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Jiving for Jesus: Resources for Using jazz in Worship

Jazz has a checkered past. While its deepest roots are in the spirituals sung in the slave fields of the South, jazz really came into its own in the saloons and brothels of New Orleans. It is still culturally suspect to many.

A friend of mine who has played piano at church for decades remembers being lectured by two older women at church one week for throwing some jazz chords into a hymn accompaniment. “Don’t bring that devil music into God’s house!” they told him. Yet more and more churches today are recognizing the richness of jazz harmonies, its emotional range, and its improvisational excitement. They are finding ways to baptize it and bring it into the sanctuary.

The Internet offers a handful of websites for the adventurous worship team looking for help in doing so.

Listening

The first step for using jazz music in worship is to listen to some folks who are doing it, and doing it well. You might find the former at www.jazzworship.com (high on the Google list), but you’d find the latter at www.jazzpraise.com. JazzWorship is a slightly confusing but serviceable site offering MIDI and PDF files of a few dozen sacred songs done in a variety of jazz styles. JazzPraise, on the other hand, offers a great introduction to a handful of fine jazz musicians serving the church. The site provides a brief biographical sketch of each artist as well as available albums for sale, often with the option of listening to audio samples before plunking down your credit card number.

Some of the very best jazz-and-worship artists are featured here, including Deanna Witkowski, Jim Martinez, Chuck Marohnic, Bradley Sowash, and Bill Carter. In nearly all of these cases, it’s worth your while to explore artist-specific websites for these gifted church musicians.

The site you surf to by clicking on www.deannawitkowski.com, for example, offers not only a lovely collection of CDs for sale, but also sheet music for the sacred music Deanna composed while working as music director of All Angels’ Episcopal Church in New York City. While many jazz melodies are difficult for congregations to sing, Deanna’s are delightful and infectious without being mere ear candy. Bradley Sowash (www.BradleySowash.com) and Jim Martinez (www.jimmartinez.com) are especially adept at freshening old hymn tunes through jazz interpretations. Their sites too provide links to purchase both recorded and sheet music.

Learning

If you want to delve a bit deeper into the jazz-and-worship world, Chuck Marohnic’s site (www.chuckmarohnic.com) features free PDF files of sheet music, CDs and music books for sale, as well as on-line jazz tutorials. Recently retired from his position as Director of Jazz Studies at Arizona State University, Marohnic now devotes his energy to his “Sanctuary Jazz” project and to Scottsdale United Church of Christ, a congregation whose worship service music is primarily jazz-based.

Closer to home, a glance at www.jazzvespers.org will provide a student blogger’s perspective on the jazz vespers service offered at Calvin College (see p. 42). A site maintained by the college can be found at www.calvin.edu/admin/chapel/worship/jazz.

On the East coast, an Episcopal clergyman, Norm Freeman, preaches and plays the vibraphone at a weekly jazz vespers service. He also manages a very educational website at www.jazzministry.org. It offers newspaper clippings, meditations, a brief history of jazz and vespers, and, best of all, a sample service for those wondering what an Episcopal jazz vespers would look and sound like.

Finally, Bill Carter, a Presbyterian preacher from Pennsylvania, is perhaps the leading figure exploring the use of jazz in worship. His website, www.presbybop.com, features links to his own recordings (on CD) and the annual October conference he organizes on Jazz and the Church. Best of all, Rev. Carter has put together a small hymnal of over sixty musical settings of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Entitled Swing a New Song to the Lord: Resources for Jazz Worship, it will help get any congregation started that wants to enliven its worship with liturgically sensitive and musically excellent jazz.

The legendary trumpeter Miles Davis once said, “When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note you hit that makes it good or bad.” This serves as a fine metaphor for the grace-infused Christian life. And it reminds us that, despite its past, jazz has a potentially bright future within the church, blessing God and God’s people.