Jazz Vespers at 25

By John Rasmuson

Jazz Vespers: I

By John Rasmuson

In 1987, when Tom Goldsmith ascended the pulpit of the First Unitarian Church, he brought with him the memory of a jazz program he had attended in a New York City church a few years before. Three decades later, his version of Jazz Vespers —“a jazz alternative” to the Sunday-morning service—had developed a loyal following, most of whom were not Unitarians. “We opened the door to the jazz world and a whole new community came pouring in,” he recalled.

From its beginning in 1989, Goldsmith had a clear idea of what he wanted Jazz Vespers to be. “It was not a jazz club,” he said. “Jazz Vespers was the means of awakening a spirit within a deeply appreciative audience.”  Over the years, that audience responded by asking Goldsmith to officiate at jazz weddings and to conduct jazz memorials. “It is a ministry,” Goldsmith said warmly. “The musicians and I served the jazz community, and we filled a real need for that demographic.”

Goldsmith steered Jazz Vespers away from a musical style he described as “toe-tapping” or “easy-listening.” A level of sophistication was required of the listener, he said, even when an entire program was a tribute to the likes of Bob Marley or the Rolling Stones or James Brown or Carole King as was the case in 2013. “It was an educated audience that listened attentively,” said Steve Keen, a prominent jazz pianist who led Jazz Vespers from 2003 to 2009. Even an untutored ear could appreciate the art of improvisation and its seamless interplay of piano, bass, sax and drums. Plus, the variety of music held its own appeal. Keen said that he varied the sound and musical concept from week to week by rotating musicians. “If you didn’t care for the music one week, you could be sure that the following week would be nothing like it.” 

The First Unitarian Church, despite its stately colonial exterior, was conducive to jazz because it was an intimate space, not a big hall, Goldsmith said. On the Sunday nights devoted to Jazz Vespers in the fall, the pews filled early for the 90-minute program comprising performances by some of the city’s best jazz musicians and Goldsmith’s often-wry commentary called “View from the Other Side of the Wasatch.” 

            “Magical” was a term Goldsmith used often when recalling 30 years of Jazz Vespers. Magical performances were commonplace over the years thanks to the imprimatur of the three pianists—Vince Frates, Keen and Courtney Smith—who anchored Jazz Vespers successively. Since its earliest days, when the only other jazz venue in Salt Lake City was D. B. Cooper’s, Goldsmith estimated that 50 musicians had performed at one time or another at Jazz Vespers. One of them, David Halliday, played his saxophone for 18 years. Others like vocalist Kelly Eisenhour, moved out of state but returned for a special 25th anniversary concert at the Rose Wagner Theater in 2013 emceed by KUER Radio’s Jazz Director, Steve “Daddy-O” Williams. Read the coverage from the Salt Lake Tribune and watch the 25th Anniversary concert (https://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=57287369&itype=cmsid and view Jazz Vespers 25 in Part 3: Videos).