Jazz Meets Jesus On Chapel Street

Yann Beaullan’s mother is Jewish; his father is Cambodian. He grew up listening to Buddhist chants. On Sunday he was worshiping in Wooster Square—to the strains of alto saxes offering Coltranesque riffs on the Christian hymn “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.”

Beaullan has joined what might be called a “happening” new phenomenon in the pews: a weekly jazz-style eucharist that is transforming St. James and St. Paul’s from one of the “frozen chosen” Episcopal churches in town to one of the coolest places to worship in New Haven.

Before the Theodicy Jazz Collective started playing at the historic stone church four months ago, its cozy wooden interiors at Olive and Chapel streets rang with pretty much the traditional sounds of the solo organ in the balcony.

“That wasn’t doing it,” spiritually or musically said Sarah Politz (in blue), the quintet’s trombone player. (Click on the play arrow at the top of the story for a sample of the alto saxes and Politz’s bravura riffs on the hymn.)

The congregation, which long ago committed to a multi-cultural and diverse urban ministry, often has half African-American, half-Caucasian attendees. Still, attendance had dwindled to 30 or so at a Sunday service. The joint needed a kick.

Enter not only a new young pastoral team, Reverends Alex Dyer assisted by Vicki Baldwin, but Politz and her significant other, pianist Andy Barnett.

A graduate of Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music, Barnett (pictured at the piano) soon assembled the Theodicy Collective. For those of you who have forgotten your divinity studies, theodicy is the area of theology that seeks to understand why there is evil in a good God’s world.

Result: attendance has doubled, and continues to grow.

It’s not just jazz that the quintet plays, but gospel, blues, Caribbean music, and all riffing through many of the very traditional hymns, still much loved.

“It’s all about a jazz mindset,” said Dyer. To him that means playing “a Bach chorale just as passionately as a Dixieland jazz piece.”

Or a spiritual or rockabilly or gospel tune as well. The music has to be as diverse as the congregation and always open to change, said Barnett.

To Vicki Baldwin, who gave Sunday morning’s sermon on discipleship, “jazz mindset” means also a lot more than music. It means a new way to conceive the whole worship experience.

“Jazz is a framework, [and] you create different pieces of music. The Book of Common Prayer is our [Episcopalian] framework,” she said.

Allan Appel PhotoSunday’s sermon topic: How the disciples answered Jesus’ call and were transformed by a new light and yet remained the same only better. So the musical selections, jazzed up and not, included, among others, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” done with a rockabilly, gospel beat.

The drummer Justin Haaheim noted that even Baldwin’s sermon followed a kind of jazz model. She did not use notes, which previously were common. She riffed on her theme and then came back to it in a jazz kind of way.

“The sermon is a chart” around which the speaker weaves themes, Dyer added.

Haaheim likened the preacher’s chart to what jazz musicians do with their “lead sheets” that sketch a framework around which the soloists come in and out.

“It’s a musical road map,” said Politz.

The significant degree to which the “jazz mindset” is influencing the whole order of worship is in Haaheim’s view what distinguishes the music at St. PJs (as the congregation is known) from, for example, the many African-American churches in town that employ often rousing music during services.

Nettie Joyner has been a Baptist and a Seventh Day Adventist. Since1996 she has worshiped at St. PJ’s,. Whad did she think of a sweet alto sax solo leading the way into the recitation of the Nicene Creed?

“I love it,” she said. She swayed in her seat at the last number—er, prayer—“Lead Me, Guide Me.” Politz, Barnett and company cut loose, turning it into the full-throated jazz piece.

“I don’t like a whole lot screaming and hollering,” Joyner said. “God wants praise.” And for that music is as good, even better than words.

Andy Barnett, Theodicy’s founder, echoed that sentiment in a conversation after the service: “How can there be evil? Sometime, there’s nothing you can do [by way of response except] singing and music.”

The weekly jazz mindset service grew out of a once a month jazz vespers occurring at the church for five years led by Rex Cadwallader.

Politz said future plans include concerts at the church organized by Jazz Haven, and putting St. PJs on the map as a place where young jazz musicians, who do not want to jam at the usual bar locations, can come and play with the quintet

Nettie Joyner’s grandson Malik has already done so.

Other members of the Theodicy Jazz Collective include Will Cleary and John Havens on alto sax, Mike Asetta on bass, and Ann Phelps, voice.

Previous “News From The Pews”:

Prosperity Gospel Lifts Varick

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posted by: The Rev. Alex Dyer on January 24, 2011  9:27am

I am honored to serve such wonderful people who are committed to making this world a better place.  Come check us out Sundays at 10:30.

posted by: yvonne on January 24, 2011  12:00pm

This sounds wonderful!!!! I can’t wait for next Sunday.

How about giving us a url NHI.

posted by: Jeremy on January 24, 2011  12:27pm

The music has transformed my experience of worship.  I am so grateful to the musicians for what they offer every week!

posted by: Rebekah on January 24, 2011  12:30pm

What a wonderful, welcoming place!

posted by: The Rev Alex Dyer on January 24, 2011  12:30pm

Our website is http://www.stpaulstjames.org.  On the corner of Olive and Chapel.  Feel free to park in the Comcast lot diagonal from the church on Sundays.

posted by: Andrew on January 24, 2011  12:43pm

Thanks be to St. PJ’s - your vibrant, progressive music ministries are the perfect fit your inclusive parish’s abundant welcome and radical outreach!

posted by: Ian T. Douglas on January 24, 2011  12:57pm

Thanks for this wonderful “good news” article.  Saint PJ’s offers a crucial witness as part of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut.  The Rt. Rev. Ian T. Douglas, Ph.D.  Episcopal Bishop of Connecticut

posted by: Mart on January 24, 2011  1:03pm

A true asset to those seeking shelter from the storm.  St. PJ’s light shines.

posted by: yann on January 24, 2011  1:03pm

this place brings people together from a race, social and spiritual stand point

posted by: Quiconfidunt on January 24, 2011  1:33pm

I am inspired by the commitment to service, such as the Loaves and Fishes program which feeds several hundred people each Saturday,  and by the new, vibrant and welcoming leadership

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on January 24, 2011  2:04pm

Just a quick note from a long-time former parishioner and staff member at St. PJ’s:  “frozen chosen” is not an accurate description of its worship style before the current influx of jazz music.  For decades under former Ministers of Music [and the Arts] Lee Howard and Wilma Y. Whitley, the music was varied, lively, and inclusive, even if it did not include actual jazz.

The church’s decline in Sunday attendance preceding the recent changes was typical of any congregation experiencing crisis.  That is, it can be attributed to many and complex challenges over many years,, not to musical style per se.

posted by: Justin on January 24, 2011  2:14pm

Thanks for the great article.  If you’re having trouble with the Theodicy web link use this one: http://www.theodicyjazz.com

posted by: Anne Watkins on January 24, 2011  2:16pm

Nice article!

posted by: judy lhamon on January 24, 2011  2:49pm

Praise God from whom all blessings flow—indeed!

posted by: Jamie on January 24, 2011  2:57pm

It’s a pleasure singing and worshiping at St. PJs every week!

posted by: DT on January 24, 2011  3:34pm

The music is a joy to sing with, clap along with, or simply absorb. The great thing is that there is more happening each week in addition besides just jazz. Check it out!

posted by: ilene beaullan-th on January 24, 2011  4:07pm

It feels so good to be apart of this musical and spiritual journey at St PJ’s.
Thank you once again Andy & Company for your truly amazing vibe.

posted by: P. Joan Gavigan on January 24, 2011  7:00pm

My husband and I were privileged to attend “St. PJs” on January 8, 2011 for Vicki’s ordination to the priesthood.  Theodicy is all that you report and more:)! I love my home church in Ellicott City, Maryland, but I found myself sorry to be leaving New Haven after morning services, not only because we were leaving a dear friend behind, but because our experience there was a joyous example of diversity and the kind of faith that Jesus would have the Christian church model for the world. And the music was truly wonderful! As Father Alex said, come check them out! It’s worth the trip - it was for us:)!

posted by: Julie Dunham on January 24, 2011  8:04pm

I was baptized and confirmed at St. PJ’s and when I visit now I am just filled with the spirit.  Things are happening there!

posted by: Carol on January 24, 2011  8:08pm

Wonderful! Everyone should experience this awesome service at St. PJ’s!

posted by: Andy on January 24, 2011  10:19pm

The Episcopal Church of Saint Paul and St. James offers a jazz eucharist every Sunday at 10:30 am.  We are on the corner of Olive and Chapel Streets in New Haven, CT.  The choir at St. Paul and St. James meets at 9 am and all are welcome. We would love to have you join our choir.

The Theodicy Jazz Collective leads worship every Sunday, and tours regularly. Spring 2011 includes music at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (NYC), St. Peter’s Lutheran Church (NYC) and St. Paul’s Chapel (NYC). 

website: theodicyjazz.com
Recordings available at: listen.theodicyjazz.com
Press photos:  photos.theodicyjazz.com

posted by: JoyB on January 24, 2011  11:29pm

Theodicy’s music is uplifting,refreshing and joyous. The right music for StPJ’s warm inclusiveness.

posted by: susan on January 25, 2011  12:36am

All this joyous Jazz is enough to shake you up on a Sunday morning.     
        It is Good.

posted by: Chris Evans on January 25, 2011  8:42am

St. Paul and St. James is such an integral part of this community; providing concrete responses to immediate need:  loaves and fishes food pantry, a variety of 12 step programs for healing and recovery, numerous opportunities for members of our New Haven community to express their interests:  dance, music, spirituality, faith in action.  St. PJ’s opens her doors to this community by literally housing 12 men for several weeks this winter in partnership with the multi-faith and Columbus House effort called Abraham’s Tent.  After working all week serving people, St. Paul and St. James caps the week with a rich dollop of dessert, i.e., worship in their sanctuary with a brilliant and moving jazz ensemble making a joyful noise.  Its a complete package that truly welcomes everyone!

posted by: Gregory on January 25, 2011  9:54am

What a wonderful worship service every Sunday at St.PJs with this very inspiring jazz collective, Theodicy.

posted by: Mandy on January 25, 2011  10:17am

I’ve been at PJs for four years now. While the personnel, music, and preaching have changed some in the last year, what I love most about our “new” direction is the way it’s carrying over what I loved about our “old” commitments: to diverse, lively, and thoughtful worship, inclusiveness, and service to the community. I’ve been talking about how much I love ST PJs since my first time there on a “healing Sunday” (second Sunday of each month, when we can receive personal prayers of healing, with musical accompaniment of course). I’m glad the word is getting out!

posted by: yvonne on January 25, 2011  5:31pm

I am so there next Sunday!

posted by: G. Lucas on January 25, 2011  5:46pm

St PJ’s is indeed a great place to worship and be in community. The new emphasis on using jazz to complement the liturgy is so spirit filled. This is a wonderful complement to unique role St PJ’s plays in the New Haven community through its community service and commitments to diversity and social justice.

posted by: The Rev. BarbaraCheney on January 25, 2011  6:24pm

Go St.PJ’s! As the rector who retired, I could not be more delighted at the life and energy the Theodicy Jazz Collective and the leadership now in place continue to bring to this fine parish. From its very beginning on the corner of Chapel and Olive, this congregation has shown a heart for hospitality and radical welcome, a willingness to stand with any who find themselves on the margins, and a sheer delight in the many expressions of music and the arts. The Neighborhood Music School and the New Haven Ballet each had their beginnings in their midst in days of yore, along with many extraordinary and imaginative efforts of outreach. And in the midst of it all has been the people’s gladness for fine expressions of worship that remind them of God’s love and good news. Jazz worship! Come and see! Come and sing! !Come and dance! Come and pray!

posted by: Agatha on January 25, 2011  8:27pm

Well written! The genuine caring for the greater New Haven community is alive and well at St. PJ’s. It’s evident in the outreach, liturgy and, of course,the music! I hope this article motivates more people to join us!

posted by: Carmen on January 25, 2011  11:29pm

I love my church—for what it was and what it is and what it will become!