Jazz Vespers: II

by Reverend Tom Goldsmith

It all began with a squib in the Village Voice, announcing Jazz Vespers at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Park Avenue. It was November 1979, and I was in New York for a long weekend. The concept of blending jazz (my passion) with worship, needed to be investigated. I attended the 5:00 service, which bored me with traditional liturgy, jazzed up, but opened my eyes to the possibility of integrating jazz into a liberal worship context. I sat on that idea for about a decade.

Soon after arriving in Salt Lake City in 1987 to serve the First Unitarian Church, attendance increased significantly, sparking much conversation about building a larger facility. Not wishing to be thrown into a capital campaign immediately, I offered a plan to start Jazz Vespers as an alternative evening worship option. It received a mixed response, but being new, the Board felt there would be no harm in trying. So I had to kick into a jazz mode pretty swiftly.

I alerted the congregation that I would need $1000 seed money. The congregation came through almost immediately. In 1988 I opened auditions for a jazz pianist whom I envisioned would play a pivotal role. After hearing Vince Frates, I closed the auditions. He stayed as Jazz Vespers music director for fourteen years, never missing a single night.

But at first the Unitarian congregation showed only mild interest in Jazz Vespers. The program was supported primarily by members of the Salt Lake Jazz Society, a fun crowd, mostly older, strictly secular, who were grateful for a new jazz venue. I tried to capture a mostly meditative mood and was surprised by how well the injection of humor was received. Some of it was political humor.

The Jazz Vespers sound was greatly enhanced starting in 1992 when Lee Shuster stepped in as our sound engineer. Lee developed a very dynamic system, which only grew in sophistication over the decades that followed.

When our original music director, Vince Frates, moved to California, the music leadership was divided between Steve Keen (piano) and Kevin Johansson (guitar). Their approach was different in that they wanted to showcase different jazz bands instead of offering continuity by playing at every service. I felt strongly about having a house band, which would grow a relationship with the guests over the years. After six years we parted ways.

In 2008, my dream came true. David Halladay (sax) and Courtney Smith (piano) became co-directors of Jazz Vespers and played every season (eight weeks in November – December), while developing their own followers.  From about 2013 on, every Sunday was a standing room only crowd.

The years prior to and including the 30th anniversary were the strongest in Jazz Vespers history. We hit our stride combining jazz with humor. The sound system had added lights for the performances. A significant percentage of the parishioners were African American, creating a diverse jazz crowd that lifted the spirit. Still, not many members of First Unitarian Church filled the pews. Jazz Vespers was considered a gift to the wider community, and in fact, did bring in some new people through the morning service door.

Jazz Vespers ended on the Sunday before Christmas, 2018, after a run of 30 seasons. It was my call. My retirement from First Church was in the air, and I didn’t want to saddle my successor with the expectation of continuing the Jazz Vespers program. And who can argue? Thirty years is a good run. It’s nice to leave on a strong note.

Jazz offers the perfect medium for contemplation and spiritual uplift. The music performed was never “easy listening.” The music challenged everyone and was not meant to provide a relaxing place to listen to a few tunes. The jazz stretched the mind and imagination. The music, combined with spoken messages, engaged the congregation with new ideas, interpretations, and rhythms. Improvisation was key, which reminded everyone of their own self-imposed constraints.

Unitarian Universalism, with a history of intellectual focus, could stand to lighten up during worship. Jazz provides a powerful means by which we can leave the mind and get in touch with the soul.  The soul is home for religious work.  For liberals especially, it’s heartening to complement “thinking things through” with “feeling our way forward.” Feeling has sadly been missing from UU churches, a vital component for transformation to occur. Jazz enables the worshipper to cease needing to control all aspects of life and informs worshippers how to bend with rhythm and emotion. It’s almost impossible to sit rigid while hearing jazz from the pews — quite a different experience from listening to a classical choir!

During the 30 years of Jazz Vespers, First Unitarian Church has been referred to throughout the community as “the jazz church.” It expanded my ministry, as I have been asked to officiate jazz weddings and memorial services. The decades of Jazz Vespers provided for me a sense of liberation from standard worship services. I learned that humor is tough business. I think the community was enriched with a new art form bleeding into a new worship form, all for the purpose of bringing joy into people’s lives.