First of all, the Yoga Center context is mellow - not a bar scene at all - and while I love the wildass energy of clubs with people mixing it up and becoming part of the gestalt, it was refreshing to be able to share music and actually hear ourselves. Second, this was more a concert - or serious listening venue - than a jazz band providing ambiance over drinks. Host Rob Fisch clearly had a sense of what he wanted to accomplish - and pulled it off with style. Each of the 6 artists sat close together in a semi-circle and called out a tune for the whole band to explore - and explore we did. There was space for maximum story-telling in our solos. There was a willingness within the crowd to enter the feelings we tried to share in song, too. And there was a sophistication in the house that wasn't stuffy so each musician felt pushed a bit beyond just phoning it in when it came time our our instrumental breaks. How did Browning put it: man's reach much always exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?
Third, each musician's personality was given a chance to shine in this venue - and clearly every one's ability was nakedly on display, too - which created a playful and creative tension for the band. All of which is to say that it was a very different scene than a small bandstand surrounded by rowdy drinkers. It was a sacred opportunity to be artists as well as performers. And while I share Ralph Ellison's conviction that jazz must always be connected to the dance hall to keep the vibe with real people fresh, I also found great value in this more artistic setting where I not only had to stretch myself, but I had the chance to engage in creating beauty spontaneously in the company of other master players.
All of which leads to the challenge and promise involved in playing tomorrow night's Jazz Vespers worship at Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, MA. (If you are in the area, come by at 4:45 for some fun.) This, too, will be very different from our regular jazz gig - and thus requires both a different focus from the band and a different internal commitment to the music. There is nothing casual about Vespers, right? Liturgically it is grounded in praying the hours of the day as set forth in monastic prayer and shares a long history born of the spiritual life of our cousins in Judaism. More over, it is the traditional "evening sacrifice" of the faith community - the worship bookend to morning prayer - and seeks to express a quiet joy about the fullness of each day. (For a wonderful overview of Vespers - and the way jazz musicians have honored it, please check out: http://www.jazz ministry.org/jazz-vespers)
Given the tradition of liturgical jazz - from the music of Duke Ellington's heart taking shape and form in his sacred songs to the outreach of the Rev. Juan Garcia Gensel at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in NYC (the church from which Coltrane, Ellington, Monk and Hawk were all buried) - we are also entering a venue in which tradition and innovation share a complicated dance. There should be a bit of tension in our souls as we seek to journey with those of the past: after all Jazz Vespers is all about bringing the "fringe" into the center is a creative and tender way.
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.”
At the same time, however, there is an order to playing creatively with the fringes - this is not a free for all or a Frank Zappa "freak out" - but prayer. Unlike the bandstand where there is no organic focus except to have a good time, Jazz Vespers is not about the band - it is about being musical shamans committed to helping those who gather go to a deeper place of grace and hope. It is about honoring the wounds of those who enter the doors of the Sanctuary and sharing both a taste of our own suffering as well as the healing we have found. It is about beauty and form in creative tension with improvisation - so knowing the form matters. (For a lovely overview look at the way the good folk at Reformed Worship have articulated this @ http://www. reformed worship.org/ article/december-2003/jazz-vespers-contemporary-riff-ancient-prayer-service)
And, of course, each Jazz Vespers celebration has a theme: sometimes it is broad and the readings and music are shaped accordingly (i.e. hope, fear, suffering, etc.) while at other liturgies the church season is the thematic guide. Our vespers is informed by the Feast of the Epiphany which is much more than a sentimental nod to the Three Kings (although it is certainly that, too.) Rather, Epiphany speaks of God's grace and light coming to the world in a new and revolutionary way. It tells the story of how this often happens through the most unlikely vehicles - pagan scholars/sinners from the East, the baby king born in a manger - and reminds us that the spiritual life is always a journey rather than a destination. Not only do the Wise Men return from their trip by a different path, but we, too are asked to keep going deeper in our quest for truth, compassion and grace. To that end, we'll do some expansive jazz numbers at the start - Caravan, All Blues (with the Oscar Brown, Jr. words) and Night in Tunisia - work in Take Five with We Three Kings - and end the evening sacrifice with something evokative and challenging.
In other words, Epiphany demands that everyone move beyond the cliches. IT calls us deeper - to take a chance - to look to the fringe and see what wisdom it aches to teach us. Tomorrow, we step into some pretty big shoes. We've been asked to play an "Our Father" with the choir that was written by Ike Strum - musical director of the Jazz Church (birthplace of Jazz Vespers) - and jazz composer extraordinaire (check him out @ http://www.ikesturm.com/.) We'll be leading psalms and hymns for one of the great feast days of the church. One of my favorite seetings comes from Deanna Witkowski (check her out @ http://www.deanna witkowski.com/) And we'll be doing it to help advance one of the important homeless shelter ministries of those in the Pioneer Valley.It is a privilege to give this a shot - and like all spiritual commitments it is bathed in fear and trembling. But like the great Duke Ellington said at his first Sacred Music concert:
Every time God's children have thrown away fear in pursuit of honesty- trying to communicate themselves, understood or not- miracles have happened.