Not your father’s church music

Published February 1, 2010

For a long time, jazz was regarded by the church as the black sheep of the musical family. After all, didn’t it start in the honky-tonks of New Orleans?  Didn’t all those ragtime piano players make their living in houses of ill repute?  And what about the roaring ’20s? That’s when every illegal club that sold demon rum in coffee cups had a jazz band to entertain clients. Certainly not the kind of music you’d find in a church!

[pullquote]But, as the years passed, jazz matured and began to appear in more respectable venues. After Benny Goodman played Carnegie Hall in 1938, more doors began to open.  In the ’40s, “Jazz at the Philharmonic” became a regular event. Twenty years later, the great Duke Ellington wrote the music for several sacred concerts, at least one of which was created in association with the Episcopal Bishops of New York. Jazz was gaining a foothold.  

Even today, though, many churches would hesitate to present hymns the way this Michigan group has recorded them…not because they are sacrilegious but because most congregations hate change.  And this is definitely a change.

There is no question about the talent of the musicians. Paul Keller leads an 18-piece big band that plays weekly in Ann Arbor, Mich. He also tours regularly with small groups and as a sideman for other leaders. Keller recently completed a world tour with Diana Krall. Co-leader Steve Richko became a fan of Oscar Peterson’s music when he was 12 years old.  Seventeen years later, he has become a fine pianist in his own right.  Guitarist Napolean has recorded with singer Michael Buble and pianist Freddy Cole (Nat’s brother); Dobbins has toured widely with a number of groups, and the influence of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt and Bend Webster can be heard in Jannson’s solos.

If you were a fan of those Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, you’ll probably enjoy this CD.  The program is an eclectic mixture of old favourites (“Christ the Lord is Risen Today”), traditional (“Down by the Riverside”) and new (“Jubilation”). The latter was written by Junior Nance, a bop era pianist who played with the likes of Lester Young, Sonny Stitt and Dizzy Gillespie.  I think he’d approve of this rendition.  My personal favourite, one that I’ve heard played by a number of Dixieland bands, is “In the Garden.”  The quintet brings it up to date beautifully while preserving its original charm.  

To misquote the Oldsmobile commercial, “This is not your father’s church music.”  It is, however, religious music interpreted by some fine musicians who do indeed, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”  

A.C. Stone is a freelance writer and a warden at St. James church in Windsor, Ont


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