When we think of the connection between Freemasonry and music, where most people’s minds probably go first is to Mozart, who is the most famous classical composer to be a documented Mason, although some speculate about Beethoven as well. Indeed, Mozart even wrote Masonic themes into some of his music, as was discussed in another of our posts.
What many do not realize is that there are perhaps more famous jazz musicians who were Masons than classical composers, or perhaps any other genre. Why does Freemasonry count so many renowned jazz artists among its ranks? That’s what we’ll be learning about in this post: both the history and reasons for Masonry’s jazz connections.
As always, this writing does not reflect the official views of Universal Co-Masonry, but is merely the reflections of one Co-Mason.
First, let’s just take a look at some of the big names from jazz history who have been a part of the Brotherhood. Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Nat King Cole, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, and Dizzy Gillespie are just a few household names you might recognize who were either proven or almost certainly Freemasons. There are yet more to list, but these are probably the biggest names who even casual jazz fans will recognize.
Sun Ra, an interesting character by any measure, is also theorized to have been a member of a Prince Hall Lodge, or a lodge of a related fraternal order, throughout his career. While not the most well-documented Mason, his flamboyant, Egyptian-inspired stage garb and “cosmic” philosophical expressions certainly make him at least the most colorful character to be associated with both jazz and the Masonic tradition.
So, why is there such a connection between Freemasonry and jazz?
One of the suggested reasons that Freemasonry has been so appealing to musicians throughout history is that along with valuing music as one of the seven liberal arts, it also made it easier for those who lived on the road. By being a Freemason, traveling musicians could easily plug into any community and support network they encountered, via the local lodge. It also provided support at times of sickness and death, which to the sometimes empty-pocketed musicians, could be a godsend.
Jazz history is also intimately intertwined with African American history, and so it shouldn’t surprise us that many of these jazz musicians were connected to Freemasonry through Prince Hall Lodges. Prince Hall Freemasonry is an order that was chartered by the Grand Lodge of England for African Americans who were rejected from mainstream Lodges at the time, and are predominantly African American in their membership.
At the time when jazz proliferated, and many of the African American jazz Masons were in their hayday, much of the country was still segregated, and racial tensions were still quite high. Life as a musician already wasn’t easy, and if you add to that being part of an actively persecuted ethnic group, it’s not hard to see why the benefits of Fraternal Life would be appealing, even empowering to African American jazz musicians in the early-to-mid 20th century.
However, it also seems likely that there are deeper reasons for the connection than simple utility and networking.
Jazz is known by most as a type of music, but it’s also a subculture, and that subculture has its own sort of philosophy and ethic. If we reflect upon both the ideas embodied in the music of jazz, as well as the culture surrounding it, we can find many correlations which give a deeper understanding to the connections between jazz and Freemasonry than simply being a useful fraternal organization for musicians.
Both Freemasonry and jazz, for instance, are about generating new ideas; innovation and forward thinking are qualities that are embraced both in the Lodge and in the creation of jazz music. There is also an inclusiveness to jazz, having originated in the intermingling of various cultures and musical styles in New Orleans in the early 20th century, and that symbiosis and confluence of cultures towards a common goal of progress together is certainly a value held by Masonry, as well.
On a more abstract level, we can look at the actual musical nature and structure of jazz, some of which can be quite abstract, and draw another correlation. Anyone who has developed an appreciation for jazz, especially the more abstract variety, can understand how the phrase “Ordo Ab Chao” could be equally relevant to the craft of jazz as it is in the Craft of Freemasonry.