The relationship between jazz music and Islam is one of the more seemingly improbable yet fascinating connections in contemporary global culture. Both forms of human expression have their American roots in the pain of the enslavement of African people. And though about a third of Africans transported to North America were Muslims, the open practice of the religion of Mohammad (PBUH) quickly died out. But as scholars have pointed out, some intriguing echoes of Islam are embedded deep in American culture.
Two deserve mention.
Azaan the Muslim call to prayer, probably the most evocative and beautiful piece of acappella music conceived by man, is the foundational musical structure of the blues. And the blues, of course, are the foundation of jazz.
In the coastal areas of the state of Georgia the churches are all built facing Mecca.
Within the community of African American jazz musicians in the 1940s and 1950s the message of Islam found many receptive converts. One of the more fascinating figures was the bass and oud player Ahmed Abdul Malik. When asked, he consistently told people that he was Sudanese and had been born a Muslim. In most biographies or profiles about Malik this background is almost universally accepted. However, one of the most authoritative scholars of African American history and the biographer of Thelonious Monk, with whom Malik played, Dr. Robin Kelley, has provided very compelling evidence to the contrary. Malik’s parents were in fact, emigres from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and until 1948 the musician was known (and legally registered) as Jonathan Timm.
|Malik (bass) playing with Monk (piano)|
Whatever the circumstances of his conversion and motivation for spinning the Sudanese story, all agree that Malik took his new faith very seriously. In a subculture rife with alcohol and narcotic abuse Ahmed Abdul Malik neither smoked nor drank. He was also one of the earliest musicians to attempt a serious infusion of Arabic and Middle Eastern musical scales and instruments into his jazz playing. He mastered the oud which is played on several records, including tonight’s feature, Eastern Moods. He toured South America with the instrument and performed at music festivals in Morocco in the early 70s. In the latter part of his life he taught jazz improvisation at New York University.
This record which comes via the wonderful blog Sun Ship is from 1963. Every track, including the standard, Summertime, has an oriental flavor and feel. The last three in particular are lovely compositions stripped of almost any Western/jazz elements.
02. Ancient Scene
05. Shoof Habebe