Jazz Vespers: A Contemporary Riff on an Ancient Prayer Service
LOFT (Living Our Faith Together) is the main student-run contemporary worship service at Calvin College. But it isn’t the only one. A little over two years ago, students on campus began a midweek, late evening, jazz- and poetry-based prayer service held in an underground coffee house known as the Cave. Ron Rienstra coordinates that service as well as LOFT. This column is offered in response to many inquires about what goes on there.
A Kuyperian Experiment
Jazz vespers, as a concept worship service and as an outreach ministry, began in New York City in the 1960s. Pastor John Gensel of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City befriended the city’s musicians and designed a service of prayer and jazz for folks who couldn’t make it to Sunday morning services after playing late night gigs on Saturday night. Some were concerned that jazz music would attract a wayward, nightclubbing crowd to church. Pastor Gensel wasn’t fazed. “That’s the kind we want,” he said. “The good ones can stay at home.”
In this tradition, our jazz vespers service is formulated for “fringe” folks, for those not comfortable in a regular church service. Held in the campus coffee house, with its laid-back and interactive environment, the service is an eclectic mix of corporate prayer, spoken verse, ambient art, and live jazz. Through these elements, we walk through an ancient service of prayer (vespers) in a creative, informal, and multisensory way. I like to think of it as a Kuyperian experiment, testing whether a few frequently unclaimed square inches of God’s good creation are truly redeemable in the worship world.
We’ve simplified the time-tested pattern for evening prayer into four key parts. Ordered chronologically (and alliteratively for easy memorization), they are: praise, psalm, proclamation, and prayer.
Each service begins with praise. But it is praise as much overheard as it is active. We generally don’t have congregational singing. We hope worshipers participate, but since many will be comfortable doing so only minimally, we try to maximize their passive participation. So maybe the opening song is a hymn, a praise song, a pop song, or a jazz standard played by the musical combo. Combined with either a poem or a reading of Scripture, the opening section locates the thematic center of our weekly exploration. These themes are spiritual without necessarily being theological. For instance, during holy week, our theme was “Friendship, Abandonment, and Betrayal” (think Peter in the courtyard while Jesus is being tried).
In good Reformed tradition, every week includes the reading and singing of a psalm. John Calvin recognized the power of music to “crack open” the human heart and wished that when music was used in worship, scriptural words be poured in. So each week, student Angel Napieralski searches through the psalms to find one that especially speaks to our theme. She then identifies a line from the psalm that will serve as a musical refrain to the rest of the psalm. She composes a melody for this refrain and brings it to Dan Richardson, music director of jazz vespers, who collaborates with her—tweaking the melody, adjusting the style, and giving it a jazz backdrop. This line of music is often printed out for folks to look at (see below). While we haven’t yet invited those gathered at jazz vespers to sing along, we wouldn’t discourage it. And some already do. If not at the service itself, they certainly may afterwards as the songs that were poured into their hearts flow out when they find themselves fearful (“The Lord is my light and my stronghold,” Ps. 27, see p. 26), or jubilant (“Praise the Lord, O my soul!” Ps. 146), or in trouble (“Help us, O God our Savior, we are in great need,” Ps. 79).
At the intellectual heart of the service is a collection of art, musical numbers, and readings that cluster around our thematic center. Selected by students, the words come first from Scripture, and then from a variety of poetic and prose sources, both secular and sacred. They are read aloud by one of our leaders, with the piano often offering punctuation. The jazz combo (keyboard, bass, sax, trombone, and sometimes guitar or accordion) also plays a piece or two. Often a slide show of associated images is projected via PowerPoint onto a makeshift screen. Placing related music, words, and art in close proximity creates a space where they resonate with one another and with individual hearts, allowing individual meanings and messages to emerge as the Holy Spirit moves. So, for example, we might read God’s call to Abram from Genesis 12, play Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” watch pictures of people traveling or moving, and then listen for what God might say.
The service comes to its climax in this section, as a student prays on behalf of the community. The basic text for the prayer is thematically connected to the rest of the service and is carefully crafted beforehand. During the first part of the service we send around a clipboard with the prayer printed out and lots of white space for folks to anonymously add their own prayers of thanksgiving or petition. All these are read aloud at the prayer time while the piano softly plays underneath. The service usually concludes with a final musical number and a spoken blessing.
One of the dangers in using jazz music—or any music in worship—is idolatry. The personal virtuosity of the players can become the object of worship rather than a pointer to the Source of all good. We try to combat this temptation in a postmodern sort of way: by offering a variety of foci, all of which help draw our attention to the prayer in which everything else participates. So the combo is physically situated not front and center, but back and aside. Folks can look at them, or at the poetry readers. Or they can look at something meant to be looked at: thematically connected art. For example, one week, when our theme was “silence,” we had two original student paintings on display. One was noisy with color and line, the other a nearly blank canvas. Or, on the Thursday of Holy Week, we prominently displayed a two-foot papier-mˆaché rooster caught mid-crow. (An allusion to Peter’s betrayal? A reminder that even in a dark week, the bright Easter morning is coming? These, and perhaps more.)
But that’s not all. Worshipers can also choose to follow the order of service (along with some of the Scripture and poetry) printed in the “unbulletin.” Or they can sit back in their comfy chairs and enjoy their cappuccino. Or they can use the crayons or clay on their tables to draw their prayers or prayer responses. Or they can look at the slide show images projected up front, or at the lighted candles all around. Or they can use the crayons or clay on their tables to pray in other creative ways.
Robert Wuthnow, in his latest book, All in Sync, observes that there is a close connection between art (of all sorts) and prayer. For most people, meaningful prayer has a particular ambience. My college students might call it vibe. We can’t engineer it, of course; but we do try our best each week to create a rich, multisensory environment that invites wayward or wandering children—that is, all of us—into prayerful wondering about the mysteries of life and love and God.
A Jazz Vespers Service Outline
Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 31:10-14
q “O Filii et Filiae” (Mode II Plainsong, arr. Stan Kessler. Tune associated with Easter hymn “O Sons and Daughters of the King”)
Reading: A Psalm of Life (Longfellow)
q Psalm 30—excerpts (H. Hopson/D. Richardson)
Reading: Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time (C. S. Lewis)
Reading: Death, Be Not Proud (John Donne)
q “Because He Lives” (Gaither/Richardson)
Reading: An Anniversary (Wendell Berry)
Reading: Sidewalk Apocalypse (Debra Rienstra)
q “No Greater Love” (Isham Jones)
Reading: Salvation (Frederick Buechner)
Prayers of the People
Reading: Time and Eternity XXIV (Emily Dickinson)
Scripture Reading: Romans 8:22-23
q “Come Sunday” (Duke Ellington)
Dismissal: Go in peace . . .