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Jazz Worship 101: Crafting Jazz Liturgy

294113_246162485432338_160063054042282_669444_1256688367_nLooking back, I’ve had the privilege of crafting and leading more than 200 jazz worship services—a great accomplishment to be sure, but also very humbling. Any pastor leading worship feels the weight of not only preaching every week but the even deeper responsibility of creating liturgy that assists people on their spiritual journey. It can be quite a challenge introducing new forms of worship to a congregation that embraces the old axiom, “we’ve always done it that way before.” And yet, it is these same folks who, I’ve discovered, appreciate the spiritual uplifting that a jazz worship service can bring. But creating and leading such a service can seem daunting to the pastor or church musician who does not have a jazz background. So, I offer five simple steps to creating a jazz service of worship:

  1. Acknowledge and embrace your church’s worshipping tradition. Don’t try to change everything. Rather set your service in the framework of how you usually worship.
  2. Select music that is accessible. Make sure the music fits the worship theme; that service music creates a spiritual mood; and the hymns are singable.
  3. Approach worship with the notion that worship is not led, it’s choreographed. The service should be crafted as one entire entity with liturgists assuming the role of spiritual guides encouraging worshippers to experience each moment.
  4. Engage jazz musicians who do not see this as just another gig. Each player needs to understand this as an opportunity to share his/her talent as an offering to God, and the congregation.
  5. Finally, let go and let the spirit take the lead as you journey through the worship experience together.

Just last Sunday Oîkos led worship at a church in the St. Louis area. Almost always we are given the opportunity for planning and guiding the entire service (in consultation with the pastor and the church musician, of course). This service was one of those rare occasions when our role was limited to offering the music while the pastor and liturgists “led” worship. This service was a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Outlined below is an example of how we incorporated jazz into an existing worship format. One note, the two songs marked with an “*” are not the pieces we actually played. I’ve substituted suggestions in place of the original compositions we performed. The band consists of a vocalist, sax, piano, bass and drums.

PRELUDE: “All Blues” by Miles Davis* (instrumental)

INTROIT: “Contemplation” by McCoy Tyner (vocal, using lyrics by Chuck Marhonic)

HYMN: “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” by Doris Aikers (congregation)

GLORIA: “Give Me a Clean Heart” by Margaret Douroux (congregation)

CHILDREN’S MESSAGE: “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” by Thomas Dorsey (vocal, MLK’s favorite hymn)

SERMON INTRO: “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” by Billy Taylor* (vocal)

HYMN: “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” (congregation)

OFFERTORY: “Come Sunday” by Duke Ellington (vocal)

DOXOLOGY: “We are Climbing Jacobs’s Ladder” using the words “Praise God, Praise God for our Blessings” (congregation)

HYMN: “Glory, Glory Hallelujah Since I Lay My Burdens Down” an African American spiritual (congregation)

POSTLUDE: “Yes, God is Real! by Kenneth Morris (vocal)

This was one specific liturgy, created for a specific congregation for a specific occasion of worship. However, the focus and flow provides a model for crafting any service of worship. I hope you find this helpful.

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Jazz Hymn Arranging

I came to the Christian faith and the church community later than most. I was not reared in the church. My parents had both rejected the religious traditions of their youth – my father, his catholic roots and my motherrodin-thinker, her Anglican Church of England heritage. My mother and father were typical post WWII, blue-collar parents with four children seeking the American dream: enough money to put food on the table, savings enough to buy a small house outside the city, a good car, and a good school where their children would receive the education they never had . . . so that perhaps, one day, they might be able to even attend college. But church was never in the picture.

How I ended up, at the age of 21, sitting in the pew of a Dutch Reformed Church is a story better left for another time. Needless to say that as a kid brought up on Elvis Presley and the Beatles, in addition to my introduction into jazz as a young saxophonist, I found church music to be – square, using a “hip” word of the day. So, there I sat, trying to not only digest this “thing” called Christian faith, but also trying to get into the music, especially the hymns. Fortunately, our church organist had been trained at Juliard, so that while many other congregations were wading through ponderously slow renditions of the old standards, Evelyn was joyously skimming over the keyboard while respecting the traditional intent of each hymn. The large organ pipes rang out and even I, a jazz/rocker enthusiast came to enjoy and appreciate the hymns.

As I explored Christianity at a church-related college and then seminary I began to study the roots of hymnody – musically and theologically. By the time of my ordination and first pastorate I had a good sense for which hymns had theological and musical integrity. Even though the old-timers in the pew wanted to sing “The Old Rugged Cross” I favored new, contemporary hymns that sought to offer a new vitality to worship. But I also appreciated many traditional hymns that offered a good message and musical quality. One of my favorites, since my first days in the Dutch Reformed Church pew, was “Be Thou My Vision.” Perhaps it was the music’s meSLANElodic celtic roots (traced back to the 5th century AD) that nudged my English ancestry. Maybe it was the words about the wise, visionary presence of God’s call in my heart. Whatever the case, it’s a hymn that has stuck with me all through the years.

But how to arrange it for worship? I soon discovered that the way I wanted to play it on my sax was not the way most people could sing it. You’ll see that my arrangement of SLANE doesn’t change any of the notes. Rather it changes the rhythm, just enough, that its syncopation would challenge most congregations. We offered this arrangement in Volume One with the caveat in the notes: This highly syncopated version of SLANE may be better performed as an instrumental piece rather than as accompaniment to singing. I’ve tried to teach it several times in worship and even when prompted and led by a great jazz vocalist, folks in the pew have a difficult time finding the rhythm. So, perhaps it is used more effectively in worship as an anthem, an offertory or a postlude.

Perhaps. And yet the song calls out to be swung as a joyous affirmation of what we feel when we embrace the treasure of God’s presence within. The last time we tried this as a hymn an older woman came up to me after the service and said how much she liked it. She said, “To be truthful, young man, I just couldn’t sing it, but I wanted to dance it. But after my hip replacement I knew better than to try. So, I just let it dance through my heart.” Amen. I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

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Jazz Epiphanies

Epiphany: classically defined as “an appearance or manifestation, especially of a divine being.” Or in secular terms “an usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking; an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.” Or in simpler terms – one stumbles on to something, the light bulb goes on, and an ordinary event leads to an extraordinary “aha!”IMG_6052

Sounds like jazz to me. A jazz musician opens himself/herself to the music and discovers (hidden within the interplay of melody, harmony and rhythm) the spark of an idea. It’s a discovery that begs exploration, and the musician pursues the spark, seeking the meaning and flow of the inner music as it cascades through his/her soul . . . and then s/he is compelled to improvise a new creation, sharing it with the other musicians and listeners (worshippers?).

In the Church, Epiphany is that wondrous, illuminating time: post-Christmas and pre-Lent . . . the time celebrated as the encounter of the Magi with the Christ child . . . foreign dignitaries, following a celestial sign that leads to a big surprise. What better time to plumb the spiritual depths than through jazz?

With the beginning of a new year comes the opportunity to travel new paths seeking epiphanies that open up possibilities for spiritual renewal. Tim and I wish you the wild blessings of “jazz epiphanies” as you seek out inspired moments in the midst of familiar melodies and discover the improvisatory wellspring of the Spirit in your quest.