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.
Sunday’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.
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