Some American churches have introduced improvised jazz to the sanctuary because of its prayerful and moving power; others, as it attracts participants who might otherwise skip the church.
Jazz pianist Duke Ellington conducted his company in a sacred number on a temporary platform behind the main altar of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1965. (AP)
One Saturday night last month, about half a mile from a mural featuring Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane, a trio led by pianist Danny Mixon warmed up with the standard of the show “All the The things that you are. ” Featured soloist Antoinette Montague inspired the 400 or so spectators to shake their heads, clap, stomp and respond for over an hour.
This exuberant performance could have happened during a concert in a club. But it actually took place at St. Albans Congregational Church in Queens, New York, as part of a worship service.
The St. Albans Monthly Jazz Communion Service began in 2001 in part to pay homage to the region’s historic past as a home to some of the most famous jazz artists of the 20th century. And in an age of digitized beats and self-tuning vocals, Senior Pastor Reverend Henry T. Simmons wants to preserve jazz and the discipline it demands as an example for young people.
He is part of a new cohort of religious leaders who see jazz as an evangelistic strategy to fill the benches of people who would otherwise skip the service. âThere are a lot of people who have been a bit put off by the church, especially the young people and the men,â he said, noting that jazz attracts more male attendance than other services in St. Albans.
Elements of jazz have been present in black churches since enslaved peoples transformed Christian hymns to the rhythms of West Africa. Jazz would later emerge from gospel and blues as a separate genre. But the music developed a stigma for being mundane, performed in dimly lit smoke-filled venues and deemed inappropriate for Sunday mornings. In the 1960s, jazz artists began to change this perception with sacred compositions. Among them: pianist Mary Lou Williams with the album Black Christ of the Andes, and conductor Duke Ellington, who has given three âsacred concertsâ in churches and cathedrals in the United States and Europe.
What is different now is that churches of different racial perspectives and identities have picked up on Simmons’ strategy of using jazz to attract disgruntled believers, and a number of pastors have embraced the idea that the jazz has something to do with prayer and can enhance the worship experience. Some shrines have extended programs with rotating musicians. Others have a house band, or just a bass player and a pianist. In most cases, musicians play jazz standards, reinterpret sacred music, or present original material.
At Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, located atop the city’s Magnificent Mile, every Sunday at 4 p.m., the Lucy Smith Quartet draws heavily on sacred offerings like Coltrane’s “Dear Lord” and songs by her. Supreme love album. Adam Fronczek, associate pastor for adult education and worship, began weekly services in mid-2010 to reach people who had not grown up in church or had stopped coming and wanted to return. Fronczek found jazz particularly useful because he viewed the music as theologically rich. âThere is a musical journey that continues with a piece of jazz music which I think reflects our journey through the life of faith,â he said, referring to the improvisation that occurs during the performance. According to him, life’s routines, like familiar melodies, can suddenly slip into the unexplored and reveal new truths, then return to a comfortable rhythm.
For musicians of faith who see themselves as storytellers, those who listen to improvisation really listen to prayer, said Rev. Cliff Aerie, pastor of the United Church of Christ and leader of the Oikos ensemble. Over the past five years, the saxophonist has participated in some 300 jazz services across the country. âInvariably someone will say, ‘I wasn’t going to come today because it was jazz, but I like it,’ and that’s a cool statement,â he said. Aerie has seen a change in attitude towards jazz at the Sanctuary since he first performed Miles Davis’ “All Blues” in the early 1970s and people left both services. Now he thinks churches are open to the possibilities of jazz being a legitimate expression of faith: “No matter what the theology of a jazz musician, when you are really immersed and drawn into the history of improvisation. , there is a connection happening, and people are touched by it very deeply. In December, Aerie conducted three Nativity performances in St. Louis – in which he reinterpreted Christmas music in the jazz tradition – with an audience of 800 and another in Kansas City that drew 300 people. .
Over the years a lot has been done about the confluence of jazz and poetry, so it’s no surprise that Reverend Galen Guengerich, the senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in the Upper East Side of New York, associated the two in worship. Since 2000, the church has hosted an occasional monthly series that runs for most of the year and has attracted such figures as Kenny Barron, Regina Carter, Cyrus Chestnut, and Carla Cook. The format: Guengerich reads a poem and the musicians respond with an aria, chosen in advance, which completes the verses. In December, violinist Zach Brock conducted a quartet that performed alongside the works of poet Billy Collins. The first selection was “Questions about angels”:
an angel woman dancing alone in her stockings,
a little jazz combo working in the background.
she sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful
the eyes close, and the tall, slender bass player leans
take a look at her watch because she danced
forever, and now it’s very late, even for musicians.
Brock followed up with âMonk’s Dream,â a Thelonious Monk driving bop era song. He said angel stories are usually heavy, but Collins offered a playful treatment of their magic. âThere was a riffing thing going on,â he said. “The imagery it ends with refers to a jazz band, and it continues to dance even though the musicians are finished.”
The services, Guengerich said, give people a unique opportunity to hear jazz up close and contemplate poetry. âThere’s not a lot of applause and that sort of thing,â he said. “People listen and pay attention in a way that they might not be at Smoke or the Village Vanguard.”
Perhaps the deepest support for jazz in worship can be found at St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in the Fillmore District of San Francisco, where traditional liturgy such as the 23rd Psalm and the Apostle’s Creed are accompanied by the compositions of Coltrane. “This music speaks to your soul,” said Pastor Wanika Stephens, who says church musicians don’t play jazz, they only play Coltrane. Formed in 1969, the church made Coltrane a patron saint in a nod to the “sound baptism” his music inspires. Members here believe that on recordings like Supreme love, Coltrane more than any other musician embodies the notions of narration and channeling of the divine through improvisation.
Coltrane’s music certainly inspired the people who canonized him, and who continue to worship the shrine bearing his name. And, more broadly, as pastors and their congregations transform jazz from a nightclub setting into a vehicle of worship, it can change what music means to them and how important it is to their lives. For some time now, fans of the genre have been complaining that jazz does not have a large enough audience. Maybe his next fan base will be nurtured in the church.