Jazz Piano in Worship

I was asked to deliver a talk to the Presbyterian Association of Musicians at their PAM Professionals Gathering on January 20, 2017.  The weekend conference was held at University Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.  Below is the outline for my lecture.  For the full text of the lecture, check the “News” tab.


Lecture to be delivered for the Presbyterian Association of Musicians

University Presbyterian Church, Austin, Texas

Draft outline

Shawn Ellison

January 20, 2017

I.       What is Jazz?

  • Brief history–slave experience, African songs (work songs & spirituals) influenced by European music in the US
  • Gospel and Blues–part of the roots and continuum of jazz.  Employing broad definition of jazz.  
  • Gospel music–Joyous, Salvation theme, vocal improvisation, drums, call & response, audience participation (i.e. erasure of audience/performer distinction)
  • Blues–Strength in adversity, themes of oppression and hard times.  Blues offered catharsis, transcendence, dignity.  
  • In both Gospel and Blues, the African-American origins, the slave experience, and the struggle for civil rights led to identification with OT stories of enslaved and exiled Israelites.
  • Three Elements of Jazz:  
    • Rhythm.
    • Complex, rich harmonies.
    • Improvisation.
  • Improvisation–creation, self-expression.  Improvisation in a group setting requires cooperation, being present in the moment, listening with open ears.

II.  Use of Jazz in Worship.  Why?  Why not?

“Everyone prays in their own language, and there is no language that God does not understand.” (Duke Ellington)

  • A lot of jazz came from the church in the first place–GOSPEL
  • New fresh take on hymns–an invitation to hear things in new ways
  • Churches have always used the music of their time to connect with worshippers.  (Today’s popularity of “Praise” music.  “O Sacred Head” was originally a secular love song.  “Ein Feste Burg” was a martial song.) Many hymns used today were written in 19th century.  Beautiful, traditional, but perhaps an occasional foray into jazz will lead to fresh insights, expand our acceptance of what is worshipful.


III. Historical examples

  • Father Guido Haazen, Missa Luba (1958), not jazz per se, but African music. Latin mass set to music in the traditional style of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Mary Lou Williams, Mary Lou’s Mass (1964)
  • John Coltrane, “A Love Supreme” (1965).  An epic 4-part suite, representing the composer’s spiritual journey, his struggle for purity, and his gratitude to God for his musical abilities.
  • Duke Ellington wrote three “Sacred Concerts” 1965, 1968, 1973.
  • Vince Guaraldi, Jazz Mass (1965) The Grace Cathedral Concert
  • Bob Chilcott, “A Little Jazz Mass” 2004. A setting of the Missa Brevis with jazz harmonies and rhythms. For choir and piano, with optional bass & drums.
  • Dave Brubeck, “To Hope!” a Catholic jazz mass (1980)

IV.   Practical considerations

  • Reharmonizing hymns.  Puts them in fresh light, but must be singable.
  • Jazz as contemplative music during prelude, offertory.
  • Rev. Bill Carter’s Tips for Planning a Jazz Worship Service
  1. Take note of where there is already service music
  2. Invite the jazz musicians to do what they do
  3. It’s all about the singing
  4. Take seriously the power of instrumental music
  5. Announce jazz worship ahead of time
  6. Engage the best musicians you can find
  7. Provide the best instruments available
  8. Find a local cantor/song leader who is familiar with jazz to lead the singing
  9. Let it breathe and grow
  10. Musicians and clergy should collaborate on an integrated liturgy


V.  Some musical examples–hymns reharmonized by Shawn Ellison

VI. Share your stories–Q&A



Duke Ellington, Music is my Mistress

Kathryn B. Kemp, Make a Joyful Noise! A Brief History of Gospel Music Ministry in America

Ann Pederson, God, Creation, and All That Jazz

Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz

Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, Jazz: A History of America’s Music

Horace Clarence Boyer, How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel

Rev. Bill Carter, Jazz Belongs in Church (DVD)

www.presbybop.com (Rev. Bill Carter’s website)


www.chuckmarohnic.com (Professor Marohnic is a composer/arranger/church musician/educator)