For a long time, some fundamentalist Christians considered jazz "the devil's music" — a characterization that perhaps owed to its origins in brothels and dance clubs, or perhaps to persisting images of the drug and alcohol problems of musicians generations ago.
But as jazz moved into the concert hall and gained wider public acceptance, master musicians who developed the art form — many of whom were rooted in the church or included hymns in their work — used jazz to express spirituality, as John Coltrane did famously on his seminal 1964 recording "A Love Supreme."
Since then, more of the faithful have come to recognize that musicians can be divinely inspired.
Among the contemporary musicians to follow this path is John Raymond, a 26-year-old trumpeter from Golden Valley, Minn., who lives in New York City. In shows at St. Paul's Artists' Quarter tonight and Saturday, Raymond will perform works from his impressive debut CD, "Strength and Song," a recording guided by his faith that is infused with rhythm and the trumpeter's bright sound.
It is a testament to the ability of remarkable music to serve as a vehicle for different kinds of expression, in Raymond's case one that makes a joyful noise for God.
"I think why jazz is so appealing for me or why I'm so drawn to it is because there's just a spontaneous, in-the-moment nature of the music — not only in improvising but in the group interaction or interplay," he said. "On any given night or any day in the studio, just having it always be different ... is an incredibly spiritual thing."
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Raymond's path to becoming a jazz musician is a story of musical immersion. He grew up in a Lutheran home, and although his mother played the piano and sang some, his parents did not listen to instrumental music, and certainly not jazz. He began playing trumpet at age 10 and in junior high started attending the Minnesota Institute for Talented Youth jazz program. After attending the Minnesota All State Jazz Camp, he studied music at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Clair and then earned a master's degree at the State University of New York-Purchase. One of Raymond's teachers was virtuoso trumpeter Jon Faddis, who co-produced his CD.
Those experiences and raising nearly $10,000 through Kickstarter helped the young trumpeter produce a stirring recording that has earned him national attention.
"It was really special for me in the sense that I felt like he was making an investment in me," Raymond said of Faddis. "That really meant something."
But Raymond's biggest inspiration comes from his faith, which he celebrates in a non-denominational church in Brooklyn. It helps temper his ambition and drive — he's not shy — with reminders of the virtues of patience and committing oneself to a higher calling. That duality of purpose could explain the title of his recording.
Most of the tracks on the album have biblical titles, from "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Motivations of a Pharisee" to "Ebenezer," written by pianist Javier Santiago, another Twin Cities transplant who also lives in New York. But the recording is not overtly religious, except for the track "Psalm 37: Anthem," on which Raymond's pastor, Zac Martin, interviews him about how his faith inspires his music.
"I would write a song and then either in the process of writing the song or after I'd written the song and after playing it a few times, for whatever reason just some kind of theme or title or something would just kind of come to me," Raymond said. "And it would usually be something that I was reading in the Bible at the time or just challenged with spiritually.
"It was a personal exploration for me and my faith that I was going through. It's not like I'm making some overt huge statement. But I'm just basically being honest. That's where the music came from."
The trumpeter's conversation with his pastor on the final track allows him to address his struggle balancing his impatience, high goals and the disappointments inherent in being a professional musician with his faith. The Psalm's description of David's struggle to balance an earthly and spiritual life hit home, reminding him to put his trust in God.
"There's one verse that says, 'delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart,' " Raymond said of the Psalm. "What it has said to me over the course of doing the album was just that ultimately if my hope or my happiness or satisfaction is found in anything other than God, then ... I'm going to be let down."
But Raymond's debut recording, remarkable for its blend of soulfulness and clean expression, is largely about musical exploration. The trumpeter is backed by Santiago, guitarist Gilad Hekselman, bassist Raviv Markovitz and drummer Cory Cox. Saxophonist Tim Green and pianist Gerald Clayton make guest appearances.
Raymond was particularly enthused about playing with Hekselman, an Israeli with sparkling style and roaming improvisational skill, and Clayton, who performs with agility and a subtle mastery.
"The thing about being around those kinds of guys which has really helped me and what in general being in New York has done for me is stretched me," he said. "These guys live and breathe music. I feel like everything that comes out of their instruments is really profound. They're not trying to make it really great. It just is."
At the Artists' Quarter, Raymond will be joined on stage by an accomplished crew of local musicians, including guitarist Vinnie Rose, pianist Bryan Nichols, bassist Jeremy Boettcher and drummer Miguel Hurtado.
He's encouraged the musicians to go where the music takes them, on a creative and improvisational ride.
"When the audience is a part of that, they experience something that I think is really incredibly refreshing," Raymond said. "It's just like soul food. I would love people to experience that and want to tell everybody about it and say, 'man I just came from this jazz club this weekend and saw this concert that was one of the best things I've ever seen in my life' — not because we were so good because there was just something that happened there that couldn't happen again."