How do I use a jazz hymnbook?

Pic4Each volume of the jazz hymnbook features 12 traditional, public domain, hymns. There are two main considerations for their usage: practicality and interpretation.

Practicality: Hymns, whether purchased separately or as part of a collection, are identified by their traditional hymn tunes. The Commonly Associated Hymns section lists the most well-know hymn texts for each musical setting. In addition the meter of each hymn tune is also noted giving other hymn possibilities utilizing the same meter. The Hymn Tune Notes section gives insightful information about the arrangement and suggestions as to how and when a hymn might be used. Each Arrangement provides four different instrumental key settings: C Treble (piano, organ, guitar), Bb Treble (trumpet, tenor saxophone, clarinet), Eb Treble (alto saxophone), and Bass Clef (double bass, electric bass). Each arrangement includes a melodic interpretation (in the traditional key presented in most hymn books) and corresponding chords.

Interpretation: All of the hymn melodies are singable by congregations, but some (e.g., Slane) are rhythmically challenging. For this reason it may be better used as an instrumental piece (prelude, offertory, postlude), or perhaps as a musical response to a more “straight” singing of the hymn by the congregation. Jazz musicians will know that the accompanying chords are a guide to the enharmonic structure of the piece and through practice and experimentation know how to use the chords as improvisatory guidance. Church musicians from a more traditional background may view the chords as a foreign language. Here are some options for making the hymnbook come alive when the typical church musician is at a loss:

  1. Ask jazz musicians to perform in worship under the guidance of the church musician and minister. Bringing in talented musicians who know the genre will help present the music in a fresh and lively way. You may already have a number of gifted musicians in your congregation who know how to improvise. Bringing in outside musicians is also a form of creative evangelism. Inviting and affirming artists into church can have a revitalizing influence on your congregation.
  2. Look to your youth. Many of your teenagers and young adults have musical gifts, play in bands and have experience performing. While their experience may be more rock ‘n’ roll oriented, under the right guidance a youth band could be created to give more energy to worship. It’s also an opportunity to affirm their youthful spirit and leadership in the church as well as introduce them to the genre of jazz.
  3. Many church musicians have a commitment to continuing education. This is a perfect opportunity to take a class (local music school, community college, a gifted tutor, etc.) and build a new skill set. One church musician acquaintance went a step further—frequenting a local jazz club he not only met fine musicians who he invited to play at his church but also began to develop an “ear” for jazz and became a fine jazz improviser in his own right.

However you use the Worship in a New Key Jazz Hymnbook, please understand that it is merely a starting point—for the church musician, minister and congregants to begin exploring the dynamic worship possibilities that jazz nurtures. Once you travel down this path you will discover that jazz goes far beyond the hymns themselves. Jazz provides countless creative ways to bring new life to musical responses, prayers, scripture, even sermons. As your journey leads you deeper into jazz worship keep your spirit open to the wild blessings that this improvisational art can bring to your ministry.