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The Jazz Bandstand as Sacred Space

A look at the growth in jazz vespers

Rev. Clifford Aerie at Service at Middletown, CT Congregational Church with guest artist Jay Hoggard on vibraphone
Rev. Clifford Aerie performing with quartet

In 1971 I was home from college on semester break. After a long conversation with my pastor he agreed to let me lead a jazz quartet in Sunday morning worship – at both services. The band was only a short way into our prelude, Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” when the first person stood up to leave, followed by another and yet another. In all, at least thirty people left the first service. The second service wasn’t any better. The fallout in the church lasted for weeks. The pastor held his ground, explaining the need for new dimensions in worship. The damage was done, however, because it took 37 years until I again offered jazz in that congregation. The response in 2008? A standing ovation and countless accolades. So what changed? Had my saxophone playing gotten that much better, or had enough time passed for a congregation to become culturally “hip”? Perhaps a little of both, but the truth is far deeper.

Jazz and the church have been inexorably linked since the first slaves were allowed into their master’s sanctuary and encouraged to embrace the religion of their oppressors. In the decades that followed, their work songs and rhythmic melodies became the musical sustenance for their own prayer meetings. Gospel music emerged and sang of a heavenly sanctuary, the sweet by-and-by, and the hope of spiritual freedom. Emancipation promised real freedom, yet in reality produced violent prejudice. Somehow, the music continued. The blues grew from the daily trials and heartaches of a people trying to survive bigotry. Over the years the music took many twists and turns and evolved into something commonly labeled jazz. To try to do historical justice to the evolution of jazz in this article would be impossible. However, assessing the relationship between jazz and the church is long overdue.

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