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Jazz Worship 101: Jazzing Up the Hymns

Parkway UCC 30So we learned how to use standards in various places (prelude, offertory, postlude, etc.) as a way to start incorporating jazz into the worship service.  Now we want to take the next step: utilizing jazz music for congregational singing.  The question is: how do we combine jazz with traditional hymnody and come up with something that the congregation can sing?

First of all, there is a wonderful tradition of hymnody throughout the history of Christianity, and singing these hymns has been an important part of people’s lives.  Members in our congregations develop strong attachments to these hymns, which often bring back a flood of emotions and memories.  Unfortunately, these hymns were mostly written in a classical style that doesn’t necessary work well in a jazz idiom.  However, we don’t want to throw away these hymns just because they are not written for a jazz band – we want to preserve the history and emotional attachment that congregations have to these pieces of music.

The question then becomes, how do we “jazz up” these hymns for worship?  What can we do to take these traditional hymns and make them more suitable for jazz styles of music?

The most obvious answer would be to write new arrangements, which we have done here and here.  We come up with introductions, new and innovative harmonic progressions, and often more compelling rhythms to “jazz up” some common hymn tunes.  However, not everyone has the skills and/or time to write all new jazz arrangements of hymns for each and every service.

I want to give you an easy idea that you can apply to traditional hymns to “jazz them up” a little bit.  This is a simple change you can make that will make a big difference without the need to write an entirely new arrangement: change the meter.  Just changing the meter of some of these traditional hymn tunes can really add a rhythmic bounce that brings the tune to life and makes it more jazz-friendly.

For example, take a standard hymn tune in 4/4 like “Hymn to Joy” (Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You).  One of our favorite things to do is play this tune in 5/4 meter, changing the first two notes of each measure into dotted quarter notes.  The repetition of the rhythmic pattern each measure makes it easy for the congregation to pick up, and the syncopation really lends itself to a jazz feel.

Another example would be to take a standard hymn tune in 4/4 and play it in a 3/4 (or 6/4) meter.  Our arrangement of “St. Anne” (O God, Our Help in Ages Past) is a good example of this technique. This works really well with hymn tunes that are mostly comprised of quarter notes.  Alternate between two dotted quarter notes and a half/quarter note combination to give a syncopated, rhythmic feel.  Just keep the rhythm in a regular, repeated pattern so that the congregation can easily learn it.

Meter changes are something that you can do without creating an entirely new arrangement of the hymn tune.  You can even have the congregation just read the hymn straight from the hymn book, mentioning ahead of time that the rhythm will feel a little bit different.  Whenever you do this, it is important to have a song leader to help lead the congregation through the updated tune.

I think the most important thing is to have fun with it!  Make it an adventure, something new to try, and invite the congregation to come along with you.  Keeping it light-hearted and fun will go a long way to making it a success!

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Jazz Worship 101: Standards in Worship


Ok!  So you’ve decided that you want to try jazz in worship.  Great!  Now what?

Probably the easiest place to start is by inserting jazz into the “instrumental” music of the worship service – the prelude, offertory, prayer time, postlude, etc.  These are typically portions of the service where the congregation does not participate in the music, eliminating the need to coordinate between them and the musicians.  They are also places where the music is more about “listening,” which makes them perfect places for the congregation to focus on listening to jazz.

But what should we play?  I think this is probably the biggest hurdle that keeps people from trying jazz in worship.  Do jazz musicians know any hymns?  Probably not.  Do church musicians know any jazz tunes that are appropriate for worship?  Probably not.  There is a disconnect here that can be difficult to overcome.  That’s why we are here to help you!

You are most likely bringing in professional jazz musicians from outside your congregation to participate in the worship service, so the best thing would be to pick tunes that they are familiar with.  There are a set of standard jazz tunes that all professional jazz musicians should know – we call these “standards.”  A lot of times standards are show tunes from Broadway shows, popular songs, love songs – not exactly the kind of tunes we want to hear in church.  However, there are a number of “standards” that are appropriate for worship and would be a great starting place for adding jazz into the service.

Below is my list of jazz standards that could be considered for worship.  Obviously, this list is just a starting point – I’m sure there are many other great jazz tunes out there that would be perfect for worship services.  But this list will at least give you a starting place as you look for ideas and coordinate with your jazz musicians.

  • Acknowledgement – John Coltrane
  • Afro Blue – Mongo Santamaria
  • Alabama – John Coltrane
  • All Blues – Miles Davis
  • Blue Bossa – Kenny Dorham
  • Blue Seven – Sonny Rollins
  • A Child Is Born – Thad Jones
  • Come Sunday – Duke Ellington
  • Contemplation – McCoy Tyner
  • Crescent – John Coltrane
  • Dolphin Dance – Herbie Hancock
  • Equinox – John Coltrane
  • Fall – Miles Davis
  • Footprints – Wayne Shorter
  • God Bless the Child – Billie Holliday
  • Gregory is Here – Horace Silver
  • Heaven – Duke Ellington
  • Holy Land – Cedar Walton
  • Impressions – John Coltrane
  • Infant Eyes – Wayne Shorter
  • Inner Urge – Joe Henderson
  • Israel – John Carisi
  • Lament – J. J. Johnson
  • Little One – Herbie Hancock
  • Lonnie’s Lament – John Coltrane
  • Maiden Voyage – Herbie Hancock
  • Mercy, Mercy, Mercy – Joe Zawinul
  • Moanin’ – Bobby Timmons
  • One By One – Wayne Shorter
  • Passion Dance – McCoy Tyner
  • Peace – Horace Silver
  • Peace Piece – Bill Evans
  • Prayer – Keith Jarrett
  • The Preacher – Horace Silver
  • Psalm – John Coltrane
  • Pursuance – John Coltrane
  • Recorda Me – Joe Henderson
  • Red Clay – Freddie Hubbard
  • Resolution – John Coltrane
  • Search for Peace – McCoy Tyner
  • Seven Steps to Heaven – Miles Davis
  • Song for My Father – Horace Silver
  • Speak No Evil – Wayne Shorter
  • Spiritual – John Coltrane
  • Stolen Moments – Oliver Nelson
  • Take Five – Dave Brubeck
  • Tune Up – Miles Davis
  • Wild Flower – Freddie Hubbard
  • Wise One – Herbie Hancock
  • Yes Or No – Wayne Shorter
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Jazz for Christmas


Somehow, Christmas just seems like a “jazzy” time of year more than any other for me.  Most of my favorite Christmas recordings are jazz, and a good portion of the Christmas music I hear on the radio is jazz-oriented as well.  However, I think the connection between Christmas and jazz goes all the way back to my childhood when learning to play the piano.  I had two favorite Christmas books that I played from every year, and both were set in jazz styles.

Christmas with Style by Jerry Ray was (and still is!) my absolute favorite.  I would just sit at the piano and play straight through the book, from one arrangement to the next.  It is a great book because the piano parts are not difficult to play at all, and yet they offer a rich set of sophisticated harmonies.  I can remember my family telling me how much they enjoyed listening to them when I played them at our house.

The other book that I frequented at Christmas time was Tom Roed’s Advanced Piano Solos: Christmas Edition.  These arrangements were more difficult, and my favorite part was that each piece was treated in a unique way.  Sometimes you get Christmas books where all the songs sound the same, but that was not the case with this one – each arrangement has it’s own individual style, with a creative take on a traditional Christmas tune.

I’m hoping that our latest book, Worship in a New Key – Volume 2, will become for you like these other books have become for me.  We believe that Christmas is the perfect time to introduce jazz music into the church, and we hope that the arrangements in our latest volume will give you the jumpstart that you need to make it happen.  We have tried to come up with an individual, creative take on each tune, and yet we have given you many options for performance so you can best adapt the arrangement for your individual setting.  Our hope is that you can use this book to enhance your worship in the Christmas season through jazz, and that maybe the sound of jazz at Christmas time will become a new tradition at your church.

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AGO Workshop – “Jazz in Worship”


I was so thrilled yesterday to be able to share knowledge about jazz worship with attendees at the AGO (American Guild of Organists) regional convention in St. Louis.  It’s so gratifying to help others discover the wonder of jazz!  I’m hopeful that many of them can take what they learned and have a jazz worship service in their local church settings.

My goal in the brief workshop (only 45 minutes!) was to cover a lot of ground, starting with a theological background of jazz and working our way to practical ideas that could be implemented in their congregations.  Our time together centered around these three questions:

  • Why jazz worship? (a theological discussion of why jazz and worship complement each other)
  • What is jazz worship? (discussion of how we can infuse jazz and improvisation into the different parts of the worship service)
  • How to create jazz worship? (discussion of the practical details of planning and leading a jazz worship service)

It was truly a joy to present this information to the group of organists at the convention.  They all seemed genuinely interested in how they could apply these ideas to their local church setting, and I hope that I gave them plenty of practical advice for how to do it.  In the near future, I’d like to develop these ideas further into their own blog posts – look for those coming soon.

My favorite part of the workshop was when we got to “act out” a few of the examples together.  We started by singing some jazz versions of a couple of hymns, and it was amazing to see everyone’s faces light up after we sang a familiar hymn with substituted chords or a different meter.  For another example, we had volunteers read as different characters in a story from scripture and allowed the jazz musician (me) to give a brief improvisation as a commentary after each character spoke.  It really brought the gospel story to life!

I was very encouraged to find out there is a great deal of interest in the jazz arrangements of familiar hymn tunes that Cliff and I are working on.  We are looking forward to having these available soon!  Our hope is that they make it that much easier for musicians not as familiar with jazz to be able to implement a jazz worship experience at their church.

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Hello!  We are so excited to be launching our new website,!  We hope it becomes a resource that church musicians everywhere can turn to for creative jazz arrangements of hymn tunes in addition to tips, tricks, and suggestions for getting the most out of your jazz worship experience.

Within the next month or so, we will be adding our first set of jazz hymn tune arrangements that you can purchase and download electronically for use in your local church.  You will have the option to buy hymn tunes individually or purchase a volume of various hymn tunes that can be printed out in book form.  The arrangements will be set up similarly to a jazz play-a-long book (such as Jamey Aebersold’s jazz play-a-long series), with versions of each arrangement in a variety of keys and clefs.  We hope that these options give you the flexibility you need for planning your jazz worship experiences.

In the meantime, we are getting our blog up and running.  Our goal is to share with you ideas, suggestions, and experiences that we have when planning and leading our jazz worship services – hopefully these will inspire and guide you when doing your own!  And we hope that you feel free to ask us questions as well, to begin a dialogue among those who are passionate about jazz worship.

We’re working on several different jazz worship events right now that we will write about in future blog posts.  We hope that you will check back in with us soon!