“Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?” asked a 1921 Ladies Home Journal article. Whimsical wordplay aside, the question would become a serious one for mid-century America, as parsons and priests blamed jazz for soaring juvenile crime rates, drugs, and extramarital sex. A 1960 poll found that, among Black preachers, just 1 in 5 wanted to let jazz or blues into their services. Decades before, a religion editor at the Pittsburgh Courier had denounced Louis Armstrong’s “sacrilegious desecration of Spirituals.” Duke Ellington’s music was “considered worldly,” counseled the Rev. John D. Bussey, explaining why the local 1966 Baptist Ministers Conference had unanimously passed his resolution opposing a performance.

But whatever commandments they were breaking—and there were plenty, from slighting the Sabbath to serial adultery—Duke, Louis, and king of swing Count Basie all seemed to take the Christian faith they’d been raised in seriously. And that faith found its way into their music.

For Louis Armstrong, the connection was there from the very beginning, when he learned to sing in his mother’s Sanctified church. “The ‘whole ‘Congregation would be “Wailing—‘Singing like ‘mad and ‘sound so ‘beautiful,” he wrote with his characteristic expressive, idiosyncratic punctuation. “I’d have myself a ‘Ball in ‘Church, especially when those ‘Sisters ‘would get ‘So ‘Carried away while ‘Rev’ would be ‘right in the ‘Middle of his ‘Sermon. ‘Man those ‘Church ‘Sisters would ‘begin ‘Shouting ‘So—until their ‘petticoats would ‘fall off. … My heart went into every hymn I sang,” he added. “I am still a great believer and I go to church whenever I get the chance.”

With Saturday night performances that stretched into Sundays, that wasn’t often. But nearly half a century later, Armstrong released an album the church sisters would have loved, Louis and the Good Book, with gassed-up versions of spirituals including “Go Down Moses” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” He recorded “When the Saints,” the anthem of the Big Easy, more than 100 times.

Count Basie was raised in the Black church too. Two of his uncles were ministers; his father was a founder and pillar of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Red Bank, New Jersey. In oral histories and writings, fellow musicians and friends use the word spiritual to describe what Basie brought to the band. Sideman Harry “Sweets” Edison compared their group to church organists and singers who inspire congregants to “get up to shout.” Basie was a spiritual presence offstage too. “Prior to eating, he would do this elaborate silent prayer,” recalls tenor saxophonist Eric Schneider. If the food came before he was finished, “it was understood that we should go ahead and eat.”

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Duke Ellington was perhaps the most pious of the three maestros. Growing up, he attended two services each Sunday: African Methodist Episcopal Zion with his father, Baptist with his mother. As a young man, he consulted the Bible twice a day, sometimes taking the book into the bathtub and reading until the water got cold. Though he shunned most jewelry, he wore a gold crucifix around his neck and carried a St. Christopher medal in his hip pocket. His Christmas card bore a simple message in gold lettering: LOVE GOD.

In the last ten years of his life, Ellington devoted himself to a series of sacred concerts, performances that brought together jazz and classical music, spirituals, gospel, and the blues. Suddenly, he was getting more invitations to play in churches than in dance halls. Synagogues too. “These are things people don’t know about him,” said singer-songwriter Herb Jeffries. “He had a great ministry. It was hidden in his music. … He was practicing his ministry moving about here and there, making people happy!” When a reporter asked how he, “as a religious man,” could “play in dark, dingy places where depravity and drunkenness reign,” Ellington whispered, “Isn’t that exactly what Christ did—went into the places where people were, bringing light into darkness?”

He also pushed back against preachers who accused him of defiling their churches with his concerts. “Some people ask me what prompted me to write the music for the sacred concerts. I have done so not as a matter of career, but in response to a growing understanding of my own vocation,” Ellington wrote in his memoir. “I think of myself as a messenger boy, one who tries to bring messages to people, not people who have never heard of God, but those who were more or less raised with the guidance of the church.” The sacred concerts, this most accomplished of composers and bandleaders added, were “the most important thing I have ever done.” They were important to audiences too. Take the girl who approached Ellington after one performance, telling him, “You know, Duke, you made me put my cross back on!”

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Sacrilegious, then, isn’t the word to describe these jazzmen. Yes, their faith was unorthodox, and imperfect. But it also was warmly ecumenical and personally sustaining. You can hear it not just in their Christmas tunes but in all of their jazz, music rooted in the gospels and Negro spirituals they grew up with. Their abiding belief in God, all three maestros made clear, is what emboldened and empowered them to write the soundtrack to the Civil Rights revolution, to shape the soul of America.

According to his son Mercer, Duke Ellington “was quite taken with the story of the ‘Juggler of Notre Dame.’” It’s a parable that applies to Armstrong and Basie too. “The man was a great juggler, who would sneak into the church and juggle before the altar. As the story goes, the priests found out about it and kicked him out. God intervened and told the priests to leave him alone. The man was celebrating His presence, by using the gifts that He gave him.”

Larry Tye is a former medical reporter at The Boston Globe, and now runs a Boston-based fellowship program for health journalists. The Jazzmen is his ninth book.

From the book THE JAZZMEN by Larry Tye. Copyright 2024 by Larry Tye. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.