After graduating college with a bachelors degree in music, I was an elementary school music teacher for four years.
Following a brief time working a series of temp jobs while I was “finding myself,” I eventually began earning a living as a freelance musician.
This involved playing the piano and working with choirs for four or five churches at a time, and taking whatever other gigs came my way to pay the bills.
At the same time, I was leading a musical ensemble. It had started as a folk guitar group, providing music for the Saturday night mass at my church in the late 80s. By the early 90s, it had gradually morphed into an alternative rock band.
Jazz was for the most part on the back burner.
Though I would occasionally bust it out when hired to play background music at a party or wedding reception.
I improvised at the piano in church quite a bit. But it was of a more reflective nature, with very little references to jazz or blues
More than one person told me I sounded like George Winston, which initially angered me. I didn’t even know who he was.
Did people think I was aping the style of someone that I had never even heard before?
My oldest brother Mike at the time would give me mix tapes of jazz, classical and New Age music that he was into, and thought I might like as well.
Which I did.
When he gave me a cassette of George Winston’s “Autumn”, it took all of one listen for me to have to admit that the comparisons were not completely off base.
Jazz and church continued to stay in their own lanes.
Until something interesting happened.
A friend who was to be ordained a Catholic priest asked some of us who had played together in the band, to provide dinner music for the reception he was having to celebrate his ordination.
We debated what kind of music we would play at a reception for a priest, as this was a new scenario for all of us.
We came up with a list of jazz standards, and an assortment of songs from the 70s that I had in an old piano book my sister MB gave me when I was in junior high school.
It felt like we also needed to do something that related specifically to the religious nature of the occasion.
So we took a bunch of church songs and reworked them in the style of an airport lounge combo. It wasn’t something that was commonly done for obvious reasons. But it just seemed fitting and right for that moment.
The jazzed-up church songs were a big hit at the reception. Most of the people in attendance were church-going friends of ours. They instantly got what we were doing and enthusiastically sang along.
In addition, a table of men studying for the priesthood asked us to engage them in a game of “Stump the Seminarians,” where we would spontaneously play a jazz version of a church song and they would have to name it.
After that, we would go on to play wedding receptions for friends, as well as other gigs, with our brand of what we began calling “liturgical lounge music.”
It was a far cry from the progressive nature of the jazz I had first heard in college, much of which would always remain beyond my abilities.
But traces of it certainly were there.
Overall, we more closely resembled the “easy listening” jazz records that growing up, many of our generation heard our parents play. In the context of providing cocktail music, that made total sense.
Eventually, a full-length CD was recorded, featuring our jazz takes on contemporary Catholic liturgical songs and traditional hymns. I played the piano and the clarinet.
It’s out of print and not available on streaming, but in case you are curious as to how it sounded, I am including tracks from the recording here so you can hear it for yourself.
What we were doing was meant to be a fun venture: combining our faith with our passion for jazz in a lighthearted way that was never designed to be taken too seriously.
But something happened that caused a shift for me. The arrangement of the hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent” had a mystical, contemplative quality to it, much different than the other songs.
And when we were recording, it resonated on a deeper level than any of us had expected.
Prior to that moment, I would have never imagined incorporating “liturgical lounge” into an actual liturgy in a way that would feel appropriate and sincere.
But slowly, it began to happen. At first, I found myself experimenting mostly during rehearsals for my own amusement, but also because I was now starting to hear many of the songs that way and couldn’t resist fleshing them out.
And I sometimes had willing accomplices. Once, a small group of us hired to provide music for a meditative prayer service were running through the music beforehand and suddenly broke into an up-tempo swing version of what was supposed to be a very subdued, prayerful refrain…
…When Norma, the flautist, wildly launched into a raspy flutter tongue jazz riff, the guitarist laughed so hard that he banged his head into a huge stone carving on the wall behind him
It wasn’t long before I found myself more frequently inserting jazz chords, rhythms, riffs, and yes, the good old blues scale, into the music during the mass itself.
It honestly felt like a natural expression of my faith and not at all disrespectful, at least not to me. When I took on a job as full-time music director and was now in charge of the music at a progressive-leaning church, the amount of jazz and blues that worked its way into the mass increased exponentially, until it just became part of the fabric of our worship experience.
If I had any fears that I was going too far, the support of the people helped alleviate them.
If the song during the preparation of gifts sounded like something from one of Vince Guaraldi’s classic Charlie Brown soundtracks?
And there were no objections, and in fact, some people were encouraging me to do even more of it?
I took it as a sign that something good was happening here.
Over the course of time, as I continued to write more of my own liturgical compositions, my love of various forms of jazz inevitably seeped in, as it had with my playing.
Only a fraction of what I have written is jazz-tinged. But it has its place for sure:
- A responsorial psalm that sounds like a Tito Puente mambo.
- A robust worship song in the style of a Sergio Mendes bossa nova.
- A Kyrie Eleison (“Lord Have Mercy”) with subtle hints of Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” to name a few examples.
The incredible open-mindedness and the affirmation of the pastors and the faith community for whom I have served has provided fertile ground for new levels of creativity, and our choir and instrumentalists have been continually game for just about anything.
I have not taken it for granted, as I know far too well that in the broader church, this kind of acceptance is not a given.
All of this led to that recent day:
Playing a jazz standard and improvising on the blues scale – at a Catholic funeral.
It was just instinctive – without even having to question it.
It brought everything full circle. Moments such as this are the destination where jazz, my faith, and “making it up as I go along” have converged. I am grateful for the many experiences along the way that shaped me and have allowed for that to be possible.
And one more thing about jazz:
To me, jazz is akin to life itself. I will never fully grasp its complexities and I will certainly never master it.
Much of it remains a mystery to me, just beyond my reach.
I will always be on the road to greater understanding…
But what a wonderful journey it is, indeed!
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