When the best tunes aren’t the devil’s

by
04 October 2019

Continuing our series of parish initiatives, Sue FitzGerald describes the introduction of Jazz Vespers

IN 2018, Wanstead Parish introduced a range of services designed to reinvigorate the variety and breadth of our Sunday-evening worship. We wanted to reach out to more people, and to a different constituency. Jazz events have always been popular with the wider community when we’ve offered them as part of our fund-raising programme. We wondered whether we could develop this community interest further by combining it with divine worship more regularly in a relaxed, open, and welcoming way.

We had heard of a few other venues that offered jazz vespers — some of which we visited, and learned from, but what they were offering was not quite what we were after; so we set about making it up for ourselves.

One member of our community who had been a religious helped us to think through vespers carefully, while another — a professional musician — was able to put us in touch with a small group of other musicians to help us pray about how the jazz might interact best with the structure of the service. We also visited a monastery to experience vespers being prayed by the Brothers there, and we learned from watching jazz services from the United States on YouTube.

 

THE word vespers derives from the Latin word for “evening”. This act of worship was designed to take place at sunset, and is one of the most ancient liturgies of the Church. Our service takes place at 6 p.m., mostly by candlelight. We have enjoyed the challenge of mixing something so ancient with something contemporary.

The structure of the service — psalms, biblical and contemporary readings, responses, a thought for the week ahead, a hymn, the Magnificat, prayers, and a blessing — remains the same each time, but the themes and musical settings differ. Our message is always ecumenical and open, but is deeply rooted in the scriptures and centred on Jesus. What we seek to offer is worship, not a concert. People applaud our brilliant regular jazz quartet (piano, sax, bass, and drums), and our soloist at the end of the service, when we serve refreshments.

What was initially an experimental idea has now turned into an exciting and regular venture, thanks to its wide appeal. The professional jazz musician Nick Tomalin, who leads many services, has free rein on musical decisions. He has also been a blessing to our growing vespers community, as he has composed a new arrangement of the Magnificat for us. He says: “In the original melody that I was given to work with, the lines were different lengths, and the organ followed the singer almost colla voce style. I wanted the music to have a beat; so I had to make the lines fit within a more symmetrical structure.

“I ended up thinking in terms of verses and choruses. The style definitely draws on gospel music, as that fits the emotional character of the service best.”

This new arrangement of the Magnificat — one of the most radical and challenging canticles of our Christian faith — has made a real difference to these innovative services. Thanks to the versatility of our regular soloist, Inge-Lise Nygaard Parsons, and the talent of our jazz musicians, the service has become seamless.

In the early days, the idea of a “jazz service” raised some questions from regular worshippers, but these were soon overcome. Probably because of its origins in the red-light district of New Orleans, jazz was sometimes seen as “sinful”. Today, it is more widely accepted as a vibrant musical expression of faith. In the Fifties, many musicians began using gospel music as an influence, and this led in part to the “soul jazz” movement: a mix of jazz, gospel, and blues. Several of the tunes chosen for our own jazz vespers services come from this tradition — such as “The Preacher” by Horace Silver.

Some great jazz musicians have also been deeply religious, and have composed music with an overtly spiritual message. Perhaps the best known is Duke Ellington, who wrote and performed a series of Sacred Concerts in the 1970s. We usually open and close the service with one of his pieces, such as “Come Sunday”.

 

THANKS to our active social-media team, we have now started to attract worshippers from across London and the south-east, many of whom would never normally set foot in church.

Another helpful factor has been that we invite members of our congregation to bring their own refreshments to enjoy during and after the service. This adds to the relaxed atmosphere of the evenings, and has helped the service to become something of a social occasion. After worship, people stay — often for quite a while.

One of our services was recently led by a school jazz band. It was fantastic to see the church full of teenagers. Since then, a number of caregivers have been bringing their older children to these services. The timing suits them better, and the teenagers tell us that they enjoy the “difference” of the service, and the fact that it feels “grown up”.

 

MANY of our worshippers have become regulars, and say that they see this reflective service as a key part of their growing spirituality. It provides space to “put themselves back together”, and to prepare for the week ahead. They also say that they like the fact that the service has “integrity as a religious service, and is not trying to be something that it isn’t”. There’s both a sameness and a newness every time that people find reassuring.

They have also been very generous. These services run only through the sponsorship of those who attend. So far, they have funded seven in the past year. What started as an experiment has grown and surprised us. Services can attract between 50 and 110 people. It would be fantastic to see jazz vespers offered by churches and cathedrals around the country.
 

Sue FitzGerald (churchwarden), the Revd Jack Dunn, Canon Ann Clarke, and Nick Tomalin, of Wanstead Parish, in the diocese of Chelmsford.

The next jazz vespers will be held at 6 p.m. on Sunday 20 October at Christ Church, Wanstead Place, London E11.


Useful tips:
 

  • Minimum musical resources are: a singer and an instrumentalist (usually a pianist/keyboard player).
  • About a month in advance, we invite members of our regular congregation to sponsor the event (the full amount, or just a small donation) via our weekly newsletter, our website, or social media. They can also “sponsor a musician”; fees vary, but you may have some secret jazz musicians hiding at your Sunday services!
  • It is helpful to produce an order of service so that the congregation can follow the psalms and the Magnificat. (For ease, we use the same format each week, often keeping the psalms the same, too.)
  • We have learned to design the service entirely around the music, and found that it was best to keep talking to a minimum.
  • If we were to offer one piece of advice to others who are thinking about embarking on this creative ministry, it would be to get experimental. Mix it up, and let the Holy Spirit — like the jazz — lead you. For us, that has had the effect of introducing more and different people to Jesus Christ, and helping to reinvigorate people’s faith when it has long been dormant.

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