Jazz Vespers is Back! And Love is in the Air

Melodies of love filled the spacious space of St. Saviour’s Anglican Church in Penticton Sunday night Most of the 100+ attendees (a mixture of church and music community members) were longtime followers of Larry Crawford and Friends–this time configured as a sextet.

Jazz Vespers was founded in the South Okanagan in Summerland in the fall of 2004 by Larry Crawford and me—it later shifted to St. Saviour’s. Following my move to Victoria the programme continued de rigeur until COVID shut it down for a time, but thankfully not forever. Since November 2022 the program recommenced with many of the original performers, now hosted by the Rev. Nick Pang, Rector of St. Saviour’s.

For those new to this unique format, Jazz Vespers is a variation on a traditional Vespers service, one of the historic monastic hours or services of the day. Held in late afternoon or early evening, the rite prepares participants for the coming darkness. Music has always been a part of the rite, especially in monastic communities; it appears also in concert forms such as the Russian Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Choral Vespers.

The Jazz Vespers form owes much to the late Pastor John Garcia Gensel who in the late 1950s forged a remarkable relationship with New York’s jazz musicians and their families as pastor and head of the ”jazz ministry” at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in midtown Manhattan. Duke Ellington was a close friend and confidant; in 1968, he dedicated a piece to Pastor Gensel, ”The Shepherd (Who Watches Over the Night Flock),” part of his ”Second Sacred Concert.” Billy Strayhorn, the composer and arranger, willed to Pastor Gensel a Steinway piano, which he kept near his pulpit.

Jazz Vespers came to Canada, especially through the work of the Rev. Tim Elliott (a fine jazz pianist himself) who while rector of Toronto’s Christ Church, Deer Park worked with local jazz composer, performer and arranged, Brian Hayman to establish the long running programme there. Other practitioners of the art include the Rev. Jim Sandilands. St. Andrew’s Wesley United Church in Vancouver continues to host BC’s longest running Jazz Vespers program. I was privileged to oversee a ten-year programme at the Church of the Advent in Colwood where we hosted many of Western Canada’s finest jazz musicians, people like the late Hugh Fraser, Campbell Ryga, Louise Rose, the late Ross Taggart, Monique Nordine, Phil Dwyer, and Ian McDougall amongst many others. The Colwood program has also just become active again.

In shaping these services, I have invited instrumental musicians only, thinking that songs and texts get in the way. For me, improvisation is the thing. The version running now at St. Saviour’s takes a different approach welcoming vocals, I would say to good effect. I would site Sunday’s offering as one of the most dynamic and enjoyable services I have attended or led, anywhere.

Returning to the theme of love (it is February shortly after Valentine’s Day after all) in his reflection Fr. Nick connected with the experience of love, noting however that not all love and loving relationships proceed as planned. In mentioning the international ministry of Fr. Michael Lapsley, a South African priest who lost both hands and one eye to a letter bomb sent during the Apartheid years in South Africa, he connected the theme of the music with life and love itself. Where these is despair, the hope of reconciliation is always possible. Hang on to that friends, he encouraged us.

His encouragement followed a wonderful performance of an Edith Piaf standard, Le vie en rose, beautifully sung en francais by Sarah Senecal. (The tune reverberates in my memory as I now type.) I cannot say enough about the fine woodwind playing by Larry Crawford—for a gentleman of a particular age, he plays like he’s still 35. He joined his wife, Debi Johnson on Accordion (where’s the harp? Who knew?) proffering such beautiful unison lines especially in Under Paris Skies which opened the set.

The duo of Al Crossley on Piano with Stephan Bienz on Bass was nothing short of spell binding—an intimate, beautifully crafted Charlie Haydon tune: First Song. On the bottom (or should it be the top) Rod Rose on drums at times took centre stage, and at other times just held it all together. Drums–and the rhythm section of drums, bass and piano–really set the tone for this particular Jazz Vespers. In choral music, rhythm or “the beat” is almost totally expunged, by design. Tudor polyphony and Renaissance masses are governed by the Tactus or steady pulse. The beat never changes. Such a style creates an ambience of prayerfulness and is well suited to the buildings in which such music is performed. In jazz, it is the melodic and rhythmic changes that create the art within the boundaries set out in the chart.

With Pastor Genzel, who claimed that jazz was the perfect vehicle for worship of the Creator, life parallels art. As jazz moves through changes–in a community of collaborators, suitably skilled and well rehearsed–the music touches the senses. It delights or terrifies the emotions; it creates a unique beauty ideally and hopefully every time. Well that sounds a lot like life as I find it. Religion in its best sense helps us navigate the changes. Change is an essential life progression, allowing the journey from birth to death, and all that lies between, to proceed with joy and delight. On this, the last word goes to Fr. Richard Rohr:

The great traditions always call people on a journey of faith to keep changing. There’s no other way this human personality can open up to all that God is asking of us. There’s no way we can open up to all we have to learn, all we have to experience, unless we’re willing to let go of the idols of yesterday and the idols of today.

2 thoughts on “Jazz Vespers is Back! And Love is in the Air

Add yours

  1. Thank you for sharing all the background history on Jazz vespers. Yes we always go when we are able and we thoroughly enjoyed it Sunday night.


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