Cliff Notes: Jazz in Worship

Summer Solstice Jazz

By Rev. Cliff Aerie

This past year has, indeed, been a challenging time. The pandemic has raged on with devastating effects and even with it now slowing down (hopefully) many of us wonder if life will ever return to normal—whatever normal is. The worshipping life of the church has also been a challenge. Some congregations have been fairly successful at mastering virtual distance worship, while others have found it stressful and disruptive. If it’s one thing churches have been forced to do, it’s to look at their traditional worship patterns in a new way—seeking creative alternatives not only in presentation but in content and form.

Our church was fortunate to have received a Calvin Institute of Worship Renewal Grant. Our goal was to explore our role as stewards of God’s creation through the arts in worship. We developed a comprehensive year-long program and invited artists and ecological advocates to lead us in creative workshops to affirm our role as stewards. Our congregation made a commitment to understand the consequences of decades of environmental abuse, explore ways to combat the roots of climate change, become advocates for ecological justice, and fashion innovative worship that reflects our relationship to our Creator God. We decided that jazz would be the musical thread to help guide us through this discovery process of theological reflection, artistic imagination and ecological awareness.

Just as we were scheduled to begin our year-long worship renewal journey the pandemic’s ugly head reared. Our best laid plans were no longer doable. We could no longer gather in creative workshops, participate in person for worship, and have our jazz musicians perform live. Everything had to be reconsidered and transformed into a socially distanced environment. Workshops became webinars, worship was edited from Zoom recordings, and since the band (The Oîkos Ensemble) could not gather in person I had to create YouTube movies from previous recordings.

The second and third waves of the pandemic further complicated our efforts. We found it necessary to push back our series by three months, even cancel one of our segments. Yet somehow our planning team persevered and we were able to create two webinars followed by three unique worship services. If you’d like to view our endeavors you can search YouTube for Journey Thru Creation, then selecting either webinars or worship.

Our grant concludes in June with a Summer Solstice morning worship service and an afternoon sacred jazz concert: Earth Walk. This will be the third Earth Walk concert…well hopefully. We’re planning to gather in person (I’m keeping my fingers crossed) and stream it live on Facebook. We’ll also create a YouTube recording.

In the 2017 fall issue of our journal, I wrote about the first Earth Walk sacred Jazz Concert in an article titled, “Worship or Worshipful? Part 1.” I concluded with the following questions:

Can an inspiring performance of music (jazz, classical, etc.) create a worshipful framework that engages us in the wellspring of spiritual delight—calling us into the heart of worship? What is it that turns the ordinary into the extraordinary?

My intent was to follow up with part 2. It’s only taken me four years, but as they say, better late than never. I remember as a college student leading my first jazz worship service at my home church in 1971 (I shared with you in the 2017 summer issue) and the fallout that ensued. How could the pastor allow the “devil’s music” to be played in church? Pastor Bert handled the situation eloquently and my years as a jazz minister began to take shape. In the years since many people have shared how jazz touched them deeply in worship. As I began to offer sacred jazz concerts, I discovered that many in attendance felt they were in the midst of worship. And indeed, they were! Despite no formal liturgy, the music and stories spoke to relevant spiritual themes that propelled listeners into a state of prayerful grace.

This summer’s Solstice Sunday will offer spirit-filled jazz, inspiring stories, poetic readings, and creative dance. Together we’ll celebrate God’s amazing blessing of the environment, acknowledge what humanity has done to our planet-home, and offer words and songs of hope to inspire us to act out our faith as stewards of God’s gift of love in Creation. The theme song for Earth Walk is the song of the same name. I was inspired to compose the song in 1995 while on a concert tour. It has remained one of my favorite creations. It begins with a saxophone lament, a melody of sadness offered to Mother Earth for the way we have mistreated her. It segues into a melody of hopefulness, an affirmation of a world still in our care, a world that still offers us the gift of life despite all that we’ve done to harm soil, water and air. It’s a jazz call to action.

As your church returns to corporate worship, perhaps even lifting up jazz in your liturgy, I offer the music of Earth Walk for your worship experience. The jazz chart below provides everything your jazz musicians need. You can hear the melodic arrangement on YouTube: Earth Walk (Oîkos Ensemble). Please feel free to perform the piece as is or add improvisatory solos during measures 19—42. Just credit the music as permission granted by me.

May you walk humbly on this earth, offering your hand to the sisters and brothers that make up our global family, abiding together in gratitude for the beauty and wonder of Mother Earth.  ■

The Rev. Clifford Aerie is the minister of imagination, creativiy and the arts (MICA) at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Webster Groves, Missouri and is a regular contributor in jazz.


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Worship, Music & Ministry is a publication of the United Church of Christ Musicians Association, Inc. and is issued three times a year. The journal is distributed to members of UCCMA as a benefit of membership.

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