Ralph Ellison’s Righteous Riffs: Jazz, Democracy,
and the Sacred
I am not particularly religious, but I am claimed by music. —Ralph Ellison, “Living with Music” (1955)
I don’t know what it was, some kinda church song, I guess. All I know is I ends up singin’ the blues.
—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
We were rebirthed dancing, we were rebirthed crying affirmation of the Word. . . . We stamped our
feet at the trumpet’s sound and we clapped our hands, ah, in joy! And we moved, yes, together in
a dance, amen! —Ralph Ellison, Three Days Before the Shooting . . . (2010)
A recent public service advertisement from Americans for the Arts speaks
suggestively to contemporary understandings of jazz music’s cultural value.
Confronting a putative pandemic of American musical ignorance, the full-page print
ad wonders rhetorically “Why Some People Think Duke Ellington Is a Member of
the Royal Family,” then proceeds, in prose surrounding a portrait of Ellington in white
tie and top hat, to address th