[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!