Cliff Notes: Jazz in Worship

A Jazz Opera Comes Alive

By Rev. Cliff Aerie


The idea arose four years ago when I heard an interview on NPR with a composer of a new opera. Inspiration struck! Why not a jazz opera based on a faith-based story? There have been a few jazz operas. Duke Ellington’s “Queenie Pie,” “Porgy and Bess” by George Gershwin, and Terrance Blanchard’s “Champion,” to name a few. But nothing that was based on a sacred text. I immediately called my creative colleague, Bob Chase, and he was intrigued by the idea. More than forty years ago, we produced and co-directed three musicals that found their way to off-Broadway showcase performances. Perhaps it was time to dust off our “theatrical chops” and create a new work.


Bob and I have worked with various collaborators through the years, so we invited a highly creative and diverse group to an initial brainstorming session in New York set for March 2020—ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic shut-down. Undaunted, we spent the next three years meeting bi-weekly via Zoom with our group of eight, affectionately dubbed the Tobit Collective. The apocryphal book of Tobit was our focus. During our meetings, we explored the original text and brainstormed ways to make an ancient story relevant to today’s world. We began envisioning a new, inspired, reimagined treatment of the story.


Written in the second century BCE, this anonymous tale portrays the dilemma of two Jewish families exiled when the Northern Kingdom was defeated by Assyria in 722. Tobit, a righteous Jew, maintains his faithful devotion to the law but is consistently beaten down by his captors. Making matters worse, one night, a bird defecates in his eyes, rendering him blind. He had hoped to retrieve his family fortune held by a far-off kinsman, but now blind, he cannot undertake the perilous journey. Overcome with despair, he prays, asking God to take his life.

Meanwhile, in another far-off city, a young woman, Sarah, has been betrothed seven times, but each husband is slain on their wedding night by the demon Asmodeus. Sarah, too, falls into despair and pleads for God to take her life. God hears both their prayers and sends the Arch Angel Raphael to help Tobit’s son Tobias journey to regain the family treasure, overcome the demon, and wed Sarah. Tobias faces many perils on the trip, including a battle with a large fish. His guide (Raphael in disguise) urges the victorious lad to save the heart, liver, and gall. These fish guts have the miraculous property to defeat the demon and heal his father’s blindness. They accomplish the mission to restore the family legacy, and Tobias and Sarah marry and live happily ever after.


As the Tobit Collective searched for a way to update the story for today’s audience, we came up with a premise: The cast of characters are timeless storytellers who have shared this story with countless audiences for more than 2,000 years. Compelled to “tell the story true,” the storytellers maintain the timeless truth of love (human and divine) while re-interpreting the events for contemporary culture. Hence, they constantly update the story they told 2,000 years ago into a setting that reflects the reality of each new generation.

The story told in Medieval times would be different for an audience during the Reformation, the American Revolution, the Jim Crow Era, or the 1960s post-war Baby Boomers. How is the 21st-century understanding of angels, demons, oppressive social constructs, and love reflected through God’s still-speaking presence? Truth may be unchanging, but evolving circumstances influence how the power of love is expressed in a fractured world. Is it possible to live happily ever after? Perhaps more importantly—Happily After Ever!


And so began the creative task of writing a narrative and composing a musical score—all within the jazz genre. Our musical construct became “a river of sound,” where music flowed through 90% of the story. Songs, recitatives, incidental music, underscores, and percussive accentuation created a musical backbone. The story took several contemporary twists with many revisions as ancient roots birthed new affirmations of love, gender identity, justice, equity, and divine providence. Perhaps the biggest twist was changing the gender of Tobit’s child, Tobias, to Tobia, a young woman searching for her destiny in a male-dominated world.

After almost four years, we were ready to share our creative efforts. But unveiling a full-staged production needed more preparation. So, we did what many major productions do before they reach opening night. We created a shortened version as a theatrical workshopped performance. Four shows were recently held in New York and New Jersey featuring a cast of eleven, two dancers, and a jazz quintet. Our audiences responded enthusiastically, helping to create a catalyst for our next step—to produce a sustained New York City run in 2024.

To learn more about the production and hear a demo of our theme song, visit If you’d like to learn more about our ongoing process as we prepare for a Big Apple opening, please contact me at ■

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


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Composition by Andrey Stolyaroved 

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By Gloria Fanchiang


"Upright cross with outwardly widening ends. It is often seen in relics from the late antique and early medieval Byzantine Empire (until c. 800) and was adopted by other Christian cultures of the time, such as the Franks and Goths."

— Wikipedia


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

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