When Sundays Swing – UM churches find jazz in worship moves the spirit

DALLAS—Highland Park UMC is a tall-steeple church, and within it is Cox Chapel, where high church worship is the norm, including a processional, a recessional and a formal approach to liturgy most any Anglican would love.

One Sunday last fall, worshippers had all this and more. The Dallas Jazz Quartet, led by pianist Charles Winslow Jr., a second-career seminarian at Perkins School of Theology, turned Cox Chapel into a stained-glass sanctuary of swing.

The Rev. Nat Dixon came to United Methodist ministry after a career as a jazz musician and music educator. He still finds ways to work jazz, including saxophone solos, into worship at the church he leads, St. Stephen’s UMC in the Bronx, N.Y. PHOTO COURTESY BRIAN SMITH

The ensemble worked within the established worship order, but performed spirituals and hymns with improvisation, syncopated rhythms and even some scat singing.

By the end, the Dallas church’s parishioners—most dressed as formally as the surroundings—were standing and clapping, and a few even swayed in the aisles. Happiest of all was the Rev. Jeff Hall, who presides over worship at Cox Chapel.

“Enormously pleased,” he said. “The room was electric. . . . You had people singing their way to the communion table!”

“Jazz” and “Methodism” would probably never get paired in a word association game, but in fact jazz is found in more than a few United Methodist worship settings.

Some informed observers say the number seems to be growing modestly, and in other denominations as well.

“I believe there is a very slow-moving trend toward legitimate sacred jazz,” said Carlton Maaia, former music coordinator at Memorial UMC in White Plains, N.Y., and co-leader of the Creating Jazz Liturgy workshop attended by UM musicians and others last year at Scarritt-Bennett conference center in Nashville. “It’s part of a larger trend toward offering congregations whatever they need in terms of the arts.”

First Modesto UMC in California began four years ago to offer a monthly jazz vespers service. Since 2007, Minnetonka UMC in Minnetonka, Minn., has had a weekly jazz worship service, with a band led by retired UM pastor the Rev. Fritz Sauer, a trumpet player.

“We’ve had a large number of people join the Minnetonka church from the jazz service,” he said.

Charles Winslow is a longtime jazz pianist in the Dallas area, and now is a student at Perkins School of Theology, part of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He led the Dallas Jazz Quartet in playing for worship in Highland Park UMC’s Cox Chapel last September. PHOTO BY JOHN LOVELACE

Missouri UMC in Columbia, Mo., last September had its first “Jazz Sunday,” timed to a local roots/blues music festival. The Rev. Amy Gearhart, senior pastor, had been introduced to jazz in worship at her previous church, Central UMC in Kansas City, Mo., and knew she wanted to debut such a service at Missouri UMC.

She, like Mr. Hall at Cox Chapel, was elated with how jazz went over.

“The music was the sermon,” Ms. Gearhart said by email. “Many teasingly told me, ‘Jazz Sunday’ was the best sermon you ever preached.’”

The flip side

Jazz is often described as America’s music, and while the etymology of the word remains a mystery, the music itself clearly began with African-American musicians in New Orleans, who drew on spirituals, blues, ragtime and other traditions.

Though jazz is studied now in conservatories and regularly played in the most refined venues, including New York’s Lincoln Center, it retains an association with smoky nightclubs and other forms of loose living. “The Jazz Age” refers to the 1920s, when young people rebelled against Prohibition (a Methodist cause) by visiting speakeasies and listening and dancing to the new music, the young women wearing clothes that scandalized their elders.

But some of jazz’s greatest figures have been deeply spiritual people whose music, in select compositions, reflects that. These include John Coltrane, Mary Lou Williams and especially Duke Ellington, who wrote three Sacred Concerts, as well as “Come Sunday,” found in the United Methodist Hymnal.

First UMC in Montevallo, Ala., has an annual jazz communion service. Last year’s service featured music by the band Chuck King and Friends. PHOTO COURTESY MIKE MAHAN

Some credit the late Rev. John Garcia Gensel of Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York with bringing jazz into worship. In the 1960s through ’90s, he served as pastor to the city’s jazz community, conducting memorial services for musicians and holding a weekly jazz vespers service.

“He had a jazz church service for decades, and lot of the jazz musicians would perform, and a lot of them would attend,” said Jim Connerly, who teaches jazz piano at the University of Louisville and leads a jazz trio (called, in fact, the United Methodist Jazz Trio) that frequently plays in worship at Mt. Healthy UMC, near Cincinnati.

Wesleyan jazz

Sacred jazz began a slow growth, hastened in recent years by an expanding openness to innovation in worship, particularly in music.

Advocates for jazz in church say it’s music that appeals across generations and exists outside the well-documented “worship wars” of contemporary (praise band with electric guitars) vs. traditional (robed choir and organ).

“Here’s this other genre that can be used so beautifully, and use the hymns that people know,” said Sara Wentz, director of worship and music at First UMC in Lawrence, Kan.

At the Cox Chapel Service, the Dallas Jazz Quartet—piano, string bass, saxophone, drums, plus two guest vocalists—played “Come Sunday” and “Hush, Somebody’s Callin’ My Name,” but also enlivened “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Blessed Assurance.”

The United Methodist Jazz Trio, led by Mr. Connerly, did a 2006 CD called Spirit Songs that includes “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” and “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.”

Jamie Dubberly is a trombonist and leader of the band that plays at the monthly jazz vespers service at First UMC Modesto. There, he said, a “Count Basie-style, swinging version” of “Shalom to You’” is a congregation favorite.

At First UMC in Point Richmond, Calif., the Rev. Dan Damon—a hymn composer as well as a pianist—always has a Christmas Eve jazz service, featuring fresh versions of “What Child Is This” and other carols. At his church, he says, “all Sundays swing,” meaning he finds ways to work jazz and other styles into the mix.

Mr. Damon too plays “Come Sunday.” But, ever the jazz man, he said, “I never use the hymnal version.”

Jamie Dubberly is a seasoned jazz trombonist who oversees music for jazz vespers at First Modesto UMC in California. PHOTO COURTESY JAMIE DUBBERLY

Even hymn texts by Charles Wesley—brother of John Wesley, and co-founder with him of the Methodist movement—can lend themselves to a jazz treatment.

For the UMC’s recent Worship & Song collection, the Rev. Jackson Henry, music minister at St. Mark’s UMC in Murfreesboro, Tenn., wrote a new tune in D minor for Charles Wesley’s “Author of Life Divine.”

“It works especially well with some more interesting jazz harmonies and a jazz/rock fusion style,” said Mr. Henry, who also co-wrote, with the Rev. Joe Stobaugh, a jazz setting to “The Great Thanksgiving.”

Mr. Maaia is in the midst of a long project to create jazz “charts” (melody lines and chords) of many hymn tunes, and while he hasn’t yet adapted “Beecher,” the tune most often used for Charles Wesley’s famous text “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” he’s sure it can be done.

“It’s on the list,” he said.

‘A new song’

With jazz music in worship comes what might be called jazz theology—an attempt to connect the music to matters of faith.

Given its rootedness in the African-American experience, jazz is sometimes explained as the music of freedom, echoing the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. Certainly jazz is defined, at least in part, by an emphasis on improvisation and staying “in the moment,” including listening carefully and responding to what others are doing.

“Jazz represents the best in spontaneous creativity, and in that way coincides with the work of the Holy Spirit,” Mr. Henry said.

The jazz band that performs in Sunday morning worship at Minnetonka UMC in Minnesota. PHOTO COURTESY MINNETONKA UMC

The Rev. Nat Dixon, pastor of St. Stephen’s UMC in the Bronx, definitely connects the Holy Spirit to jazz, and from personal experience.

He had a thriving first career as a music educator and saxophonist, touring internationally in bands, making records and earning a mention in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD for his work as a sideman on a 1982 recording by jazz legend Sam Rivers.

Along the way Mr. Dixon, an active member of Salem UMC in Harlem, felt a call to ministry. “It wasn’t a loud trumpet call,” he said. “If anything, it was a sweet violin that I could barely hear. But I followed it.”

He enrolled at Drew Theological School, and eventually became pastor of St. Stephen’s, where for years he has run a Saturday music academy and a mid-week jazz service.

Mr. Dixon often brings his saxophone into the pulpit on Sundays, and in December 2011 did a special program at the church, drawing on a range of his jazz compositions to illustrate his life’s journey.

“I was given a directive via the Holy Spirit, who said, ‘Why not dedicate these compositions to me?’” he recalled. “My theory is that most of the good stuff has been stolen by the enemy [devil] anyway, so we’re just trying to get it back.”

Jesus and jazz

Highland Park UMC’s Cox Chapel will have the Dallas Jazz Quartet for a return engagement this month, at the insistence of the Rev. Jeff Hall. Others in United Methodism may have more experience at articulating the overlapping themes in jazz and Christian faith (Eugene Lowry, a retired professor at Saint Paul School of Theology and accomplished jazz pianist, has often lectured on the subject and speaks of the beneficial “expectancy” jazz brings to worship), but Mr. Hall may be the most enthusiastic.

He preached on jazz and faith when the Dallas Jazz Quartet performed at Cox Chapel in September, calling his sermon “Jesus at the Gennesaret Jazz Festival.” Jesus, he concluded, was “the first jazz great,” someone who mastered the Jewish law, as jazz musicians master music theory and the technical aspects of playing an instrument, but understood that true religion isn’t about doing only what’s written on the page.

“That’s the theme running throughout Jesus’ ministry, and it has lots of variations,” Mr. Hall concluded. “Sometimes loving God means following the rules, like the Ten Commandments, and other times loving God means having to improvise, taking the theme of grace and blending it with peace and justice and mercy and forbearance, to make a new song, pleasing to God.”


Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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I attended both jazz services at Cox Chapel and they were both wonderful. Great music and a chance to connect to the service in a way we usually don't get. I hope we can keep having them.


For those who are doing a church jazz service, it would be helpful to be in touch with one another and at some future time, convene a conference…any interest?? fritz

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