What happens when you mix two already-complex cultural products together? My brain implodes. You can hear how that sounds here:
I should admit first up that there is no music that calls itself Hindu jazz. But there is an incredibly fertile genre called Indian-jazz fusion, in which jazz artists explore classical Indian music, blending harmonies, scales and instrumentation from both. This borderland has been approached from both sides, but for now, we’re focusing on American jazz musicians who experiment with Indian styles. And a subset of those artists are inspired by Indian mythology and spiritual teachings.
As I very briefly explained on air, ‘Hinduism‘ didn’t exist before the British Raj. Instead, there was simply a huge panoply of philosophies, traditions, spiritualities, gurus, gods, worship practices, and so on, which varied widely across the subcontinent. This variety and diversity was named ‘Hinduism’ by the British rulers; so although we think of ‘it’ as one of the five great world religions, this was never really the case.
As I’ve said before on the blog, the 1960s was a time of discovery for a lot of people in the West – discovery of other religions and other ways of living. Eastern spirituality, of which what we now call ‘Hinduism’ was a part, was one major source of new inspiration for 60s artists. Jazz musicians Alice and John Coltrane were among those attracted to these Eastern traditions. John Coltrane apparently had a spiritual awakening after a youth addled with drugs and alcohol. He drew on an eclectic range of religious sources in forming his own conceptions. During his career he steadily abandoned conventional harmonic structures, and some of his work is very hard on the ears (see ‘Om‘ for example). He saw a kind of mystical power in music; his own work “expresses a kind of transcendent religious ecstasy, sometimes incorporating prayers or chants.”
His wife Alice Coltrane was more consistently drawn to Hindu concepts. She eventually changed her name, in fact, to Turiyasangitananda. She was a devotee of a number of swamis and gurus throughout her life, including one Sathya Sai Baba. This guru claimed to be the reincarnation of an earlier guru, and preached a very inclusive and syncretic teaching. He said that no devotee had to give up their own religion – as all religions are simply different forms of the one teaching, from the one God. Although this monotheism is not present in early ‘Hinduism’, the idea that different traditions are just different paths to the one truth is very common. One of Sathya Sai Baba’s ashrams has statues of Hanuman (Indian monkey god), Krishna, Christ, Shirdi Sai Baba (his earlier incarnation), Shiva, Buddha, and Zarathustra (founder of Zoroastrianism).
George Brooks, a contemporary American saxophonist, similarly talks about his guru – a classical Hindustani singer named Pandit Pran Nath. Pran Nath was born a Hindu Brahman (the priestly caste) but ran away to study with a Muslim musician. Brooks says that he and his guru would do puja (ritual prayer and offering) to Hindu gods and to Allah. I hope you’re getting a sense of the wonderful flexibility of Indian beliefs and practices! Brooks feels that making music is itself a spiritual practice; you’re breathing life into a piece, “penetrating into the mysteries that surround us and trying to find the things that connect us together.” His music is truly Indian-jazz fusion, blending saxophones and guitars with tabla drumming and sitars. Check out this live track.