There was a touch of grace in the first Jazz Vespers service I planned and led back in Richmond, Virginia. Touch of grace: that translates into a movement of the Spirit. And that’s why jazz, by definition (almost), is such Spirit-oriented music. The jazz musician knows what those notes mean on the page…but is free to ignore them and go where the heart leads. In the church, the leading of the heart is most purely attributed to the Spirit’s leading.
My position description at the Bon Air Presbyterian Church was Associate Pastor for Liturgy and Congregational Care. When it came to liturgy, I did care. I took the role of planning and leading worship as a very serious privilege. It was a labor of love, that responsibility to shape the form and substance of how a service of worship would proceed from prelude to postlude. I especially enjoyed finding ways that music, prayers, and movement fit the theme of the readings. (Since the “senior pastor” chose the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for the basis of his sermon, I took my cue from his choices as I shaped the words I would use in leading worship. On the Sundays that I was to preach, the senior pastor graciously took my lead.)
When our monthly Sunday night worship services started, I harbored the idea that I would one evening schedule a jazz service. Each month, an evening service would provide some “creative” alternative to the more “traditional” services offered every Sunday morning. One month we’d do a quiet Evening Prayer service from the denomination’s Book of Common Worship. Another month the focus would be on youth, healing, or aging. Then I sprung the idea of bringing in a couple of local jazz musicians to help lead the music. This would have come as no surprise to our church members at Bon Air. I was a part-time jazz disk jockey.
In the early 1970’s I created what was to become a long-running jazz show on the public radio station. For awhile, in those early years of FM stereo, it was the only jazz program on the air in Richmond. When I finally retired from volunteering as producer/host of “Headset Jazz,” I was actually paid money, good money, to produce and host Richmond’s first Sunday morning “Jazz Brunch” on a popular adult contemporary rock station. Those gigs opened the door to hosting jazz festivals and concerts, and getting to know many of the region’s top jazz musicians.
One of them was David Esleck, a jazz pianist who played several local venues at the time. I knew David was married to a church educator-to-be, a student of mine named Beth. So I drew the conclusion that playing for a worship service wouldn’t be a huge stretch for him. I invited him to play for a vespers service and he seemed intrigued by the idea. I had decided on a theme for the service: night time. Vespers = evening after all. Plus jazz finds its biggest audiences after dark, and there is a plethora of jazz tunes that reflect the images of night and darkness. David and I explored several musical possibilities, and I shaped the liturgy around some scripture passages that told of what Louis Armstrong’s hit song called “the dark sacred night.” (“What a Wonderful World”)
I thought of the Gospel account of Nicodemus using the cover of darkness to visit Jesus at night. I thought of psalms that used phrases like “At night the Lord’s song is with me” (Ps. 42); “You will not fear the terror of the night” (91:5), and “Weeping may endure for the night…” (30:5). I shaped the liturgy from those and similar passages. And, while my own words and the structure of the service were carefully planned, I asked David to add some jazz keyboard improvisation to my reading of Psalm 63. I would read it and he would interpret it on the piano.
David asked if he could bring another musician or two that night. My only caveat was that we didn’t have an unlimited budget for this. Not a problem he promised.
As the planning progressed, I knew that congregational singing would be expected at that service. But how to find something “jazzy” to sing? Dr. Paul Walaskay, the Dean of the Faculty at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, just happened to be a talented jazz pianist himself, and he had written a jazz-influenced hymn that fit the service perfectly. We added a couple more hymns that could be sung with some light jazz accompaniment and we were ready for that Sunday night to come.
A few minutes before the service, David arrived with bassist Jocko MacNelly. (Jocko’s big brother was the late Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jeff MacNelly. But among Jocko’s fans, the bass guitar swung with more authority than the pen.) I was thrilled to have another musician on board. We quickly went over the order of the service and all was well until I mentioned Psalm 63 and David’s improvised piano meditation. “What psalm?” David asked. I thought he was kidding, but that little detail had slipped from his mind. I told him what I had hoped we might do, and gave him permission to pass on it.
“No, we can do it. You just read a few verses and pause, and I’ll play. Then you read a few more, and we’ll take it from there and see how it goes. No problem.”
When it came time for that passage in the service, I began the first verses of Psalm 63: “O God, you are my God; I seek you. My soul thirsts for you.” I read through verse 3 or 4, and paused and David played. I felt what we old deejays called a “post” coming, and I started reading again. Pause. Play. Read. Improvise. Words. Notes. “My soul praises you…when I meditate on you in the watches of the night…” Jazz.
A touch of grace. The unplanned moments of the liturgy freed the Spirit to move the praise along, with a joy-filled rhythm, an improvised response to the God who finds us and slakes our deepest thirsts.
The religion writer for the Richmond newspaper, Ed Briggs, was there that night. A jazz aficionado himself, he was quite taken by the treatment of that Psalm. I remember well Ed’s enthusiastic comments at the end of the service. “Wow. You guys must have worked for hours to get that right!” I told him what had happened, and he was delighted. “But Kellam, how did you know when to come in? How did you know when David was about to hand it off to you?”
David Esleck paid me a great compliment as he answered Ed’s question. “Hey, Jeff’s been around jazz a long time. He thinks like a jazz musician!”
Good thing, too, since I’ve never really thunk like a theologian! And I’m certainly not a musician of any ilk.
I left Richmond for Vermont shortly after that Jazz Vespers service. I think I read that the Bon Air Presbyterian Church recently hosted a jazz trio called Crosswinds for a Sunday night concert. Whether they’ve worshipped through jazz in the fifteen years in between, I’m not sure. I have. (And I’ll write more about that in the future.)
In the meantime, peace, grace, and jazz to you.