Program : 
Deep River: The Gospel Tradition in Jazz


CD image courtesy Riverwalk Jazz.

This edition of Riverwalk Jazz explores the legacy of Spirituals and Hymns and the ties between church music and jazz and blues on a broadcast titled Deep River: The Gospel Tradition in Jazz. Jazz musicians have gravitated to spirituals and hymns for their repertoire since the beginning of jazz as a genre in the early days of the 20th century. Many jazzmen grew up playing church music and naturally seek inspiration for their jazz performances in it. The music encountered by trumpet master Clark Terry as a boy in St. Louis at the Sanctified Church inspired him to pursue a life making music. Here, Clark presents a masterful performance of the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen.”


The melding of sacred and profane is a quintessential element of New Orleans jazz. “When the Roll is Called up Yonder,” a hymn composed by James Milton Black in 1893 is frequently performed in the traditional New Orleans style by The Jim Cullum Jazz Band. New Orleans-based clarinetist Evan Christopher has made the study of the traditional sound and repertoire of jazz clarinet his life’s work. On this show, Christopher is featured on several traditional spirituals: “Deep River,” “Flee as a Bird to the Mountain” and “Over in the Glory Land.”



Sheet Music image courtesy of Joy Brooks.

Vocalist Topsy Chapman joins the band on a gospel hymn adopted by many New Orleans jazz bands since it was first composed by Civilla D. Martin and Charles H. Gabriel in 1905—“His Eye Is On the Sparrow.” This song is most closely associated with blues and gospel singer Ethel Waters, who titled her autobiography “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.”  First published in 1912, “In the Garden” was popularized through Billy Sunday evangelistic campaigns. Topsy’s rendition on this broadcast evokes her upbringing as the daughter of a Louisiana preacher.



Topsy Chapman. Photo courtesy of the artist.

For almost twenty years, The Jim Cullum Jazz Band has performed a special program of traditional sacred music as part of the liturgy for Sunday morning services at churches of all denominations. Jim Cullum was inspired to put together the music of his Jazz Mass, or Jazz Communion Service, after attending the funeral of a musician friend, the well-respected jazz trumpeter Don Albert. The funeral took place at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in San Antonio, and Jim was deeply moved by the soulful music. He was struck by the bittersweet quality of the hymns and it reminded him of the melancholy feeling expressed in some of his favorite jazz and blues. Jim’s longtime friend Sterlin Holmesly was also at the funeral and encouraged him to find a way to present hymns, spirituals and sacred music in a jazz band style.


The Jim Cullum Jazz Band’s very first worship service was held in 1980 at the Parker Chapel at Trinity University in San Antonio. Bringing jazz into the church was a daring experiment at the time, but at that first service, the Cullum Band’s jazz liturgy was well received and led the way to many more. Among those in attendance at Parker Chapel for the initial jazz liturgy by The Jim Cullum Jazz Band was the noted architect of the chapel, O’Neil Ford. After the service, Mr. Ford remarked that he felt as if the purpose for which he designed the building had been fulfilled.” On this broadcast, Jim and the Band share this music with our radio audience.



Parker Chapel. Photo courtesy of Trinity Univ.

Here, Jim Cullum presents five liturgical songs: Pianist John Sheridan joins Jim Cullum in a duet on “Gloria” by Robert J. Powell, followed by the full band on a traditional hymn of praise, “All Glory, Laud and Honor.” Franz Schubert composed two hymns, which frequently appear in Christian liturgy:  “Ave Maria” and “Sanctus.” Songstress Nina Ferro lends her vocals to the “Sanctus.” The popular hymn “Abide with Me,” with lyrics written in 1847 by Henry Francis Lyte, is often published in hymnals today.


As a rousing finale to this week’s broadcast, the choir of San Antonio’s Laurel Heights Methodist Church and The Landing radio audience join Topsy Chapman and Jim Cullum and his Band for “Down by the Riverside.”


Photo credit for homepage image: Topsy Chapman. Photo courtesy of the artist.