July 6, 1958 was sweltering. During the dog days of summer, you can feel the air hanging from the tree limbs, dripping like fresh clover honey. Anything that touches the night air is carried with a weight of exhausted anticipation. On this night, the sounds of crickets blended with crackles of laughter, and outdoor music drifted lazily over the whir of passing automobiles. The remnants of a weekend in Newport, Rhode Island had gathered on the lawn of Fort Adams State Park, for what became a momentary salvation; a radiance of spirit that soared high to the heavens and expanded through every soul in the crowd. To many, Mahalia Jackson‘s appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival eclipsed all other performances, from the legendary Louis Armstrong to the upstart Chuck Berry. Hers was the set that made everyone have to stop and catch their breath.
If you go back far enough, you’ll find that jazz, blues and gospel all came from the pulpit. The difference is where they traveled, once they left. Jazz went to the bar and blues went to the grave, while gospel continues to stand in the front pew, hands outstretched and screaming for the spirit. All deal with the same subject matter, and are buoyed along by the same fervor, but in the years since their separation have acquired different philosophies. Needless to say, when George Wein brought together all these different styles for one purpose, there was both great tension and greater release. Miles Davis continued to redefine himself, while
Duke Ellington brought himself back into relevance. Louis Armstrong swung into high gear while Chuck Berry drove his groove through the radiator. Friday and Saturday night reeled and rocked, sending body and soul into a state of ecstasy; then Sunday rolled around.
Mahalia was introduced simply: “Ladies and gentleman: it is Sunday, and it is time for the world’s greatest gospel singer, Miss Mahalia Jackson”. From the first tender notes to the final triumphant cadence, she gives her all to the audience. One almost feels like an intruder upon her first song, “An Evening Prayer”, as if you accidentally stumbled into a chapel to find her praying out loud. Something intensely personal has become public, not for spectacle’s sake, but as an offering to God and her fellow-man. She moves on through “A City Called Heaven”, not shaken, but world-weary. Her contralto voice is never timid, always sure. She sings with a conviction, not from Electronic Cigarette herself nor pointing a judgemental finger. It simply flows out of her like a cool water. Â Moving on through ” I’m On My Way”, “It Don’t Cost Very Much” and “Didn’t It Rain”, she picks up momentum, dragging the musicians with her and whipping all up into a buoyant fury. If you listen carefully, you can hear the audience going right along with her, clapping hands and hollering for more. Her set is supposed to end after forty-five minutes, with “The Lord’s Prayer” closing it out, but the audience spurs her onto another four songs. All of the energy exuded in the previous set was brought back in, and focused up towards heaven as she moves through this beautiful prayer. Once again, we are caught eavesdropping on her most sacred moment of solitude.Â She makes it through her encore, being greeted on the other side by Â thousands upon thousands who had just unwittingly participated in a divine moment.
While every musician on that particular weekend put their all into what they were giving away, Mahalia was completely different. Her gift, her song, her being on that stage served one purpose only; to serve the Lord. She went where she was led, she sang what mattered to her and she lived upward as much as outward. I got to do a little research on Miss Jackson before sitting down to write, and her life offstage was as brilliant as her life under the lights. She was a central figure in the Civil Rights movement, she established a scholarship program for underprivileged Â children who wanted to go to college, and she toured the world, spreading the Good News. Through it all, she lived humbly in a brick house in suburban Chicago, owning a floral shop and a beauty parlor until her death from heart failure in 1972.
Mahalia Jackson was able to take the sacred moment into the secular, thus making all moments before, after and around ring out with reverence and reverie. Both sinners and saints, believers and patient observers were a part of the communion. She was surrounded by the cream of American musicians that weekend, and in return, they were graced with her gifting. A musician’s creative force is poured out through the work they create, and it is arguable where it comes from. One thing is certain; for at least an hour on Sunday, July 6, 1958, Newport and the rest of the world received an unexpected and momentary salvation.