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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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