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Jazz Vespers

Jazz Vespers is a synthesis of traditions, blending of one of the most ancient offices of the church with the musical heritage of Jazz. The word “Vespers” is derived from the Greek “hespera” or Latin “vesper” meaning “evening.” Early Christians continued the Jewish tradition of prayer at the time when the daylight faded and the lamps were lit. Psalm 141:2 “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” has been traditionally associated with Vespers. In the Anglican tradition, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer combined vespers with other offices for the Book of Common Prayer office of Evening Prayer. 

The roots of Jazz are deep in church tradition, starting with the suffering of African slaves in America, who found hope in faith and song. Slaves utilized “work songs” to help them in passing the arduous forced labor. The structure of these songs were “call and response” or “shout and response.” A leader would express the collective thoughts of the workers, and the workers would respond in a repeated refrain in unison. The leader would continue to improvise calls while the chorus repeats its response. Banned from worshipping in “white” churches, slaves would gather outside these churches adopting church harmony to African melodies. The I, IV, V chord progressions of the church’s tradition adapt to the call and response form to produce the basis of “the blues” a fundamental element of jazz.

Spirituals, the first original songs created by Protestant African American slaves on American soil, were often called “hymns with a beat,” contributed to the development of much of popular western music today. They employed a call-and-response pattern and placed great emphasis on rhythm with hand clapping and foot stomping. In spirituals and gospel music, the singer improvises and embellishes the melodic line by bending, sliding, or adding tones. Gospel songs and spirituals are often considered religious forms of the blues.

In jazz, a “call” is usually initiated by a solo singer or instrumentalist and is followed by a “response” from one instrument, or an ensemble. The Liturgy in today’s service is a communal response to God through praise, thanksgiving, supplication, and repentance, in a form of call and response between the minister and the congregation.

History of Spirituals at St. George’s

African American composer, arranger and baritone Harry Thacker Burleigh sang over fifty years from 1894-1946 at St. George’s. His appointment was the “first known instance of an African American being admitted to a vest choir of a white parish.” Burleigh, who was the first African American composer acclaimed for his art songs, played an invaluable role in preserving Spirituals and bringing them to the world’s concert stages.

Check our events page to find out when the next upcoming Jazz Vespers service takes place or e-mail stgmusicnyc@gmail.com for more info.