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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!

One thought on “Jazz Worship 101: Jazzing Up the Hymns

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