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The Jazz of Lent

Cliff cross posterIt is heartening to see how jazz has made its way into the worship and ministry of the Church during the past forty years. There was a time when jazz was labeled the “devil’s music,” but our cultural acceptance of diverse expressions has shifted and even some of the most traditional members in our churches recognize the spiritual depth that jazz can bring to worship. Jazz can be a great catalyst/spiritual discipline for our worship at any time of the Church year. And with Ash Wednesday upon us it is appropriate to recognize the possibilities for jazz during this sacred season of Lent.

Culturally, Lent is preceded by a brief time of anticipatory and, sometimes, raucous celebration. The tradition of Mardi Gras (New Orleans) and Carnival (Central and South America) provide one last fling just prior to the forty days of fasting and penance that has traditionally marked the season of Lent. Many churches are now celebrating Mardi Gras Sunday, often with a Dixieland band to offer the final “hurrah” before the deep introspection and solemn season to follow. One congregation I was a member of brings back the same Dixieland band every year to offer up “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” just prior to the pancake breakfast. All the “alleluia symbols” in the sanctuary are taken down and hidden until Easter Sunday. I’ve heard of one church employing Caribbean steel drums in worship, while another features their children/youth band.

In many churches, mid-week Lenten services offer a reflective time to utilize jazz in worship. I’ve led jazz worship on Ash Wednesday, creating a meditative environment to reflect on Jesus’ words in Matthew’s gospel about how to fast, offer alms, be at prayer and to ultimately affirm that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:21).

The Sundays in Lent offer unique opportunities for sacred jazz, especially the talent of improvisation when reflecting on the themes of Jesus’ journey—into the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13), the transfiguration on the mountaintop Mark 9:2-9), the encounter with the man born blind (John 9: 1-41). Improvisation can tell the story without even one word sung.

The events of Holy Week offer unique possibilities for jazz worship—Palm Sunday: a time to share exuberant hosannas; Maundy Thursday: prayerful melodies undergirding the sacrament of Holy Communion; Good Friday: tailor made for the blues expressing the down-to-earth pain of life and death; Saturday night vigil: jazz musicians forming the experiential thread through the ancient liturgy. And this is all before the joyful celebration of Easter!

So rather than conform entirely to the traditional organ music of Lent, why not let jazz provide a new way to experience the depth of this profound and powerful season?

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Jazz Arrangements for Palm Sunday thru Easter

JH V3 ImageTim and I want to thank you for making our first two volumes of Worship in a New Key such a success. We’ve appreciated not only your orders, but also your kind words and stories of jazz in your church. Volume 3 is now available, just in time for Palm/Passion Sunday, Holy Week and Easter Sunday Season. With Ash Wednesday and Lent coming so early this year it can seem like Holy Week and Easter is just around the corner. And it is! When I was in the parish I remember how I savored Epiphany as an “in-between” season of respite and planning. Such is not the case this year.

Volume 3 offers the same thoughtfulness and creativity invested in our previous collections. As always, in addition to the arrangements, we offer insights and commentary about each hymn. You will find again find a helpful introduction to the collection with a comprehensive list of associated hymns for each tune. For instance, while ST THEODULPH is the setting for “All Glory, Laud and Honor” you can also use the arrangement at other times during the church year for “God is My Strong Salvation,” “O How Shall I Receive You,” and others. We also supply a “how to” section—Hymn Tune Notes. A couple of examples:

Canonbury (Ride On, Ride On in Majesty): Canonbury has been set in a jazz funk style to bring out the celebratory feel of that first Palm Sunday procession. Two different “heads” have been provided to give you flexibility. The first one can be played either as an instrumental piece or as accompaniment to congregational singing. If song leaders will be singing the melody, a set of funky horn backgrounds can be used instead. In addition, there is a separate part provided for the rhythm section instruments.

St. Theodulph (All Glory, Laud and Honor): Traditionally, St. Theodulph conveys a stately ambience to the Palm/Passion Sunday narrative. We’ve changed the meter to 6/8 to emphasize the metaphor of children singing hosannas as Jesus enters Jerusalem. The horn interlude between verses continues the feeling of celebrative praise.

Passion Chorale (O Sacred Head Now Wounded): The mournful melody and passionate lyrics seem like a perfect fit for the blues, which is the basis for this arrangement. Two different versions of the melody have been provided – one to be used as an instrumental, and the other to be used if the congregation will be singing along. The melody is set up almost like a call and response, so try having one instrument play the melody and have another add an improvised bluesy response after each phrase.

We hope you’ll want to order this set of creative arrangements. And if you do, please be in touch with us to let us know how the music was received. And, of course, we hope you’ll spread the word about Worship Jazz. One final note. All of our collections are PDF DOWNLOAD ONLY. This allows us to pass along the savings of printing and mailing expenses, as well as giving you immediate access to the files.

We hope you will have as much “fun” with these arrangements as we have had creating them. We offer them as a starting point—a catalyst for your own creativity as you empower your worshipping community to experience the wonder and joy of worship through jazz.