Jazz breathes new life into worship
November 2000



Shown performing is the Presbybop jazz group, including the Rev. Bill Carter (piano), Steve Gilmore (bass) and Al Hamme (sax). Not shown is group member Tom Whaley (drums).

For the ministers, musicians, scholars and artists who met Oct. 6-8 in Stony Point, N.Y., "Jazz and the Church" is an exclamation of faith, not a question for debate.

This unusual conference affirming the place of jazz in liturgy brought together jazz enthusiasts from Missouri, Georgia, Maine, Illinois and points in between. Led by the Rev. Bill Carter, a jazz pianist and pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Clarks Summit, Pa., the gathering included participants from the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the Reformed Church in America and the UCC. Carter, whose Presbybop Quartet performed at the conference, believes that jazz not only has a place in worship but that its improvisatory nature is a metaphor for faith.

Jazz like daily life

"The act of playing jazz, like daily life, is an informed risk," Carter says. "Improvisation happens through nimble fingers, serious training in music theory and form, and a willingness to jump into uncharted territory. It takes disciplined, technical preparation to play this music, and it also requires the freedom to take enormous risks. You work hard to lift the music from the page and release it into the air."

"Yet there is always a safety net of grace," he adds. "If a musician hits a sour note or flubs a rhythm, it cannot be replayed, only forgiven. There will be another opportunity to play better notes on another day. These basic characteristics of jazz make it particularly congenial to the life of Christian faith."

During the three-day conference participants experienced a variety of creative worship liturgies, scholarly analysis of the music of jazz legend John Coltrane, and clergy/musician dialogue sharing ways to integrate liturgy and jazz.

A highlight of the gathering was the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to world- renowned jazz artist Dave Brubeck for integrating faith and the arts. Now 80 years old, yet still composing and performing, Brubeck accepted the award while thanking his wife, Iola, for her collaboration in interpreting the biblical texts on which his compositions are based.

Jazz no longer rare

Once a rarity, jazz is becoming increasingly present in contemporary worship. First Congregational UCC in Binghamton, N.Y., is in its fifth season of holding jazz vesper services on the second Sunday of each month. Hosted by Judy Giblin, a jazz vocalist and church member, the monthly vesper service attracts between 125 to 250 people from the community. "The musicians love playing here because people are really listening," she says. "One musician told me that the service gave him a sense of spirituality that was missing in his life."

Some congregations have even brought jazz into the mainstream of Sunday morning worship with very positive results. The Rev. Eric Elnes, pastor of Congregational UCC in Scottsdale, Ariz., has led his congregation through a visioning process that has resulted in a weekly jazz worship service incorporating contemporary expressions of multimedia.

"Jazz offers the highest possibility in musical diversity," he maintains. "Jazz improvisation works with multimedia images to create an experiential platform for worship—a synergy where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Featuring jazz at his church's Sunday 11 a.m. service has led to an increase in worship attendance, attracting many new people from diverse traditions.

Help with big questions

Another UCC leader incorporating jazz into his life and ministry is the Rev. William Friederick, chaplain at the University of Maine. A drummer who performed at last year's General Synod, Friederick performs and records with members of the Paul Winter Consort and believes that jazz has a place in worship, particularly for the younger generation. "Young people in college are exploring the big questions of life," he says. "They need a sacred space where jazz and other musical expressions can create an experimental laboratory for faith development."

Jazz and the church! An increasing number of UCC congregations are discovering what the Rev. Bill Carter preaches: "When musicians make jazz, they participate in an act of new creation. The music is created on the spot with imagination, humor and great freedom."

Carter raises a provocative question: "Is jazz inspired by the Holy Spirit?" Participants at the Jazz and the Church conference and many UCC members are answering this question with a resounding Yes! When jazz is offered in worship, the Spirit comes alive in new, creative and unpredictable ways.

The Rev. Cliff Aerie is Special Events Producer for the Proclamation, Identity and Communication Ministry Team of the UCC's Office of General Ministries. An accomplished saxophonist, he was a worship leader and presenter at the Jazz and the Church conference. Learn more about Presbybop by visiting www.presbybop.com.

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