The Devil and Jazz Vespers

 on April 11, 2024

In the early twentieth century jazz earned the dubious honorific “the Devil’s Music.” Jazz thrived in the clubs, the so called “speakeasy,” danced with sensuality, freedom, cultural rebelliousness and perhaps most importantly grew in the nexus of black culture and white cultural privilege. The Devil’s Music later became associated with “Rock and Roll,” and was for many churchgoers a threat to the status quo, a dangerous outpouring of chaos and disorder setting loose passionate expressions of creativity and improvisation. Much safer to stay with the familiar rituals. Despite the fact that music of every genre has the capacity to be transformative, and is syncretic, borrowing from the past, jazz was for many years banished from the hallowed, particularly Caucasian, halls of worship. Associations with the alleys, drug culture, and the seedy side of our common life did not help. Yet over time jazz found its way into the dominant culture and into worship. To my mind the power of music which is improvised collectively and in the moment could not help but gain a place across races and cultures. Turns out the “Devil,” not surprisingly, has a following.

In many Black churches, Gospel and jazz genres have been the ground and being of lively music inviting movement and spirit filled praise throughout the history and growth of the genre. Meanwhile on the journey to “mainstream” culture there have been some significant signposts. I think of Duke Ellington’s 1965 “Sacred Concerts” as an example. As the Civil Rights Movement grew, so has the place and status of Jazz in the arts which have been and can still be dominated by white privilege. Over time and on the backs of public acceptance this is changing. Now it is noteworthy that our own Jazz Vespers in Niagara is approaching its third decade and is itself rooted in an innovation in New York in the 60s.

Ron Reinstra, in Notes from the Loft, Reformed Worship Resources writes: “Vespers is one of the daily offices celebrated at sunset in the Eastern Orthodox, Western, Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican traditions to give thanks for the day and offer biddings for the night to come. All of these offices have roots in Jewish daily prayer cycles. Its format includes litanies of thanks, reading of lessons and psalms and singing of canticles, often the Magnificat or Song of Mary. 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.’”

Our Vespers is an improvisation on this form. The format and the music make room for a level of spontaneity that is not always a feature of our Anglican worship. Yet none of it takes most of us very far from the familiar aspects of our gatherings. Jazz itself dances with tradition in that it lives in the joy of creatively playing with and bending the familiar grounds of rhythm, tempo, chord changes, and melody, constantly returning to resolutions. Jazz musicians refer to much of their musical library as “standards,” songs that provide the ground of musicians repertoire in clubs and on recordings for many years. Many songs at Vespers have their origins in the early days of jazz.

So in addition to the tunes at Vespers, I try to find music and poetry that continue a theme, to improvise the prayers and homily, if there is one, and to connect directly the congregation with the feelings that might be associated with the theme or season. Meanwhile there is plenty of room for the congregation to spiritually wander, reflect, and feel in the moment. When Vespers works, the result is a form of worship, itself improvisational, and is accessible to music fans who might not think to attend a regular Sunday service. The service can also touch “notes” familiar to those who are steeped in tradition. To borrow from Marshall McLuhan, “the medium becomes the message.” The service can be lively in a way that resonates with the spirit of jazz and in a faith in the Living Word.

May I also say that playing in a jazz ensemble is an example of working creatively in a team where leadership could be described as “eucharistic” in a way that standard celebrations might not convey. As an ensemble plays as one body with freedom to express the sacred, as individuals the shared experience can be motivating and moving, offering a collective experience not focused on a single celebrant. In jazz leadership is shared and usually negotiated in the moment in the performance. It is compelling to watch this taking place as musicians trade solos and reflect on each others offerings playfully. “Though we are many, we all share” becomes lived in the staging and presentation in ways that are not always reflected in our Sunday Eucharists.

Music has the capability of including those who, though not offering the music, are moved and even transformed by the shared experience. I am certain that this is not just a feature of jazz performances, but a special virtue of jazz is the reliance on a creative tension between taking what is given and reshaping it in surprising and unfamiliar ways in the moment. In a live performance the audience becomes a member of the band helping to shape the artistry of the players. I know this can happen in our more usual forms of worship. It is not always the case however that our practice reflects the spirit that is inherent in jazz.

Finally, jazz enters willingly into the so called “secular world,” crossing the artificial boundary we sometimes make with other musical forms. Of course there are other such adventures as musical genres become more fluid. I think of the Advent Café at St. Georges, St. Catharines as an example. I know that the Church of the Ascension is featuring a Chamber group and jazz quartet on a Saturday afternoon. Music has the power and the potential to transform us.

Currently you can find Jazz Vespers in Niagara monthly at St. Paul’s, Westdale, St. Christopher’s, Burlington, and St. Jude’s, Oakville. Check their websites for upcoming dates. You can also listen online on YouTube. Annually we offer at Christmas: A Charlie Brown Christmas which has developed a devoted following. It is worth noting that Christ Church, Deer Park in Toronto has offered Jazz Vespers monthly with Brian Barlow for over 25 years.

I have included a link to a YouTube video to give a sense of what you might experience if you come: Nothing however can replace the experience of enjoying talented musicians working creatively together to liven the Spirit. So come join us. Hope to see you soon.

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