Jazz And Prayers Are Communing In Suburban Churches Evening Worship Has A New Flavor. To Some, It's "God's Own Music."

Posted: December 03, 1995

Hot jazz on a cold night.

Her head rests against his shoulder. He smiles and nods his head. Eyes are

closed as the music takes them to another place.

No glasses clink. No smoke curls up through the lights. No boozy voices whisper underneath the pure, sweet sounds.

This is, after all, a church.

St. Luke Lutheran Church in Devon had its first jazz vespers program last month. The church was filled almost to capacity to hear Trudy Pitts and Mr. C, also known as Bill Carney. They are a husband and wife duo well-known in Philadelphia jazz circles.

Vespers is the term for an evening prayer service, and jazz is, well, jazz.

According to Mr. C, the idea for combining the two had its origins at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in New York City about 30 years ago.

"Musicians who played into the wee hours of the morning didn't show up for services on Sundays," said Mr. C. "So Pastor John Garcia Gensel started a late-night vespers service and invited some of the musicians to come and perform."

In time, Pastor Gensel became known as "Father Jazz." In his honor, Duke Ellington wrote a hymn called "Shepherd of the Night Flock."

Jazz vespers in Philadelphia took off in the mid-1980s when the Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church started having regular programs. In the suburbs, however, it's still in its infancy.

Marian Valenta, head of St. Luke's Fine Arts Committee, said the idea for the jazz vespers program came from a musician friend of hers. "This is our first time," Valenta said as people started arriving at the church. "We'll see how it goes from here."

If the response that Sunday evening is any indication, there may be more such programs at St. Luke's. The church was almost filled with men and women of all ages, even children camped out on the rug in the rear of the sanctuary.

After the Rev. William Braun, pastor of St. Luke's, gave a brief opening prayer for all jazz musicians who died within the last year, and the choir sang "The Prayer of St. Francis," the trio went into the opening set, with Mr. C on trumpet, Pitts on piano, and Lee Smith on bass.

Framed by pulpits on each side of them and a cross behind them, the musicians played compositions by Ellington and Billy Taylor, among others. Interspersed with their playing were readings from the Bible, silent reflection, and casual conversation with the audience.

"This is the right moment to bring jazz into the church," said Pitts. ''I've heard people say it doesn't belong in church. Can you imagine? God's own music not in church? Our mission is to spread the word of jazz and preserve it."

The goal of spreading the word according to jazz is shared by the Rev. Ron Parker of Christ Church, Ithan, an Episcopal parish that holds jazz vespers on the first Sunday of the month.

It's kind of a natural progression for Father Parker, a former professional musician who once worked as an accompanist to Judy Garland.

He started his programs a year ago as a way of keeping in touch with something as close to his heart as the ministry, he said.

"I love jazz, and this is a way to keep playing and to get people together to worship in a joyful manner," he said, standing in the nave of the church with his guitar slung over his shoulder. "Besides, how often does a priest get a chance to get some applause?"

His guest performers Nov. 5 were keyboardist Ted Yusko and the Toby George Trio - George on guitar; Bill Zinno, double bass; and Martin Bradfield, drums.

About 60 people sat on the old oak pews in the Gothic stone church. With its vaulted ceilings and tall stained-glass windows, the sanctuary resembles a medieval room where minstrels might have entertained royalty.

But the spirituality of the evening was evident in the readings from the Book of Common Prayer and in Father Parker's prayer that "this evening may be holy, good and peaceful, we entreat you, O Lord."

He told the congregation: "Once you pray and are filled with the Holy Spirit, you leak music, joyful jazz vespers."

With that, he counted the downbeat for a rendition of Charlie Parker's ''Scrapple From the Apple."

George, who said he does not belong to any particular church, said he finds playing in church a good atmosphere for jazz.

"It's a listening audience," said the guitarist, who, between gigs, is the owner of Toby's Shoes in Wayne.

"You improvise music and are close to the spirit because you rely on how you feel at the moment. You get a chance to open yourself up to others."

Peg Mowrey of Broomall sat in the rear of Christ Church, quietly tapping her feet to the music.

"I love jazz, and it's a cheap date," said Mowrey. "But it also brings you very close to God. I like Father Parker's talks, too. It's a pleasant evening."

At the Chester East Side Ministries, jazz vespers also began last month and will continue on the third Sunday of every month until early next year.

Funding for the musicians was provided by Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, said the Rev. Bernice Warren, director of the mission center. The only caveat is that the performers have to be what Ms. Warren called "seasoned" musicians.

"It was a Thanksgiving service, so people stood up and gave testimonials," said Ms. Warren, who has been with the ministries since February. "We sang spirituals, and people really got into the music."

According to the Rev. Samuel P. Riccobene, associate pastor for the older adult ministry at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian, providing jazz vespers is a good way to help older musicians ply their trade while providing some excitement for the mission center.

"It's a way to inform people about the center, which provides many other services - counseling for families, programs for children, and all kinds of referral services," said Mr. Riccobene.

Forty people attended the first service, and everyone seemed to enjoy it, Warren said. She is hoping for a bigger turnout next month. "The good word about the vespers will spread," she said. "We're going to pack this place. I promise."

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