Jazz and Worship


very few months, saint benedict’s table throws a curve ball into our usual way of doing worship and offers a jazz eucharist. If you’ve never been to one of these before, you’ll probably find yourself wondering why we’re not singing; after all, this is a community that sings out, and sings out well. Is this business of being asked to simply sit, listen and meditate really worship?


Well, yes it is… or it can be. The challenge is to be still and attentive, listening not simply to the music, but to the voice of the Spirit of God that is always present in every moment of our lives, but often overlooked because we’re so busy talking and making noise.


No, we’re not much accustomed to sitting still and listening… for all that many of us stay plugged into some kind of music or other through much of our waking day, we don’t often just listen.

But what if you aren’t convinced that jazz “works” for you? Well, let me offer a possible hook on which to hang this music. In the introductory Author’s Note in Donald Miller’s book, Blue Like Jazz, Miller admits that he hadn’t ever much like jazz music, “because jazz music doesn’t resolve.” And then he continues:

But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

Well, for Miller, this is analogous to his relationship to God, which required some others to “show him the way,” but for us it also stands as an invitation to people who don’t “get” why we’re doing this to come and join us and see if by being still with us you won’t discover something new.


But then again, maybe jazz won’t ever quite do it for you, no matter how steadfastly I try to convince you of its beauty, insight, and place in worship. Well maybe that’s fine, because when we do hit the one part in the liturgy that we do sing – the sanctus, the “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord” – and we just about raise the roof of the church, you’ll feel like you’re singing like you seldom can. It is in part because that one piece of music is built on all of that stillness and listening, and we’re bursting to sing. That’s a good thing.


If you’re interested in taking part in one of these liturgies, keep your eye on this post for dates of upcoming jazz eucharists. If you want to read more, you can go to the site of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem to take a look at a piece I’ve published there on “Jazz and the Holy.”

Jamie Howison

“… not for nothing did Martin Luther King call music the ‘soul’ of the civil rights movement. Maybe just a little bit, and in small but important ways, Christians with ears to hear… can have jazz make of them prayers to the God ‘who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.'”

(Rodney Clapp, Border Crossings)


Thanks to Erick Pay of blink! photography for the images.

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