April 2013


Once you have read the previous post, here is how I would order a Vespers service integrating jazz into the flow.

In the beginning there is God, the giver of all good gifts, and One who must appreciate all musical genres that express faith, say prayers, cry out in pain, loneliness, abandonment, or sorrow, or weep with thanksgiving for encounters with grace and light. This essay also assumes that God has a sense of rhythm, an appreciation for spontaneity and creativity, and a divine empathy that both inspires and receives joy-filled praise and heartfelt blues.

So, let some instrumental jazz welcome worshippers as they gather, whether the space be a sanctuary full of pews or a fellowship hall set with folding tables and chairs, the latter space made sacred by candlelight and the aroma of, well, coffee. Just as is the case Sunday mornings in most churches, as the prelude resounds through sacred space, many will chatter through it (though one would hope not above it). And others, whose weeks may have been a test of faith, might choose to sit quietly alone, heads bowed, hearts kneeling. The music sets the scene.

And please, not some well-known pop jazz standard that might have a familiar “secular” lyric connected to it. You see, even if the jazz is only (or all?) instrumental, ears and hearts may still process the lyric while we try to gather our worshipful thoughts. Imagine the congregation gathering while musicians play something like “My Funny Valentine,” “Misty,” or “One More for My Baby.” Maybe someone among the congregation does feel “as helpless as a kitten up a tree,” but the wider context of the song isn’t quite the focus we’re looking for as we encounter the Holy. On the other hand, a jazz arrangement of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” or “God Bless the Child” might work better. Or, a jazz arrangement of a hymn or spiritual. Or, a blues that doesn’t immediately connect with a lyric that leads in the wrong direction, so to speak. Maybe, given some time and inspiration, someone might compose something original for the occasion.

In my tradition, some words from the liturgist call us to worship, and we sing a hymn of praise. Maybe the musicians will be able to swing the hymn, while keeping it “singable.” There are some resources for jazz settings of hymns at www.presbybop.com and elsewhere. If a prayer of confession seems appropriate next, it’s the perfect time for the blues. And following an assurance of forgiveness? Some up-tempo response, maybe something brief or a joyful jam that expresses thanksgiving and freedom. Once again, this could be a jazz setting of a hymn, of course, or an instrumental jazz piece full of energy and spirit. (Use some common sense here: “Sing, Sing, Sing” is better than “Don’t Blame Me,” for example!)

When the service moves to the “hearing of the Word,” maybe there is simply the reading of the scripture. Or, perhaps, there is some musical reflection during or following the texts. I once asked the jazz pianist to spontaneously use his keyboard to respond to the Psalm verses I was reading. I’d read a few verses, and he’d “play them.” Then I’d read some more, and he’d play some more. We hadn’t rehearsed — that would take the fun out of it. It couldn’t have gone better!

Oh, speaking of “fun.” In my previous post, I mentioned with some disdain the words “entertaining” and “audience.” Authentic worship is offered in a congregation, not an audience. That has at least two implications. 1) An audience observes the performance and responds, while a congregation ordinarily observes the grace and love of God in worship, and participates throughout. 2) Nonetheless, there is no reason worship cannot be enjoyed, especially since the root of that word (enjoy) is linked to rejoicing. Therefore, while our purpose is not entertainment, participants might well find themselves smiling, tapping feet, even snapping fingers or clapping hands. This is jazz. It is emotive, like most music.

Perhaps it goes without saying (many things do), but most of the jazz we hear is not exactly “sacred” music. But as my friend jazz pianist/pastor Bill Carter says, the line between “sacred” and “secular” is a dotted line. On my rock radio show of many, many years ago, I played “secular” popular music, but with “sacred” purpose. I used the stories and poetry and rock beat to “proclaim the Word.” I have no doubt we can do the same with jazz.

For example, suppose we use the theme of Light for a Vespers service. Isn’t there a way to weave Holy Scripture and spoken word reflections around some jazz settings of “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” or “Here Comes the Sun.” Or, for contrast, “‘Round Midnight.” Choose your own theme, brainstorm with your team the possibilities, and find one, two, three songs that express the theme in helpful ways for the worshippers. I realize that your “house band” of regulars or the guests you invite to play for a particular service will have certain limitations, but if you plan ahead, and if folks devote some time and energy to this, and if the Spirit moves in your midst — well, your worship will be rich.

I’m a big fan of two things in planning worship: theme and flow. Especially for Vespers or non-traditional services, I like to find a thread that I can weave through the time we share together, and I like the deliberate pacing that leads from one thought to another, a sense of flow that moves from an introduction or preface through the body of the service to its conclusion. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, even awesome, if we had a musician on staff who would write original music for each week’s service? Yes, wonderful, awesome, and miraculous! But since that is not the case, the jazz musicians who grace us with their gifts (for which they are generously compensated, I hope) will need to draw on the repertoire with which they are already familiar. The worship planners and leaders (and that would include some of the musicians, right?) will need to be very creative in choosing appropriate music that supports both theme and flow.

Wouldn’t a weekly Jazz Vespers be a gift for any church? Yet, I suspect it might take a month to pull off a well-planned, adequately rehearsed worship experience with jazz as the musical genre of the evening. Better to do it less frequently but well,  than to throw something together weekly (and weakly?)  that depends on the Spirit to save your axe (sorry) every Sunday night! The Spirit might well do that, or might be busy inspiring a seventh-grader somewhere to practice her trumpet lessons.

Speaking of musicians of the jazz ilk…where does one find them? I was associate pastor of a large suburban church for a few years, and we had an alumnus of the big band era in our congregation. On Wednesday nights he gathered maybe a dozen kids who were taking instrumental music in school, shared some big band charts with them, and, oh, the sounds that came from that church classroom! But they never played for worship. Sad that we didn’t have the vision to share the sound. Still, there may be some youthful musicians in the local high school jazz ensemble, or a few refugees from local or regional jazz groups, who would love a chance to do something creative in what might be for them an unusual setting. One good thing about the normal starting time for a Vespers service is that it rarely coincides with paid gigs in restaurants, clubs, or wedding receptions. (Please do remember that some musicians might enjoy donating their time and talent for churches with which they have a connection, but professionals normally are compensated, whether in the union or not.)

Finally, a closing comment and a question. Jazz Vespers isn’t going to grow your church. Sorry to say but jazz has a comparatively  small following. Its fans stretch from teens playing jazz in high school bands to old guys like me who grew up with Ella, Dizzy, the Count, and the Duke. But we are not legion. Still, offering an alternative musical form to our worship on a regular (or at least experimental) basis, says that we value singing new songs to the Lord, and with joyful syncopation. I remember being hired by a radio station that had fairly good ratings with its “adult contemporary” format…to produce and host a Sunday morning “Jazz Brunch.” The station’s program director admitted that he didn’t expect big ratings during my time slot. He said something like, “I don’t really care if we don’t pull in a lot of listeners; it’s just the whole idea of our having a classy jazz brunch on our air!”

Jazz Vespers = class. And, as Bill Carter likes to say, watch out for the puddles as the chosen frozen of God melt !

And now the question. I have no idea what restrictions churches face with music licenses for live performances. Just throwing that caution in there. If you have an authoritative answer for that, there’s a comment box below. (Please, no best guesses or assumptions.)

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[Disclaimer: I am not a jazz musician; in fact, I am not a musician of any stripe. But I am a former pastor and jazz DJ. Does that count?]

My understanding of the term “vespers” comes from my college years, when a Vespers service was a Sunday night staple. I sang in the Vesper Choir (yes, I believe the word was singular in that use, perhaps correctly). My understanding of jazz comes from something lodged in my heart of hearts. I can’t explain that one. To use jazz as the musical foundation for an evening worship service seems good and right so to do.

As mentioned previously in this series of essays, I’ve planned and led some jazz vespers services, and I’ve worshipped at quite a few too. Now and then, I see that someone has done an internet search for “how to do jazz vespers” or something similar. The search lands the seeker at one of my blogs that mentions the services, but alas– there are no particular guidelines. So, I hope to remedy that in this post and the next.

I write as a minister in the Reformed tradition, among the Presbyterians, for example; that means that my understanding of the theology of worship itself is shaped by my education and experience. As for my understanding of jazz? I know what I like. Period.

Let me describe first a regularly-scheduled jazz vespers service held monthly at a local church. I sampled that series only a couple of times before I decided it didn’t meet my personal criteria for worship. The jazz, I must say, was usually quite good: local musicians, most of them professionals, playing before a good sized crowd, perhaps more listeners than would hear their music in many local jazz venues. I have no problem with the music. It made for an entertaining hour, and the audience was always appreciate. But you see the issue? “Entertaining.” “Audience.”

The services to which I refer at that church were more jazz concerts with some inspirational messages sprinkled about, like PSAs about religion interrupting the fun. A delightful host, some readings from the Bible and other fairly-religious sources, and now and then a cute bit of poetry added to the stew, as in, “This doesn’t have much to do with our theme tonight, but I found this little poem on the internet this week and thought I’d share it with you.”

As I sat in the pew, I couldn’t help but think, “I wish we could just hear the music without the religious interruptions.” That’s not the spirit of worship.

So, I begin with this foundational assumption: worship is offered to God. The words, the music, the prayer, the attitude we bring…all for God. We are worshipping God. We may sing our thanksgiving and praise, or offer our complaints and laments, as did the Psalmists. We will also listen, so that we can be aware of the voice of the Spirit through the scriptures, various interpretations expressed in a plethora of creative ways, and even, for a time, through silence.

There is little reason the traditional (or, OK, the contemporary) worship structure has to be modified in order to accommodate jazz. That structure may well be modified, but it isn’t necessary. Often the Vespers services I’ve been to are different, often a bit more simple, sometimes more thematic than Sunday morning services. The role of jazz does transform our worship, whether we gather with the familiar elements or a whole new format. Music is such an essential element of our worship experience that no matter the genre, it shapes the way we come before God in our community of faith. [Just last night I heard Carol Barnett’s “The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass.” It was a concert setting, “staged” in a university chapel, yet one could easily have called it a worshipful encounter with the One “who so loved the world.” Yes, bluegrass. It might have been a service of Vespers if a few traditional liturgical elements had put the “mass” in context, with scripture, prayer, and congregational responses. But it was not meant to be Vespers, nor a worship service. It was an inspirational concert, and I appreciated the offering of music very much.]

Why use jazz in any worship setting? And why especially in Vespers?

In my next entry, I’ll suggest ways jazz can contribute to our worship. Before you read on (assuming you will!), I suggest visiting the website of the Presbybop Jazz group or do a search for the DVD “Jazz Belongs in Church,” produced by pastor and jazz pianist Bill Carter. [Another disclaimer: the credits read, “A film  by Bill Carter and Jeff Kellam.”] That video not only offers an hour’s worth of jazz and commentary about using jazz in church settings, but it also includes an hour-long church service recorded at Carter’s Pennsylvania church. Go to www.presbybop.com . There is also an extensive PDF guide available on line, and I think it’s free.

And then, come back here for the next exciting episode of Jazz Vespers!