Cliff Notes: Jazz in Worship

Autumn Musings

By Rev. Cliff Aerie

As late summer segues into Autumn, I invariably "fall" into a Sankofa mood (see my article in the previous journal). Since my earliest school days, the fall has always been the turning point of my New Year—a time to anticipate and plan for the upcoming programmatic year in my life. But moving forward also has an inverse dimension—looking back on the past to gain insight and understanding of my life's journey. There is much on my creative "jazz ministry plate" this coming year, and as I take this annual planning retreat to project my next steps, I recall many of the jazz moments of my past that have been instrumental in fashioning my adventure of faith.

Climate change has been on my mind for a long time—a very long time. I protested in support of Mother Earth on the first Earth Day in 1970. I've had the good fortune to perform many sacred jazz concerts and worship services emphasizing the intricate relationship between science, religion, and the arts. One such occasion was more than a decade ago when I worked at the UCC national setting in my capacity directing MICA (Ministry of Imagination, Creativity, and the Arts). Perhaps I'll share more about my interesting job title in a future article.

After producing a laser light show at the 2007 anniversary General Synod, I was asked to plan and lead a jazz worship service at the Ecumenical Roundtable on Faith, Science and Technology. On reviewing the liturgy, I am pleased to see that the service speaks just as loudly today. Even though the focus then was technology, it's easy to draw a parallel with various scientific themes, including climate change.

2010 Ecumenical Roundtable on Faith, Science and Technology

Faith, Science and Ministry in a Networked World

Armistad Chapel, Cleveland Ohio

April 30, 2010    1:30 PM


It's my pleasure to share that creative liturgy with you. Along with some commentary to help navigate the flow of worship.

The Art includes a photo from the Laser Lightshow at the 2007 General Synod, four digital art pieces by artist Jim Carroll, and a photo I took of a dancer at General Synod.

I always like to include printed thoughts for meditation so worshippers can reflect on the service's theme during the prelude. It also gives the musicians added inspiration when they improvise.

Through the years, I've extensively studied the four liturgical acts of worship. I often highlight them as Pause, Imagine, Create, and Become. I'll let you form your own interpretation.

The jazz selections used in the service include songs by many masterful jazz musicians with deep spiritual roots. These "secular" songs speak deeply to the spiritual quest of worship engagement with the Creator.

The hymn, "Stars and Planets Flung in Orbit," was played to Beethoven's Ode to Joy, but in 5/4 time. Note the added lyrics of the last phrase.

I often include a reflective moment, a Grace Note, in preparation for community prayer. These three quotes were read by three of the scientists gathered at the event.

The Prayer for Becoming uses creative metaphors to express the process of becoming, moving from the past to the present moment, into a future where the Holy beckons. When did you last use the word "zorapteran" in a prayer? God loves a heartfelt chuckle.

Holy Wisdom/Holy Word is a creative way to hear scripture. I adapted Proverbs 8 as an interplay between two readers and the jazz ensemble—an improvisatory experience that brought the scripture passage alive in a new way.

Long ago, I discontinued preaching in a traditional sense. Free Play on the Word is a creative approach that allows me to riff on a story. In this case, a personal encounter with Mother Earth in the key of D flat. Invite me to lead a jazz worship service of your choice, and I'll share the story with you.

The Prayer of Jesus is a contemporary rendering of the Lord's Prayer.

For the benediction, I invited the worshippers to meditate on the image of the dancer while I improvised a musical interpretation on my sax.

After the service, many scientists came up to greet the band, ask questions about our musical interpretation, and offer thanks for an inspiring service. One scientist began reflecting on brain wave theory and jazz improvisation.

As I reflect on my jazz ministry, I'm struck by the many ways I've been blessed to work with inspiring musicians to share profoundly moving encounters with the Holy through jazz, storytelling, and the arts. 

The Rev. Clifford Aerie is the minister of imagination, creativity and the arts (MICA) at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Webster Groves, Missouri and is a regular contributor in jazz. You are welcome to contact him at


Come, O Come, Our Voices Raise

Composed by Peter Niedmann


The Cross of St. Peter is "a cross with the crossbeam placed near the foot, that is associated with Saint Peter because of the tradition that he was crucified head down."

— Wikipedia


The first 22 years of Worship, Music & Ministry in print.

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