Pianist Pete Malinverni on Playing Jazz in Church

Pianist-composer Pete Malinverni on the advantages and challenges of the religious gig

Pete

Pete Malinverni (photo by Sally Green)

One glorious, soul-filled Sunday morning years ago, in the choir loft at the Devoe Street Baptist Church in Brooklyn, I had an epiphany.

While I often found myself worrying if I was playing “real,” valid jazz onstage, the music at Devoe always flowed easily and authentically. I wondered why. Well, it was because in that setting, with everyone open to the spirit, I was feeling it too. I wasn’t taking ownership of the music, or feeling responsible for generating it. Rather, I was trusting my years of preparation to give me the language to be a vessel for it at the moment of its creation.

Since then, my professional performance life has benefitted greatly, as I’ve learned to be a purer vessel for the jazz I love. I feel freer now than I ever have.

Religious gigs can be transformative for a musician’s work and spirit, and the practical and financial benefits of such jobs can be important too. Consider:

  • It’s steady work
  • Consistency is valued, so the job could last a long time
  • The commitment doesn’t interfere with normal jazz-gig times
  • Some institutions offer benefits in addition to decent salaries
  • People in worship want to be moved by the music, encouraging the players to be open to that which may come—an attitude that translates well to jazz
  • The music that needs to be learned, like spirituals or melodies in the Jewish “Freygish” modes, are vital flavors for the stew of your personal jazz style. I see so many cross-influences between my religious and jazz work that I’ve lost track of their origins; I now consider everything I do to be spiritual, and everything I do to be jazz

That said, we all know how it feels to play in an uncomfortable situation, so don’t seek such employment strictly for financial reasons. You won’t do good work and you’ll likely do more harm than good—to yourself professionally and to others who may need the religious experience offered at services. If the ethos isn’t where your heart is, and if you can’t at least be open to the good that is done as a result of what’s being espoused, it’s not worth it. Find another day job—seriously.

OK, so, assuming you want it, how does one get (and keep!) a religious gig?

  • Learn what’s happening in your area
  • Do research on the institutions you find. What is the specific liturgy observed? What is each part of the service about? Sometimes music directors need to improvise, so it’s good to know the mood most appropriate to the moment. Is there traditional music? Learn the usual settings and tempos
  • Find out who does these gigs, and go see how these folks navigate the services
  • Express your interest in subbing. I always prefer to send subs who’ve seen how things are done, so as to ease my mind while away
  • Learn to read four-part harmony from hymnals and to improvise accompaniment for the hymns
  • Respect the institution. If someone is the pastor, rabbi, etc., address them—at least publicly—as such
  • Be punctual. No religious institution likes to start late, so always arrive with time for the necessary preparation, such as choir warm-up or music selection
  • Dress correctly. Depending on the institution, there may be robes or other uniforms. If not, look sharp at all times. A dark suit is never wrong
  • Be reliable. You’ll get calls on occasion to make a few bucks more elsewhere, but keep your eye on the big picture and take care of your steady gig! Also, I’ve found that when I say no because of one of my religious gigs, people respect my loyalty and know that I’ll afford them that same respect when we do work together

Our experience as jazz musicians prepares us well for these gigs. We’re good at adjusting to situations as they arise/change, we can play in different keys and we’re good listeners—both to the music that’s happening around us and to the human equations that precipitate it. As bandleaders, we know how to respect and value the contributions of our colleagues; as band members, we know how to give the leader what he or she wants while still expressing ourselves.

If you decide to seek this kind of work, trust your hard-won instincts. I’ve certainly found that playing jazz prepares us well for life’s surprising moments, musical and otherwise. You have, too, I’m sure!

Pianist, composer and educator Pete Malinverni is Head of Jazz Studies at the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music. He also serves in religious settings, writing for and directing choirs in English and Hebrew as well as curating jazz vespers and other performance series. He currently works as the pianist and conductor at the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., and as Director of Music at the Pound Ridge Community Church, also in Westchester County. His latest jazz recording is Heaven (Saranac), with Ben Allison and Akira Tana and featuring Karrin Allyson, Steve Wilson and Jon Faddis. For more on Malinverni’s jazz composing and performing, visit PeteMalinverni.com.