Sweet Honey in the Rock,” was the conductor on Broadway for “Truly Blessed” about the life of Mahalia Jackson, written and performed by Queen Esther Marrow; and has performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Graves also has played with a host of musicians, including Al Jarreau, Little Jimmy Scott, Grover Washington Jr., Vanessa Rubin and Cassandra Wilson.
“The music itself is the universal language, so as an artist, you are always trying to be about what the music means to yourself and to other people,” said Graves, 64, of Mount Airy. “How important it is for the community. It’s a part of the thread of culture. As a musician, there’s a responsibility and a commitment to honoring those who came before you.”
In addition to playing in secular settings, Graves, whose father was a Pentecostal preacher, also performs regularly in religious services for all denominations. He recently was commissioned by the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia to perform six concerts to honor Black culture and leaders. One concert honored Absalom Jones, who was the first Black Episcopal priest in the United States. Another honored the Rev. Paul Washington, a social justice activist and one of the few Black priests in a traditionally white church.
“Whether I’m playing in church or not, the music itself is of a spiritual nature,” Graves said. “I don’t put myself in situations where I don’t feel that the music is saying something. A love song is a spiritual song. You know, all about loving each other and caring about each other. That’s spiritual work.”
Jazz and classical violinist Diane Monroe also finds there is a spirituality in her playing. “I believe that all music is spiritual,” she said. “I believe we are music. The whole atmosphere, the world is composed of vibrations. Vibration is the fundamental sound and sound is the fundamental truth in our world. Every organ in our body vibrates to a tone and the enormity of that allows for what we play to have meaning to people.”
Monroe, who is in her 60s and a West Philadelphia native, moved to East Norriton Township in Montgomery County to serve as a caretaker for her 99-year-old mother. She traveled the world with the Max Roach Double Quartet. Her orchestration of Fred Rogers’ “You Are Special” is on the soundtrack of the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” In 2018, Monroe won both a Pew Fellowship and a Pew Project Grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, which funded her 2019 project, “Violin Woman, African Dreams.”
“I prefer playing in houses of worship because you get that present feeling of connection.” Monroe said. “Our emotions are focused on one thing, and we’re united in the music. It gets reciprocal. I give music out as vibrations and they come back to me from the people. Everything resonates and goes in a circle.”
Ruth Naomi Floyd leads her own multi-faceted ensemble and her recordings consist primarily of original compositions. She has been at the forefront of creating vocal jazz settings that express theology and justice for more than 25 years.
“I’ve dedicated a whole discography to primarily original compositions of sacred jazz,” said Floyd, who recorded five CDs entirely of sacred jazz music and was the first jazz vocalist to do so.
“When I think of theology, I think of the knowledge of God,” said Floyd, who is in her mid-50s and lives in South Philadelphia. “What does it mean to be human in this world? For me, I come from my Christian faith, which I’m grounded in. And, also, it comes from the African American spirituals, which were a sacred body of work which is the root of jazz. We would not have jazz without African American spirituals. It’s those two things culturally and spiritually that talk about the relationship of what it means to be human in this world and to believe in God.”
Frederick Douglass honored with jazz composition
“Frederick Douglass Jazz Works” by Ruth Naomi Floyd is based on the speeches and writings of the great leading orator, abolitionist, writer, publisher and statesman. The composition for jazz septet won the Best Vocal Recital Award at the San Francisco Classical Voice Audience Choice Awards for 2020-2021.
In this work, Floyd presents jazz comprised of her original compositions, paired with words from the speeches and writings of the powerful luminary. “Frederick Douglass Jazz Works” illuminates the themes of tragedy, grief, despair and injustice of American slavery but through the multi-faceted prism of hope, joy, perseverance and triumph — all with Frederick Douglass’ own words.
“Frederick Douglass’ words are timeless,” Floyd said. “You read his lectures, you read his letters, you read his autobiography, you read his poetry, and it’s as if he’s living right now. The message of equality, of freedom, of liberation still needs to be heard. And there’s a whole group of people that can hear messages in a deeper way through the arts.”
Floyd and her ensemble have recorded “Frederick Douglass Jazz Works,” which she spent approximately 10 years on, and will release the music when funding is secured.
PHOTO CAPTION: Jazz and classical violinist Diane Monroe, pictured here at the Cliveden historic site in Germantown, believes that all music is spiritual. (Photo by Kate Raines)
Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.