Written by Anthony Moujaes
A key to Community Church of Sebastopol's worship services each week is the variety of music the California-based United Church of Christ congregation celebrates with. One of those genres of music is jazz – and minister of music the Rev. Brian Plaugher believes while all music can be prayerful, jazz's improvisational style has the power and creativity to make a worship service more open, untamed and free.
"It's kind of a 'God Is Still Speaking' music," Plaugher said. "We have a variety of groups and arrangements that play music. We do two basic kinds of jazz: New Orleans style — we've used that on the Sunday before Mardi Gras — and straight-ahead jazz with improvisational folks."
The power that jazz music can bring to congregations – the ways it can transform a worship service, how the improvisation of the musicians acts as a unique prayer, and how it's a music for all ages – are among the reasons why the UCC National Offices are hosting a weekend symposium this fall on this musical genre. 'Jazz for the Journey' will bring together pastors, worship leaders, jazz musicians and music lovers from across the country to celebrate, share and explore the creative possibilities of jazz as liturgy.
Plaugher and church keyboardist Darryl Fenley — who accompanied musician and actress Pearl Bailey — have seen the spirited responses to jazz music from the congregation, including one instance when people danced in the aisles to the sounds of New Orleans street jazz. Community Church uses jazz music in its worship services about every six weeks.
"I find jazz to be enlivening," Plaugher said. "There's a lot of reassurance in more traditional music and things you've heard before, but with jazz you get things that you've never heard before. It's renewing and enlivening.
"Darryl and I started at Community Church about the same time (in 2004), and Darryl is open to it," Plaugher said. "I love it, and I try not to do things just because I like them. My responsibility as the music minister is to have different [styles of music] for everybody, but the people respond to jazz, so we keep doing it because they like it."
"There isn't much in the way of jazz in this little berg, but we have the territory to ourselves," said Hozanna Bauer, a Community Church member and one of the music entertainers in the congregation. "We occasionally get to perform our own rocking gospel style, and we love doing it when we get the chance."
Jazz for the Journey takes place from Thursday, Oct. 24, through Saturday, Oct. 26 in Cleveland, Ohio. The focus of the gathering – to give people the tools, resources and inspiration to bring jazz music into their congregations, and provide attendees with the opportunity to network with each other as they learn more about the history of jazz music.
The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president, likes jazz music because of its spiritual inspiration. Black will deliver the keynote address for the symposium on Thursday evening, Oct. 24, at the UCC's Amistad Chapel. Other presenters include the Rev. Henry T. Simmons, pastor of St. Albans Congregational UCC in Queens, N.Y.; the Rev. Dwight Andrews, senior minister of First Congregational Church UCC in Atlanta; and the Rev. Ozzie Smith, senior pastor of Covenant UCC in South Holland, Ill. Among the topics that will be discussed in their presentations are the ways liturgical music transforms worship in the church, the ways in which jazz is right in worship, and how jazz improvisation acts as prayer.
Early registration for the three-day symposium is $199 before Sept. 15 and $250 after that date. It includes a seat at the presentations, workshops and breakout sessions, jazz-themed worship services, a ticket to the jazz concert, two meals, and discounted hotel accommodations. Student-rate tickets, single-day passes and concert tickets are also available on the event website. Jazz for the Journey is sponsored by the United Church of Christ, in collaboration with Trinity Cathedral (Episcopal Diocese of Cleveland) and Cleveland State University's Initiative for the Study of Religion and Spirituality in the History of Africa and the Diaspora (RASHAD).
For more information on the presenters, workshop topics and a schedule of events, visit ucc.org/jazzjourney.