People often ask me how we get away with playing jazz during a church service. I don’t think that we’re getting away with anything. In my opinion, beauty is beauty, regardless of musical genre. Bach wrote a lot of secular music for organ, preludes and fugues for example, that were and still are played in many churches every Sunday, since that’s where most of the pipe organs are. (I’ll be right there with them when our new pipe organ is installed in a few months.) We’ve been listening to them in church for 350 years and there’s nothing sacred about them. We do , however, associate them with the prelude before the service and look on them as a cue to get our spiritual house in order for worship. At St. George’s, we’re using instrumental Jazz to achieve the same end.
Jazz, when it was the dominant popular music in America, was associated with the dance hall, supper club and tavern. It was party music. In todays musical world, it has moved into the realm of art music, a niche market with a solid fan base where the music is sometimes complex and difficult for the uninitiated to understand, or in the case of smooth jazz, a pleasant background sound for the 5 day forecast on the Weather Channel. From our perspective, the average person in the pew on Sunday in not a music historian. They might recognize the second movement of Mozart’s “Concerto for Clarinet”, or not. They might remember that the original recording of “Naima” by John Coltrane, was played on sax rather than a clarinet, which is how we perform it. Most people, don’t hear the genre or make a cultural connection, they just recognize that both are beautiful pieces of music. The fact is that the music we program in churches is grounded in the history and culture of the community that we serve. In programming Jazz at one Sunday service, we are pushing the cultural envelope a bit, but we are also educating people who don’t listen to or know about this great American music.
“But what about the theology?” “How can you justify using a piece of music that has no connection with the sacred?”
If the composer didn’t make one for you, make your own. I once wanted to program an anthem for the choir at a previous church, a setting of the Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken”. I ran it by the Rector ,who replied: “The Gospels didn’t end with the Evangelists. The Word of God comes to us anew through the inspiration and writings of those who followed them.”
Thad Jones, the great Flugelhorn player, wrote one of the great ballads of all time: “A Child is Born.” It’s a slow waltz with a stunning solo melody on Flugelhorn, the more mellow cousin of the trumpet. We play it every Christmas Eve at the prelude at our Jazz Service. It is not a Christmas song and has no connection with the Sacred at all. But every Christmas Eve, its sheer beauty moves a lot of people, some to tears, as they contemplate the Nativity of our Savior. We’re changing the culture, one tune at a time.