God, Church, And All That Jazz

(From the radio program ABC Radio National with David Busch in Australia)

John Finney: Jazz is a spiritual movement, it gets the adrenalin rushing when we play it. Gospel music is an adrenalin-raising type music anyway, with its shouts, its counter-rhythms, it is an emotional music, and jazz people like that.

Bill Haesler: Jazz touches a card, a deeper card, where people are moved into responding to the music. They cannot help but be moved or drawn into the music by the words. It is about spontaneity but that is still in harmony with the rest, and inviting people to talk about their salvation, to talk about their journey, to talk about their struggles, to talk about their agony, jazz does that.

David Busch: Weíre starting at St Peterís Anglican, on Queenslandís Gold Coast, where Gail Kingston and the Kanga Bentley Hot Foot Seven, have got a congregation of regular worshippers and jazz lovers to their feet. Itís at a gospel service, as part of the 2004 Gold Coast International Jazz Festival.

Neville Knott: Today weíve been very privileged to have this ministry of music, and what Iíd ask you to do is let the music speak to you, but donít let it just speak to your mind, let it speak to your heart, and above all, let it speak to your soul.

Bill Haesler: The first time the churches took on gospel music in an Australian jazz convention was in 1976. The National Jazz Convention was started in 1946, so thatís 30 years after the first convention. Somebody had the idea of presenting a gospel service along the New Orleans lines in the cathedral in Brisbane, and it caught on.

Every jazz festival of note in Australia has a church service, and if they have a church service, they need some gospel music and if they need gospel music they go back to the New Orleans bands or the style of the New Orleans bands. The modernists donít seem to have bothered with it, and the church services are packed. Iím not sure what the church congregations think about it all, but each time the churches are packed with the non-religious and the religious people.

Gail Kingston: Weíre doing increasing numbers of gospel services; theyíre becoming really popular actually. People like going to the gospel, because they enjoy the music and the enjoy the happy atmosphere, but they also enjoy the religious side of it as well, but itís not too strict, so they feel more relaxed about it.

Ron Williams: Jazz has huge potential to enliven and loosen up worshippers, and to touch the spirit. (Ron Williams is an Anglican bishop in Brisbane and a jazz double-bass player.)

Ron Williams: Parts of its effects are in when the music swings, and that engages people to tap their toes, or do something, because they are tuned in to the rhythm, of it. And I think tuning in to the rhythm of life, tuning in to the rhythm that God gives to life, jazz is very conducive to being able to do that really well.

David Busch: Is there a risk that jazz in that way in worship, borders on entertainment rather than worship? How do you make sure the music and the toe-tapping actually facilitates an encounter with the divine rather than just giving expression to a joyful entertainment?

Ron Williams: Maybe giving joyful expression and entertainment is in touch with the divine anyway. Do we have to put really clear-cut category labels on that anyway? There are different opportunities in that sense, and I donít think you can tightly define this is categorized as worshipful and this is not so. Something that we might categorize as entertainment might in fact lead somebody into a most worship-filled moment in their lives, who knows?

Gail Kingston: A lot of people come up and say how moved they were, and how some of the songs have reduced them to tears, and itís made them remember people that theyíve lost that theyíve loved. And I think that if itís touching your heart, I think that could be described as a spiritual connection. I do feel that the spiritual side of me is nurtured, definitely, by doing the gospel. Itís fantastic to stand up in front of people, and the audience, or the congregation, is singing their hearts out, and some of them look like theyíve had really tough lives, some of them, and I know thereís people out there that are grieving, or are very, very ill and itís wonderful to see them lifting up their voice and singing and enjoying themselves, and being happy for at least a little moment, and for me itís inspiring to see these people reach into themselves and bring that out.

(Dr Mark Evans lectures at the Department of Contemporary Music Studies at Sydneyís Macquarie University, and heís a jazz pianist. Heís written a conference paper on Christian jazz in Australia.)

Mark Evans: For the church, culturally jazz has made its way in more easily, mainly due to the freedom of worship styles and mainly coming out of Pentecostalism. Itís not really the Pentecostal churches as I see them that are using jazz, I think they are going with perhaps, say more contemporary styles of rock and pop and funk and things like that. But I think their spontaneity of liturgy and their move towards a freedom within the service has actually infected other traditional denominations and itís those other denominations that are using jazz as a means of expressing a freedom of worship style, and alongside that, spontaneity in worship.

Jazz obviously is improvised, and so many churches today focus more or are more aware of, the spontaneous within their service, the ability for people to say spontaneously respond, or have a question after the sermon, or be involved in some kind of non-planned way, and in a sense that echoes or mirrors what is happening in jazz, musically. I think jazz now is less marginalized as a musical style. There are so many other contemporary styles that are quite marginalized and offensive perhaps to different generations of people. But jazz has become more mainstream, and as such more of a vehicle, an acceptable vehicle for different generations, and as perhaps the church gets older and those attending get a bit older, it becomes more the music of their youth, which studies show is the music people like to listen to as they get older.

Rod Heard: Hi, Iím Rod Heard, Iím the Music Director at Narrabeen Baptist church on the northern beaches of Sydney, and this is the home of jazz from above. (Rod Heardís produced two CDs with jazz arrangements of Christian hymns, under the project title, ĎJazz From Aboveí.)

Rod Heard: Obviously when people come into the church and they see a double-bass and a drummer and piano player, it has that look of being a jazz combo right from the start. And itís certainly true that our style has infiltrated into the style of singing and congregational worship in this church. I think unfortunately the tradition of hymnody will continue to decline, so that opportunity to regenerate them is a good one, and re-mould them in a new style. Off the first CD we did ĎJesus Loves Meí, which is like a classic tune, and actually a very profound one, and just the swing style that weíve adopted for that particular tune just works a treat.

David Busch: How does the congregation respond to the jazzed up versions of what might be well-known and favorite hymns, particularly for an older congregation?

Rod Heard: They seem to love it. We get spontaneous applause and jazz seems to just engender a sense of joy and celebration. Obviously if you get too syncopated and too outside the square harmonically and whatever, people get lost, so youíve got to be sensitive to the fact that youíre just introducing a jazz feeling into the tune and making it easier for people to sing over the top of it. Some of the ones weíve done are a bit too syncopated or done in a style thatís a little bit too unfamiliar or harmonically theyíre difficult, so we donít try to introduce every tune that weíve ever recorded to congregational worship, but there are some of them that work really well. And it does breathe new life into some of the classics.

Jim Minchin: Iíve loved the angularity of jazz, the capacity for unusual harmonies, the use of improvisation, with a voice or with instruments, and the free rhythmic movement, very expressive, to pick up a whole range of moods other than just four-square predictable so-called churchy moods.

David Busch: In Melbourne, Anglican priest Jim Minchin began writing jazz settings for old hymns and texts and touring with jazz ensembles while studying for the ministry at Trinity College in Melbourne. He went on to release two commercial recordings and has had his music published internationally.

Jim Minchin: Essentially the first thing that happens for me is I get a text that I really like, whether itís an old poem by John Donne or George Herbert or Shakespeare for that matter, or contemporary poetry, but for me the text comes first, and then I start saying it to myself and then perhaps singing it to myself, and I feel the inwardness of it, whatís the kind of prevailing mood or feel of this? Does it need a fairly complex setting, is it going to be a solo thing, or is it something that a group of people, a congregation, could sing together.

David Busch: Is it difficult for a congregation to be convinced to set aside a very familiar tune and pick up your jazz setting for that hymn?

Jim Minchin: I found people generally very willing to do that on a trial basis. Always in the back of their minds is the thought, well this will only last five minutes. In fact when I wrote this stuff for these mission services at Trinity College, I had no idea that theyíd be picked up by anyone else. I thought weíll do them this year and then theyíll go the way of all flimsy, occasional music, and to my astonishment I was tapping into a mood that was current throughout the world, and Iíve heard recordings of my music being sung in Iceland or Africa, Latin America and North America, so itís quite remarkable that it had the currency.

Jim Minchin: What I think I came to realize fairly soon is that to try and have a diet only of jazz is even more pathetic than to have a diet of well tried and true church music from earlier centuries. If Iím talking about a Sunday liturgy here in St. Kilda, we can use some jazz elements but I almost always mix it with other types of music and the congregation is bit by bit getting accustomed to that. People who are used to their church being very predictable, their worship being along very set lines, often take a while to adjust.

I donít have a passion or a quest in life to introduce jazz into every church I go to, but sure as anything, Iíll try and bring to bear those kinds of musicians and those kinds of delights that Iíve experienced with jazz myself, because I see that as such a powerful way for me to express my love of God and I know many other people whoíve discovered the same thing.

Greg Jones: I like to use jazz in worship. I find that just taking these jazz rhythms and brightness lifts peopleís spirit, getting away from the stuffy old hymns of the last century or two. (An Anglican priest in Melbourne, Greg Jones, writes his own songs for worship in a very different jazz idiom.)

Greg Jones: I play the guitar and use my voice as a lead instrument and occasionally throw in a harmonica solo or maybe a trumpet effect. Iíve written songs that are quiet and sensitive, worshipful songs, Iíve also written songs that are more up-tempo, like a 12-bar blues, folksy style, a mixture of styles of music, but they often border on a jazz feel. The form of music doesnít matter so much but itís the words that count, words sung distinctly so people can hear them, and fairly simple so they can join in easily.

Over the years Iíve helped organize and plan some jazz concerts at St Paulís Cathedral in the heart of Melbourne. Planning was just wondering what sort of structure weíd put to it, would be just a straight concert, which in one case it was. Another time we put a Communion service right in the middle of the actual concert, and we asked the musicians to play meditative music at that time, and I actually sang a Communion song which Iíd written, a little thanksgiving song.

Greg Jones: I wrote it because jazz is in my heart. Why canít the words of the communion have a jazz feel about them?

Even today youíll go to a jazz church service and often they feature the old songs like ĎWhen the Saints go Marching Iní, ĎDown by the Riversideí, some of those songs. Personally I think theyíre just as valid, I wouldnít say theyíre rubbish or we write them off because theyíre very moving, some of those songs. But if I had my way, Iíd rather see a variety of jazz styles.

David Busch: Here at Christ Church, St Lucia, in Brisbane, jazz has transformed Sunday evening worship. Parish youth minister, John Finney, who grew up in the American South, says the focus is on traditional gospel jazz but with a contemporary edge.

John Finney: We have a gospel jazz service perhaps six times a year. When we do gospel jazz at our church, all ages will come. I had a 70-year-old grandmother get up and jigging with the Lord, shaking herself like crazy. I have little kids loving it, we have primary school kids who come, but the majority of them are young people, mainly university students and itís always been well-received. Jazz in itself always had young people attracted to it, but jazz in a Christian context is giving young people an opportunity to explore their faith far beyond what mainstream music can do.

John Finney: Old Christian hymns, the songs that say ĎIíll be free, free one dayí, these are the old songs that still have young people grasping for it, and we sing all those old songs. ĎJust a closer walkí, ĎJust as I amí Ė I think we miss out on the beautiful history and the aspect of what they mean to us in our faith, and when we sing them, people are more excited in their faith. So I donít see jazz to be a contemporary new music thatís coming, but itís re-telling the old story.

Now young people are able to listen to the old songs that were once sung in the church, but never really appreciated. I think we have to go back to the foundations of where this started off, and we take our courage from that and build on it.

David Busch: Such views provoke lots of discussion within the jazz community, but when the real jazz comes to church, thereís nothing sugar-coated about its message.

David Busch: Canon Neville Knott, speaking at St Peterís Anglican church on Queenslandís Gold Coast. The church hosted a traditional jazz gospel service as part of the 2004 Gold Coast International Jazz Festival. These services are one-off events for a congregation, but what happens when a church invites jazz musicians to help it do its liturgy?

David Busch: John Colborne-Veel is a Sydney-based composer and a Catholic convert. He wrote Australiaís only Catholic jazz mass in the 1980s. Itís called ĎSt Mary, a Festival Mass with Jazz Soloistsí.

John Colborne-Veel: The Gregorian chant is such a fascinating thing. To me itís got everything that the church needs as a form of musical worship. When you combine jazz with the Gregorian chant, it seems to be a very natural progression. The very nature of jazz is a form of call and answer response, one person plays one thing, another one responds to it, which is very similar in many ways to what happens in the call and response of the various Gregorian chants.

Mark Evans: The performance versus participation is perhaps the biggest issue for jazz in the church. How good should the solos be? Should there be soloists at all? But if we do have soloists, should they be performing to the utmost of their ability, thus producing good art, or does that detract people from a focus on God and put the focus on the player? Thereís a danger, particularly for younger performers who think they have to show everything they can do all at once, and they lose sight of the reason theyíre playing, the reason why they can play, the gift that theyíve got and the position theyíre in to serve people with it. The toughest thing to try and accommodate is the tension between trying to lose yourself in the music, and simultaneously not direct the focus off God in any way.

Ron Williams: Music takes you beyond yourself, the making of music takes you beyond yourself I think. And thereís something about spirituality that is there in moving beyond self, being lifted beyond self, sometimes without effort, allowing it to happen. Some of that in making music requires good practice and competence with your fingers as well as with your head. But I think the length between the music and the spirituality is in the territory of being lifted beyond yourself, and that often if you are well-practiced, allows the fingers to do the thinking almost. And somewhere youíre lifted in spirit, in the creative act of jazz making. Thereís also a wonderful empathy about making jazz that requires very careful listening, and I think Godís got big ears, because Godís a wonderful listener, because listening and creativity seem to me to go very closely together. So some of the empathy of jazz-making is the stimulation of an idea that comes from another of the players, that then moves you to do something with whatís been offered in that sense, and the interplay, and transformation that happens through that interplay, that moves into another arena of music, is a great creative privilege I think.  The spontaneity and the careful listening Ė that is a creative act very often, and in that sense jazz is the most creative form of music making about. I know the way in which musicians play in Ďclassicalí music, can change the way itís heard and celebrated and made, but itís not quite the same as the creative spontaneity that moves off and changes sometimes the chords as well as the melodies and the harmonies, thatís the real thrill I think of making jazz music.

Peter Kohlhoff: There are elements about playing music, particularly improvised music which are very exciting because you are part of a creative experience which is an immediate kind of process. Thereís an instant kind of realization of the collaboration of different players and of the sound that comes out, and it moves you very deeply.

I donít know if thatís just emotional. I think sometimes that can be really spiritual as well. I mean this is just a great band to play in, itís a great flexible ensemble which is playing extremely demanding music, just as demanding as anything if not more demanding than any other bands that Iíve played in. You know, you really see other guys digging deep to play something which comes from, I donít know, if itís within themselves; I guess thatís part of the mystery of the spirituality of jazz, if you want to call it that.

David Busch: Selah is a 10-piece Christian jazz ensemble in Sydney. Peter Kohlhoff plays double-bass, Alan Webb plays saxophone.

Peter Kohlhoff: Weíve really been striving to have the absolute integrity before our jazz peers, so weíve worked hard at our writing and our arranging, and our rehearsing, and our improvising, and so one of our main goals is to play with all of us still and all of our heart to the glory of God.

Alan Webb:One of the big desires of our heart as a band has been to play good jazz that honors God but also to embrace our compatriots in jazz in Sydney. There are guys that weíve lived with and worked with for years and years, and some of them struggle with many things in life and donít know the wonder of knowing that there is a creator who loves them and we just long for them to embrace him, and they would be people who would appreciate, and often are, people who really appreciate our music.

Mark Evans: Selah is attempting a kind of acculturation of jazz styles and Christianity, and getting this real synthesis and synergy between music and theology, attempting to fuse the two together on a bid to reach people. For example, they have a song called ĎEleven of Twelveí, which involves eleven tone rows as opposed to the standard twelve tone row that we got with serialism in the 20th century. And using that eleven tone row to represent imperfection, to talk about in a sense, the eleven disciples who followed Jesus and reference the one who didnít, perhaps. And the whole piece is, or a large section of it, is in 11/4 as well which creates this kind of continual emphasis on the imperfection, on the disjuncture, on the fallen-ness of human life before itís resolved in some sense at the end where these things merge back into more traditional jazz patterns and rhythms. So that is quite subtle, especially when weíre thinking about a song that doesnít have lyrics.

Mike Everett: Well good evening and welcome everybody, my nameís Mike Everett, Iím one of the pastors here at St Paulís. Itís great to have you here. Welcome to our second ever jazz night. This is the St Paulís All Star Big Band, a group of guys who got together about three weeks ago, had a few rehearsals, and whoíve ended up sounding like this. They do all right, donít they?

Mike Everett: Weíre kind of just the warm-up act actually. These guys are good, but weíve got better to come. Weíre kind of the entrťe. Tonight the main act is Con Campbell and his fabulous quartet, theyíre going to be coming and presenting the second half of the show tonight, and we really, really hope you enjoy it.

David Busch: Con Campbell is a pastor and an acclaimed jazz saxophonist who visits churches to run evangelistic events like this based around the jazz concert.

Con Campbell: Well it wasnít actually my idea. In fact when someone else came up with the idea I thought it was a stupid idea. I thought, well what has jazz got to do with Jesus? I mean itís really hard to make a connection and I thought itís going to be one of those kind of very awkward things where someone puts on a concert and then out of the blue, completely unrelated, someone else gets up and gives a talk about Jesus, and I just thought, you know, thatís cringe factor. But I was encouraged to give it a go by some friends, and I started thinking about, well, what sort of connections can we make between jazz and Jesus and can we do it in such a way that itís natural and itís not jarring and itís not artificial?

Con Campbell: Jazz music is based on improvisation. You invent the music as you go. You can play the same tune a thousand times, and each will be very different. You create the melody as you play it. You have freedom to be yourself, freedom to play what you want to play. Itís a wonderful thing to have such freedom. But with freedom comes responsibility.

David Busch: One of Con Campbellís presentations is called ĎFreedom in the Grooveí when he delivers a rap-style sermon over an instrumental jazz group. It compares the structures and freedoms of jazz with the freedoms and limitations of life as God intends for people.

Con Campbell: You follow a certain chord progression. Now some people think these parameters are restricting, that you should be able to play absolutely anything you like, and not worry about conforming to any rules. But the reality is, this can make a real mess.

Mark Evans: In a live situation heís had the ability to build up a rapport with the audience, to create a relationship with them that enables him to then deliver this sermon and have it received more relationally and favourably as a result, rather than just kind of hitting people with this strong gospel message.

Con Campbell: But your freedom is within the parameters that make it work. There is freedom in the groove. Ah yes. Freedom, in the groove.

Con Campbell: Church is picking up jazz and using it that way, is, itís a fairly strange thing really. The way itís happened for us is well thereís someone who can do it, someone who can not only play jazz, but speak about Jesus and present that in a package that works for a church context or an outreach kind of context. And so I think itís more the case, at least from what I can gather, that people have heard about what we do and said, that sounds good, letís do it, rather than thinking, what are some different ways we can outreach people? I know, letís use jazz.

The reality is I know a number of churches have been able to have people come along to this kind of thing who they just canít get to come along on a Sunday to church. And I think thatís a great thing if jazz can bridge that gap with people to listen to some good music and to draw a connection with between that and our beliefs.

David Busch: Australiaís best-known Christian jazz musician is James Morrison who often includes churches and gospel concerts in his frenetic touring schedule. Meanwhile, in Sydney, his father George and brother John run Swing Church at Pittwater High School.

John Morrison: Swing Church is an outreach program that was started by my father actually whoís a Wesleyan Minister at Pittwater, and Dad came to me one day and said, ĎYou know, Iíve got this idea that I think we should have a regular get-together, a very jazz night, and so that the jazz scene could come along and love it, the family could come along and love it. And I said, ĎWell how would you Ė what sort of caption would you give it?í He said, ĎA church for those who donít go to churchí. I said, ĎThatís an outreach programí.

And he said basically because he understands the fun involved in jazz and thought that should be a celebration and like worship, and weíll put the two together and itís been very successful. Small numbers, itís like a small, if you like, jazz club, you know we play all sorts of different music, gospel music, gospel-jazz, and a lot of regular people come and then just bring different friends each month.

John Morrison: My sister plays the trumpet, my wife plays the bass, we have Martin Hardy Ė heís a regular whoís head of the Performing Arts Unit. We have a marvelous piano player called Scott Erickson whoís studying at the Conservatorium. Quite a diverse group of musicians. And my Mum makes cups of tea and so everyone sits round, has tea, and we play some music, and itís very relaxed. And I think people find that something very accessible too.

David Busch: Among the bands James Morrison has played and toured with is the On Fire Big Band based at the Salvation Armyís Sydney Congress Hall. So how much are the Sallies into jazz?

Barry Gott: Brass-banding in the Salvation Army is mainly focused on two areas, and that is evangelism and worship. But as time has gone on there have been new ways to try and make sure that the Salvation Army Band is relevant to the community. So in the late 1960s, 70s, and probably into the 80s, there was an attempt to try and move away from the standard repertoire, which would be hymn-tune arrangements and marches and the major works, into some way that we could attract some people.

David Busch: What was the response when you introduced the jazz swing element into the Salvation Army music and it began to take on?

Barry Gott: Oh, it was revolutionary in many ways. From what I remember at the music camp in 1986, kids were jumping on chairs and stamping around, they just felt there was a release and they were able to find it, there was an opportunity to be free, and then a year or so later, the International Staff Band introduce that at the Royal Albert Hall and they were standing on the seats again, because it was such a change from what was the norm at the time.

David Busch: With more young people taking up jazz, the style may increasingly insinuate itself into worship music. But itís the gospel jazz service, with professional musicians playing the New Orleans style music, thatís consistently drawing the biggest crowds.

John Finney: There is an anxiety that people share, within the time of the Negro spirituals and today, of not knowing the future. There is a fear of the future so I think we meet with these human experiences and similarities, and our struggles at each historical time are different, but the human condition is still the same, and I think thatís where people find this time that we shall still overcome because we did it one time, we did it another time, and even in todayís time we still have the same promise that will take us to the future.

The music that we sing transcends us to another life, to a new hope. It gives new meaning and a firm affirmation of our future that Godís in control. It is not eschatology of looking forward to new heavens and new earth. It is more the experience that the new heavens and the new earth are possible now, because Iím walking just as a saint is walking out today as what will happen in the future.

(A Man and woman's response to a Jazz service at St. Peters)

Woman: Absolutely wonderful. St Peterís will never be the same again!

Man: Itís alive, itís happy.

Woman: Oh it was marvelous, yes. Out of this world.

Woman: Spiritually it opens up my heart and brings me close to the Lord and makes me happy.

David Busch: Are you here for the jazz or the service?

Man: Iím here for the jazz actually, havenít been in church for many years, but it was very inspirational, very moving. I think both together thereís a message in both of them. I see an overlap, and music is a very spiritual experience, listening to or playing it, and itís very inspirational.

Man: Wonderful, wonderful, gets you in touch with your spirit.

Woman: Iím here for the jazz, although it is my local church, and I do come on a few occasions, thoroughly enjoyed it.

Man: I thought it was a marvelous service. Happens to be the church that I attend and I was the one who decided to lead the dancing around the church. The music was so good. I think we Christians and we Anglicans in particular take our religion a little too seriously sometimes, so it was quite wonderful to have such an exciting day. Iím sure God would be pleased with us all.

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