Jazzy Prayers
  • Friday, September 21, 2012

By Retta Blaney

One Sunday morning this past June, seven American revolutionaries and the Canterbury Cathedral choir staged an assault on the sensibilities of 800 worshipers, who reacted in a most un-British way: they applauded for several minutes.

The cathedral dean, Robert Willis, was gobsmacked.

“English people don’t clap in church,” Willis declared, calling the service “an absolute triumph” and thanking the young Americans for “loosing up the whole church.”

Those rebels who shook up centuries of Anglican tradition were the seven musicians of the Theodicy Jazz Collective. They were in England for the world premiere of their commissioned work, the five-movement “Canterbury Jazz Mass.”

“It’s a really neat way to put brush strokes on prayers, to bring them to life in a really cool way, a blending of ancient and modern,” says the Rev. Andrew K. Barnett, Theodicy’s 28-year-old founder and band leader. “Jazz brings freedom into structure so there’s room for the Spirit to move. It’s finding a middle path between freedom and structure. That’s an Anglican idea.”

That Spirit will be moving again when “Canterbury Jazz Mass: Tradition, Innovation and Christian Discipleship” has its American premiere Oct. 24 at Yale Divinity School, accompanied by the choir of the “super Anglo-Catholic” Christ Church of New Haven.

“I hadn’t really thought of jazz as a middle way,” Barnett says. “I really stumbled into it, but now I see it has potential for Christian community.”

Barnett is an Episcopal priest, music director and environmental science teacher at the Darrow School, a private boarding school, and worship developer at Zion Lutheran Church in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. During an 80-minute phone interview from his home in New Lebanon, New York, he recalled being drawn, seemingly by accident, into this calling, which he now sees as “the evangelism of the 21st century.”

Raised an Episcopalian at St. Luke’s Church in Minneapolis, he had little experience with jazz until, as a student at Oberlin College, he was asked to start an evening service for students at Christ Episcopal Church. An organist who also played in a Christian rock band, Barnett considered those the only two forms that represented church music. He and Sarah Politz, a classmate who played the trombone, began to flavor the liturgy with the rhythms and the blues of jazz.

It worked so well they were asked to play at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland. Over two years this “morphed into a jazz service” that combined the Eucharist with improvisation. While parishioners said the prayers they knew, the musicians — on trombone, bass, drums, piano and vocals — backed them with appropriate rhythms. In the case of the psalm, for instance, everyone sang the eight-measure antiphon, while the congregation read the verses as musicians improvised.

“A big part of that was we were not just playing at them. We went out of our way to include them in singing with us,” Barnett says. “We want mystery, spice in our life, for beauty that connects us with the holy. Jazz is a good way to do that.”

And that was how Barnett began to see jazz as evangelism.

“People just started coming. It really took off, especially with young families. It was uninhibited joy, and it was consistent with the gospel. It was an important seed, that service.”

The seed continued to bear fruit when Barnett enrolled at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and brought his jazz evangelism to the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James in New Haven, where he served as music director through his last two years of school. During that time, he says, attendance nearly doubled and giving nearly tripled.

“It became a robust, hearty community and everybody there sort of felt the joy with the music or the mood of the blues,” he said. “It was a deep call for action. It empowered people to keep on following Jesus.”

He began hearing comments from parishioners about how the service carried them through the week.

“It kept me going too. It reminded me this music is so packed with liberation and filled with joy you almost can’t help but move, and that gives people the will to keep going, and the church too.”

Barnett’s next step of jazz evangelism seemed as much a “stumble into” as his others. Each year Berkeley students made a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. Barnett had no way of knowing just how much this experience would change his life.

“When I heard the first note from the choir they had me,” he said.

Wanting to hear more, he asked David Flood, the organist and master of choristers, if he could attend a rehearsal. Flood said yes, and Barnett invited him out for a drink afterward.

The setting was as appropriately ancient and new as what was to come out of that meeting — a dimly lit 400-year-old pub with a man at an upright piano playing Abba and other songs from the 1970s. Flood and Barnett escaped to the back room and Barnett played a recording of some of Theodicy’s liturgical jazz, then took a bold leap and asked if the group could play at Canterbury.

“It was such a ridiculous thing to do,” he said. “They’re the mother church of the Anglican Communion. They don’t mess around.”

But Flood recognized that Theodicy was onto something, and he agreed that the group would return in a year with a commissioned work.

From that time Barnett and sax player Will Cleary, whom Barnett credits with being the major force behind the Jazz Mass, composed music “completely from scratch” to accompany the ancient Latin prayers of the church: Kyrie, Gloria, Doxology, Sanctus and Benedictus. Ann Phelps, the group’s singer, planned the ten-day trip, which grew to include offerings at Sheffield Cathedral, two other churches and the seminaries at Oxford and Cambridge. The tour ran on a $15,449 budget. Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, the Evangelical Education Society of the Episcopal Church, and Canterbury Cathedral were major sponsors. The tour was also sponsored (in smaller part) by donations from St. Mary’s Primrose Hill, Sheffield Cathedral, Oxford University, Cambridge University, and Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham.

In preparation and as a way to refine their work, the ensemble, which also includes David Chevan, Charlie Dye and Jonathan Parker, played 98 times between September 2011 and June.

“The group really came into its own,” Barnett said. “We played jazz in church every Sunday. The project was accidental but it was filled with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit.”

While on tour the group played for a confirmation service at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church in Great Missenden. Bishop Wilson sensed tension from congregants upon learning that they would be hearing jazz in church. He assured them: “Jazz is a great metaphor for what Jesus is calling the church to be: joyful, free, trusting, and ready to move.”

Many of the venues have invited Theodicy to return. The group will also offer “Rhythm, Blues, and Proclamation” in February 2013 at Sewanee, the University of the South.

“It’s evangelism for the 21st century because it’s so multicultural — rhythm of Africa, instrumentation and harmony from Europe,” Barnett says. “It’s God’s people’s yearning for liberation. I hope it will be a model of progressive evangelism and send people out to be the hands and feet of God.”

Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors. She lives in New York City.

These videos of Theodicy Jazz Collective are available courtesy of Trinity Wall Street: Doxology, Canterbury Jazz Mass: Kyrie, Canterbury Jazz Mass: Gloria, Canterbury Jazz Mass: Sanctus and Benedictus, God’s Eye is on the Sparrow, and Widor Toccata.

Jazzy Prayers

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