Jazz in Sacred Space

The jazz trumpeter steps up to the microphone. Light outlines his horn. With closed eyes, he begins. The crowd settles, quiet and reflective, as the tune hangs in the air. A saxophone’s bellow enters in, then the bass’s moan, finally the pinpricks of the piano, and the steady rhythm of the drums. It’s Sunday, the song is “Amazing Grace,” and it’s time for church.


My musical odyssey began at the Hartt School of Music (West Hartford, CT) where I gravitated to Bach, Mozart and oratorio, and often the jazz department. The two genres collided for me at The Riverside Church of New York City where I sang Duke Ellington’s sacred songs, igniting an interest in sacred jazz.

Moving to Chicago, I discovered Dave Brubeck’s vast sacred music collection, and William Russo, who invited me to perform some of his compositions with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble – including the premiere of his final work, Jubilatem, featuring soprano soloist, trumpet soloist (Orbert Davis), and Gregorian chant sung by a choir.

Sacred music informs and supports who I am as a person and as a musician – be it a hymn, a modern jazz composition or an aria from the traditional classical repertoire.  In my experience, jazz in worship easily engages an intergenerational congregation – a congregation that values traditional hymns and spirituals, while embracing them in new jazz arrangements.

Jazz in worship began in earnest for me when I met Andy Tecson, founder of the Chicago band, Churchjazz.  His artistry and vision, along with the budding sacred jazz movement, should not be confused with pop-inspired praise music or even with gospel.  Sacred jazz is jazz, pure and simple.

I joined the band for Fourth Presbyterian’s regular jazz vespers services in 2002, and have worked with them ever since. Trumpeter Bobby Lewis, pianist Bobby Schiff, bassist Stewart Miller and drummer Jerry Coleman – master jazz musicians with thousands of recording sessions, concerts and tours on their resumes with names like Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett. Tecson and his high school music teacher, Ken Jandes, son of a Chicago big band leader, round out the band on dueling saxophones.

Along with original compositions, Churchjazz regularly swings out with familiar hymns by Martin Luther, the Wesleys, and Fannie Crosby. Bobby Lewis taking the soaring lead on The Church’s One Foundation is stunning.  As Tecson affirms: “There are no [musical] boundaries with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has opened wide the doors to this music.”

Humanitarian efforts for Churchjazz include concerts for Chicago Food Pantry, Jimmy Carter Center, Clarke Cares Foundation, Wheaton College’s Student Global Aids Campaign, World Vision, and Chicago-based World Bicycle Relief.

Its the close of the service and Churchjazz and I lead the congregation in a joyful rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” with every musician taking a final solo.  Let dancing in the aisles begin.