The Tremé is a small section in the crescent city of New Orleans. It is an easy block and half away from the famous French Quarter. The Tremé is primarily an African American neighborhood, rich in culture, architecture, food, language and, most importantly, music.
HBO created a compelling dramatic series honoring this diverse and rich cultural gem of African-American culture and American history. The Tremé is the birthplace of jazz and it sits within an earshot of the epicenter of the cultural tsunami known as the Congo Square, where enslaved Africans, freed Haitians, Indian traders and French colonists unknowingly consummated a relationship that gave birth to “Jazz” — a cultural legacy. In the days of slavery, people in the public square had never seen nor will witness again, this cultural musical breach birth known as Jazz. They could not distinguish between the Gospel Shout and the Blues moan.
In the thick humid air of Louisiana, the rhythms of Africans mingled with Haitian, Creole, French New World songs, Indian syncopations and French chamber music to produce, “Jazz.” The basis of this unique democratic sound was what scholars call the “Blue Note.” Chords and rhythms fused in the voices of a people ripped from the womb of their cultural mother, forced to nurse from the dysfunctional breast of chattel slavery, and ingest the cancerous milk produced by the insanity of racism. As if it was a normative reality ordained by creation — they could not distinguish between the Gospel Shout and the Blues moan.
The Tremé and all Southern neighborhoods formed by the spirit of New World Africans is saturated with Blue Note tonality, produced by a people who have seen the horror of humanity gone awry, and watched the beauty of redemption and grace meet in unlikely corridors, once exclusive havens for hate and harm.
In the Tremé and all places where Africans gathered across the expanse of North America, the Blue Note can be heard in song, speech, prose, poetry, sermon; even our food has the sorrow of yesterday with a Blue Note testimony. The delightful delicacy called “gumbo” is more than a meal, but a sermon of resistance. Women unable to feed the bellies of hungry children, were forced to rummage through garbage, and by the grace of God, and anointed creativity, found leftovers okra, rice, tomato, a scrap of pork and a fragment of shrimp to create a meal we call gumbo. Now, today, Paula Deen, Wolfgang Puck, and Emerile LaGasse will charge you $20 a bowl to serve you this culinary testimony. The spicy smell of gumbo brings a smile to the diner’s face, but this delightful delicacy was birthed by the Blue Note.
The Blue Note is the major artery of our culture. It is not a single style of music but the spiritual heartbeat of a people who know what it is to live on the B-side of life, and live as seventh sons and daughters in a new world they helped to build. And they could not distinguish between the Gospel Shout and the Blues moan.
What is the Blue Note? It is who we are as a people. A people who look through the lens of the Blue Note, know, joy is married to sorrow and tragedy is forever engaged to triumph. Life with her sweet brutality and bitter blessings reminds us, praise and pain are first cousins, and worship and weeping constantly flirt with each other. The accurate hermeneutic for searching the biblical landscape is from the balcony of the Blue Note Gospel.
Thomas Wiggins, known as “Blind Tom,” born in 1849 in Columbus, GA was born blind but at the age of seven, this enslaved African could flawlessly play spirituals and European classical music. He made his way into the “big house,” listened to Beethoven and Chopin, and it is alleged, he memorized over 8,000 compositions. One reviewer stated they had never heard a person play with such skill and beauty; they said, anytime Blind Tom played, tears would begin to flow. Many music critics could not understand how this untrained, blind black man could play this beautiful music but I would suggest, Blind Tom, had the Blues flowing in his spirit and it would make its way into the concert hall, and touch the souls of people who did not see Blind Tom as a full person.
What is a Blue Note Gospel? A Blue Note Gospel is raising a son who finished two tours in Iraq, who loves Christ, community and his culture, but is gunned down by thugs on the streets of Chicago. That’s a Blue Note Gospel.
What is a Blue Note Gospel? A Blue Note Gospel is having the privilege to be the first African American President in these United States, pass healthcare legislation, receive the Noble Peace Prize, keep the economy from going into a depression, elect more judges of color than any other president in history, but the first African American President still has to show his birth certificate to prove to people that he is an American citizen. That’s a Blue Note Gospel.
In the text, the Persian King, Cyrus has taken the people of Israel and returned them back to their home, these people who were in exile under the Babylonian regime, the talented tenth, removed from their community are able to return back home to build a new temple. What we witness in the text is a young generation who did not know the previous temple and an older generation is weeping. The older generation is weeping because they remember segregation and the pain of yesterday. This is not the first time a temple has been built. The previous temple had been destroyed. The Blues and the Gospel are mixed together in the text. As my friend Steven Carter would say, “The blues keeps us rooted in reality.” There should be Blues connected to our Gospel. The “Blues” keeps us connected to yesterday.
We also notice in Ezra, the elders are crying. Oftentimes, tears are the only way we can communicate with God. This theological thought became clear to me in New Orleans this past summer, when my wife and I entered a studio and saw an artist painting. His paintings ranged from $20 to $1500. I asked the artist, “Why are the pictures on this side inexpensive and are the pictures on the other side are expensive? The artist told me, he painted the inexpensive pictures but the expensive pictures were finished by God. I asked, “Did God step in and begin to paint with a paint brush?” He said, “When a storm hit New Orleans, the Lord said take the picture out into the storm. Take that picture, place it on the ground and allow the rain to beat against the canvas and new colors will be created when you take the picture into the storm.” The artist stated, “The tears of God literally bring out new colors and hues as a result of being in a storm.”
Many times God will bring out new colors when we experience the blues of a storm – we must allow, the tears of God to beat across the canvas of our soul and God will paint a new picture in our spirit.
This pericope in Ezra also tells us, there can be no Gospel without the Blues. In the African American tradition, in order to have Gospel music you must have the 12-bar flatted note. The 12-bar flatted note is the basis of Blues. When Thomas Dorsey created Gospel music, he used that 12-bar flatted note; when one is experiencing “the thrill is gone…” the words of B.B. King, the 12-bar notes change to Mahalia Jackson’s “Precious Lord, take my hand…”
The final thing that excites me about this text is simply this — the elders were weeping, the young people were shouting, they could not distinguish between the Gospel Shout and the Blues moan. They were shouting not because the temple was finished but because the foundation had been laid.
As we look across the expanse of America, we witness that a foundation has been laid but we are not in a post-racial society. The foundation has been laid but we are not in a post-sexist society. There is still much work for us to do. The Foundation has been laid by Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. duBois, Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Davis. Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, but we are not, yet done. The foundation has been laid, we have a person of color in the White house but we have yet to reach, the time in America where the lion will lay down with the lamb, and we shall beat our swords into plowshares. The foundation has been laid but the work is not done and we must merge our Blues with our Gospel.
Originally published on The Huffington Post. Republished with permission of author.
The Rev. Otis Moss III, Senior Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago is a leading progressive Christian activist and cultural critic. Reverend Moss is a Jazz influenced Pastor with a Hip Hop vibe. He is committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ rooted in love and justice and he is inspired by the works of Zora Neale Hurston, August Wilson, and Howard Thurman. The work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and the pastoral ministry of his father, Dr. Otis Moss, Jr of Cleveland, OH, have been primary mentors in his spiritual formation. The Rev. Otis Moss, III is a native of Cleveland, OH and honors graduate of Morehouse College and Yale Divinity School. Tweet Pastor @OM3.