Why Have So Many Famous Jazz Musicians Been Freemasons?

Why Have So Many Famous Jazz Musicians Been Freemasons?

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.

A History of Great Jazz Masons

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 freemasonSun 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?

Hip to Be Square

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.

prince hall freemasonryJazz 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.

On the Same Wavelength

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.

freemasonry and musicOn 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. 

 

Is Freemasonry Dying or Evolving?

Is Freemasonry Dying or Evolving?

Time is a river in which all things must sink or swim, and change is a necessary component of what allows any living thing to survive. Freemasonry is no exception. However, today, Masonry seems to be facing some challenges. Statistically, Freemasonry is seeing a major decline, at least in mainstream (masculine, male-only) Masonry. Some Brothers are even saying that Freemasonry is dying.

Is it?

Freemasonry is a tradition which traces its origins as far back as medieval Europe, ancient Egypt, or, some Masonic thinkers even believe, lost pre-historic civilizations. While there are competing theories and narratives about the history of freemasonry, we know that Masonic ritual and culture has not always been the same; what we have today is certainly not a carbon copy of what took place in the ancient world, or even in the Middle Ages. That is certainly a good thing; as much as we love to relish our deep history and connection to the past, ultimately, all traditions must change and adapt to remain relevant, especially today. Is Freemasonry failing to meet that challenge?

As always, this writing does not reflect the official views of Universal Co-Masonry, but is solely the reflections of one Co-Mason.

Evolution is Not Optional

freemasonry failingAs the saying goes, the numbers don’t lie, and all of the relevant statistics are given in the blog post by Brother Lance Kennedy linked at the beginning of this work; I won’t spend time re-hashing them here. If you consider Freemasonry in its mainstream form, there certainly is an undeniable downward trend. Many are making efforts to turn the tide, perhaps with some degree of success, but how best can Freemasons know exactly what needs to be changed, to breathe new life into a seemingly fading institution? While change is obviously necessary, exactly what changes are needed is also a matter of critical importance.

One useful point of comparison to learn what will help Freemasonry thrive and proceed into the future is the much higher growth rates being seen by alternative Masonic Orders, such as our own. Universal Co-Masonry is rapidly growing in numbers, and other Co-Masonic bodies around the globe, although still small in comparison to the nearly ubiquitous masculine Lodges, also appear to be healthily thriving, even as traditional masculine Masonry’s numbers decline.

So, what is Co-Masonry doing right that traditional Masonry is falling short of, that leads greater numbers of young initiates and even former mainstream Masons into our ranks?

The Elephant In the Lodge

women and freemasonryA reasonable way to approach the topic is to look at the key differences between the Orders. It appears that some of the things which once contributed to Masonry’s growth and popularity are now contributing to their decline. This includes the exclusion of women (as equals) from the Lodge, as well as the segregation of Lodges by race, in some jurisdictions. This is the most obvious difference, and was the primary motivation for our Co-Masonic Orders to emerge, or rather, diverge. This is primarily why Co-Masons, considered by masculine Masonry to be “clandestine,” came to exist, because Mainstream Masons refuse to acknowledge the enormous discrepancy between the modern recognition of the moral necessity for Equality in any organization, and their continuation of institutionalized inequality.

I believe that for most Masons under the age of 40, what is most mysterious is why this trend of young seekers favoring Orders based on Equality would be mysterious to anyone, in 2018. In an age of global culture and rising concern for equal rights for all people, the idea of a “Men-Only Club” seems inherently antiquated. To many young minds, it probably calls forth an image of stodgy old Victorian gentlemen, puffing pipes and pontificating through monocles in leather armchairs over how best to maintain their power and wealth, with wives obediently cooking after-Lodge dinner, nearby. I mean no offense to our masculine Masonic Brothers (and we do consider them Brothers, whether they recognize us or not), but this is a very real perception and state of affairs which is, perhaps in more symbolic ways than one, an elephant in the Lodge.

Pancakes Are Only Slightly Magical

masonic pancake breakfastHowever, in this author’s opinion, while inequality is one of, if not the primary factor, there are other major differences which are contributing to Co-Masonic success and mainstream Masonry’s decline, as well. After speaking to Masons who have been members of both, or have transitioned over, I believe I can accurately point out another huge problem facing Masonry, today.

One of the major complaints about mainstream Masonry is that it doesn’t deliver what the seekers drawn to it are looking for. Around the turn of the 20th century, Masonic organizations shifted their focus to charity instead of esoteric matters, mostly in response to growing anti-masonic sentiments, often associated with religious fundamentalism, and suspicions of the occult. Now, huge portions of time in the meetings are consumed with business matters and planning charitable events such as pancake breakfasts, and relatively little is devoted to esoteric study. While charity is ultimately a worthy and necessary aspect of Masonry, it’s not really what most of us come to the Fraternity looking for.

No, there are any number of charitable organizations out there which any young person can join, if they simply want to help/feed/educate people, which don’t involve commitments to secrecy, hours of memorization, and participation in rituals. What young people approaching Masonry today are seeking is more along the lines of guidance in their personal development, spiritual brotherhood, and revelations of arcane knowledge preserved against the eroding forces of time and religious suppression. The unfortunate fact is that masculine Masonry is generally not delivering on that promise, while Universal Co-Masonry emphasizes these things above all else.

Evolution or Extinction

masonic phoenixUltimately, the challenge facing Freemasonry today is the same as the challenge which has always faced every organism throughout all time: evolve, or go extinct; adapt, or fade away; iterate, or fail the market; upgrade, or become obsolete; sink, or swim. I really believe it is as simple as that. As we know from biological evolution, the branches of the evolutionary tree which will survive are those which are most suited to their environments. At one point, our rodent-like ancestors were not so different from their dinosaur cousins, but the differences they did have were a matter of life and death, the difference between inheriting the Earth, or fading into oblivion.

Luckily, the fate of Masonry today does not have to be determined by slow mutation, but rather, the willingness of each individual Mason to cast off the dry, scaly husk of the rigid, unequal, and mundane aspects of Masonry, and walk hand-in-hand with Brothers of all genders and creeds into a new dawn of spiritual enlightenment. If we wish to pass on the treasures which the Craft represents and guide humanity to a higher state of existence, it is the only way. So mote it be.