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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 Worship 101: Where do we begin?

question-markSo, you’ve decided that your worship needs a little changing, a bit of updating, something more contemporary in nature, liturgy with some oomph. You’ve been reading the experts on revitalizing ministry and worship—Brian Mclaren, Cameron Trimble, Molly Baskette and others, so you know there are lots of ideas and models for enhancing your worship life. Perhaps you’ve given thought to your church’s music program and have expressed gratitude for your music ministry leaders but feel there’s a creative energy lacking in the traditional organ-centered music of your congregation. Or your church has started a praise band—plenty of energy but the music seems a bit simplistic and the theology questionable. And now you’ve heard about jazz and wonder if it could be a viable option.

A number of years ago a pastor friend shared with me that he and the church’s worship leaders determined that music was the key element providing the thread to their worship service. They decided they needed to update their church’s music program and began researching various music forms and while they valued traditional hymnody, enjoyed some elements of praise music, and affirmed the meditative quality of Taize, they wanted something with more vitality. They seriously considered creating a service format based in Rock ‘n’ Roll but realized that musical intensity was created by increasing volume. Not desirable. “But then I spoke with a good friend who headed the university department of jazz,” he said. “He explained that jazz musicians did exactly the opposite. To increase intensity they turned inward to explore their inner expression and many times actually played softer, but with such intensity that it was compelling.” Another jazz musician friend of mine calls this “quiet fire.” More on quiet fire in a subsequent blog post.

So, in beginning a jazz ministry it’s important to connect with jazz musicians who understand their musical expression as a manifestation of their interior life. They may not be practicing Christians, but they should be deeply spiritual. Depending on how integrated you want the music to be in the liturgy will determine the number of musicians, the music performed and the extent to which the music inspires and leads the service.

A large New York City church has a weekly Sunday evening jazz vespers service, actually more of a jazz meditation. Some of the biggest names in jazz play the service and it’s truly a spirit-filled and inspiring time. But it’s fairly passive with little or no jazz hymnody. Another church I know has an occasional jazz service where the jazz musicians go the extra step—playing the hymns. But at the service I attended there was no sense of musical leadership to help support the singers, and the music performed wasn’t related thematically to the service. When they finished playing they sat down and nothing was ever mentioned about their presence from the pulpit. It was a sort of jazz plug in service.

So, the first thing to do is to make a choice—do you want the music be more of a jazz meditation (prelude, postlude, offertory, etc.) or do you want the musicians to provide musical continuity by accompanying the congregation in their singing. Both ways are valid, but whichever you choose it’s important to make sure that the music is integrated with the theme and the entire service a coordinated whole.

More next week,


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Jazz Worship 101: Why Jazz in Worship?

Imag 1 Oikos 2“So, how do we do it?”, the church’s minister of music asked. “I don’t know the first thing about jazz. We don’t have any jazz musicians in our church. Our minister wants us to be more contemporary, but the congregation is made up of mostly older members and quite traditional. Where do we begin? In fact, why should we even consider using jazz in the first place?”

Sound familiar? Over the years, I’ve heard variations on this from church musicians and pastors. In the weeks ahead, Tim and I will focus on a variety of “how to” themes for incorporating jazz into worship. Obviously, we can’t address all the issues in a single blog post, but we hope to provide thoughtful commentary from our years of leading jazz worship services. We will aim our thoughts at church leaders who have limited experience with blending jazz into the worship experience.

So, let’s start at the beginning—why should churches consider jazz as a musical form in worship?

Many great jazz musicians grew up in the church and had their first musical experience as part of a faith community. These artists went on to amazing musical careers that rarely, if ever, brought their musical artistry into the church for worship. And yet, their music is deeply spiritual. Yes, Duke Ellington wrote dozens of sacred jazz compositions and Dave Brubeck composed more than fifty works of sacred music blending jazz and classical motifs. Yet, for the most part, jazz and church have remained separate, particularly when it comes to the Sunday experience of worship.

At the heart of “spiritual jazz” is improvisation—taking a melodic statement and exploring its depth through spontaneous creation. Violinist Stephane Grappelli once said, “Improvisation, it is a mystery . . . When I improvise and I’m in good form, I’m like somebody half sleeping. I even forget there are people in front of me. Great improvisers are like priests; they are thinking only of their God.” Charlie Parker, the pioneering bebop saxophonist said it even more succinctly, “I am a devout musician.” [See my blog entry from 8/24/15] about the spirit of improvisation].

As a jazz musician (and a pastor) I can speak from first-hand experience. When jazz musicians play, we perform a sacred rite; we are at prayer. We are never more deeply in communion with the Holy than when we’re improvising—fashioning spontaneous melodies, harmonies and rhythms as an act of giving—a holy offering to God and the listener. Jazz musicians fashion spontaneous musical motifs, but more than that we paint portraits, tell stories, reveal hidden (and not so hidden) truths. When I play I often feel as if I’m preaching more effectively (and passionately!) than I ever did in the pulpit.

If our worship is to be an act of praise to our Creator God, we need to make it the most soulful, creative, inspiring offering possible. And who better to lead such a creative journey of faith than the jazz ensemble. When it comes to worshiping God, as Stephane Grapelli noted, we jazz musicians are like priests—priests inspiring worshipers to journey into the heart of worship.

As the weeks unfold we welcome comments and questions from those who have planned jazz services and those who are eager, but feel they don’t as of yet have the resources to explore jazz worship.

More to come . . .


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The Rhythm of Life

Sharing-Wishes-Park-BenchOne of the things I miss about living in Ohio is the Cleveland Metro-parks, part of the “emerald necklace” that rings the city and extends down into the Cuyahoga National Park. It’s a great park system, especially for bikers.

The bike path is fairly flat except for one section that has a challenging steep grade. On one particular day I hit the hill; dropped into low gear and, huffing and puffing, was able to pedal to the top. After pumping my fist in the air to celebrate my accomplishment I slowed down. There at the crest was a bench with the inscription: “I like the rhythm of my life.”

What a cool statement, a great way to understand and affirm one’s life. As I caught my breath I thought about mine—my life, that is. And I had to agree: I like the rhythm of my life too. I thought of the hill I just ascended using all my leg power . . . with the assist of 24 available gears. Through decades of life’s ups and downs a self-rhythm has become evident in my life, as consistent as my heartbeat. And the beauty is, as the beat goes on, it takes on a creative rhythmic pulse that mirrors the encounters of every moment regardless of tempo. Even with a constant “thump-a-thump” I can imagine shifting rhythmic patterns (from 4/4 to 3/4, cut time to 6/8 or even 5/4) to accompany just about any melody flowing through me.

As a saxophonist I interpret melody. But I’ve learned that without a rhythmic context improvisational exploration can get pretty bland. And who wants to live on the bland side of things. The exploration of each day is an adventure and, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, “it’s not how much you play your horn, it’s how you live life that makes you a musician.” I suppose you could say the same for religion – it’s not how much you proclaim your faith it’s how you live it. Louis Armstrong was much more elegant. He said, “My whole life, my whole soul, my whole spirit is to blow that horn . . . What we play is life.”

Looking back, I don’t remember who that bench was dedicated to, but I am sure of one thing: he or she was definitely a musician, savoring life’s rhythmic flow, playing life to the fullest.

Rhythmic Blessings,