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Interview: Ann Phelps, vocalist and liturgist

30 May 2012

‘Jazz grew up on the margins. It is such an ideal tool for worship’

TJC (left to right): Ann Phelps (cantor), Andrew Barnett (piano), David Chevan (bass), Sarah Politz (trombone), and William Cleary (saxophone); not pictured: Jonathan Parker and Jacob Robinson

TJC (left to right): Ann Phelps (cantor), Andrew Barnett (piano), David Chevan (bass), Sarah Politz (trombone), and William Cleary (saxophone); not pi...

We play anything from jazz, blues, classical, gospel, hymns, to world music.

Andy Barnett and I began working together in TJC as musicians at Yale Divinity School’s Institute of Sacred Music, and eventually I became the full-time cantor. As well as musicians, we began to work as composers, liturgists, and preachers.

The group continued to grow and develop in New Haven, Con­necticut. We wrote and produced services for a multitude of churches in New England, the National Council of Churches, the Cathedral of St John the Divine, Trinity, Wall Street, and St Paul’s Chapel in New York City.

The project has grown into what could be a full-time job. One of the great things about working as a collective is that we can divide the responsibilities among us, enabling members to continue with other careers.

Canterbury Cathedral commis­sioned a jazz mass, to be premièred with its choir this month. We are so excited to have the opportunity to travel around England.

Our goal is to introduce an innovative way to worship while maintaining meaningful elements of tradition. Often we reharmonise or restructure familiar hymns, so that they can be heard in new ways; or provide musical responses or creative settings to standard parts of liturgy.

Jazz is such an ideal tool for worship. It is music that grew up on the margins of society, and resonates with those who may not have grown up in the Church. It is a culture that values tradition and builds on itself, creating meaningful traditional layers. By bringing jazz into the Church, we have the opportunity not to abandon tradition, but to expand on tradition.

Jazz necessitates that a community trusts and listens to one another. It requires flexibility and response to the Spirit, and embraces a diversity of sounds, people, and faiths.

The sounds of jazz evoke Saturday night, not Sunday morning. However, as someone who sings jazz in worship multiple times each week, I can attest to the fact that it only takes a few opportunities to begin to recognise the sacred possibilities of jazz.

Jazz in church is so rare because it can be difficult to do well. A church needs only one organist, while a jazz band usually requires at least three instrumentalists, and possibly a jazz cantor. But, in my experience, jazz musicians would love the work if it were thrown their way.

I grew up in rural Nebraska, in a town that was nearly 100-per-cent Christian. The town was divided among conservative Catholics, very conservative Evangelicals, and vocal, liberal Protestants. I stayed there for college, and debates about theology and liturgy became increasingly commonplace in my life.

My parents introduced Christian faith gently into my life, with room for my own questions, while the surrounding community demanded a more dogmatic faith from me. In high school I struggled in con­servative churches as a “doubter”, while simultaneously attending liberal Protestant churches that didn’t quite know how to deal with my intense engagement with faith.

In college I found a middle way of sorts. I did my best to navigate the “worship wars” by working with my college chaplain to write services that would suit the different groups on campus, creating a space where they could worship together. I decided to head to Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music to learn more about that process.

I’ll be moving to Mississippi in the fall, to continue working with students and exploring the role of arts in religion in the United States.

Family is an incredibly important part of my life. My parents are my foundation, and continue to be a part of my daily life from halfway across the US. It is a huge testament to the strength of my family that I am a liberal musician and academic feminist on the east coast while my older sisters are conservative, Evan­gelical, full-time mothers in our home town in Nebraska — yet they are my best friends. Times spent laughing with my sisters, parents, nieces, and nephews are some of my happiest.

As a child, I told people that I wanted to be an author, because I knew being a singer was unrealistic. Now, I sing for a living, and have a very hard time writing anything worth publishing.

When it comes to love, I am a bit of a fundamentalist. I hope that I am remembered for my commitment to following nothing in Christianity if not the greatest commandment: to love.

I love Willa Cather as an author, particularly her book The Song of the Lark. Cather’s descriptions of the plains can take me home no matter where I am.

The most memorable sermon I have heard was at my wedding. My best friend and room-mate from graduate school, John Helmiere, crafted a sermon that utilised the gifts of all the people in our wedding party, who also spoke as part of the sermon, telling the story of how we came together as a couple in our communities.

There is a corner of my parent’s couch in their living room, where I used to read, do homework, laugh with my mom, and have late-night conversations with my dad. It is the epitome of home to me.

When I was in high school, a num­ber of my peers were very adamant about how the Bible assured the damnation of some of our friends in the book of Romans. To counter their claims, I memorised the entire book of James. I was kind of a strange teenager. . .

My commonest prayers are for guidance. Whenever I am beginning to feel angry, I try to step back and orient myself toward God.

I am an insatiable optimist. Watch­ing my undergraduate students at Yale, as they struggle not only to find a life for themselves in the world, but insist on finding a way to contribute to and heal the world, I am inspired.

The other hope is in my nieces and nephews. My oldest niece, who is eight years old, called me last month to tell me that her parents were beginning the process of inter­national adoption, and shared with me all of the reasons that she had encouraged them to consider this. The moral compass of children should more often be followed.

I would love to be locked in a church with Tina Fey. Her writing leads me to believe that she is incredibly insightful about the state of our culture. And if you are going to be locked inside somewhere with someone, it might as well be some­one who can make you laugh.

Ann Phelps was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

TJC perform at St Mary’s, Primrose Hill, London, on 9 June at 8 p.m., and at the 10.30 a.m. eucharist there on 10 June; and at Evening Prayer in Shef­field Cathedral, followed by a jazz café, on 12 June. They are holding two workshops at Ripon College, Cuddes­don (13 June), and Westcott House, Cam­bridge (14 June). The première of the Canterbury Jazz Mass is at Can­ter­bury Cathedral on 17 June, 11 a.m.

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