New Position with the Austin Jazz Workshop

This is kind of old news now, but since September 2021, I have been serving as Musical Director for the Austin Jazz Workshop. The AJW is a nonprofit dedicated to jazz education for young people. We do about 120 concerts per year, mostly in elementary schools. The AJW was founded in 1994, and I have been working with them since about 2003. I am honored to take over as Musical Director from the founder, Michael Melinger (who continues his work as Administrator). You can learn more about this worthy effort at

SoCo Women’s Chorus Update


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As you all know by now, the SoCo Women’s Chorus spring concert, originally scheduled for the first weekend in May, had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, we stopped rehearsing in mid-March as the virus started to spread. However, I can share with you that there will be “virtual” concert. It has been recorded with founder and outgoing Artistic Director Janey Hall conducting, yours truly on piano, and many of the SoCo singers participating from the safety of their computers. It is currently being edited, and should be out soon. I have seen a sneak preview, and it is wonderful to watch. It is just under a half hour, much shorter than we had planned, but, given the obstacles we were facing, it is an impressive achievement! I will let everyone know as soon as the video is ready to go public. Stay tuned!


New recording out now


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I am excited to announce that my new CD, “Aviary–Music for Dance Class,” is out! The CD is comprised of 25 short pieces that I improvised in the studio. It is intended for use in a ballet class setting, but I have been getting some feedback from people that, as I had hoped, it works simply as a listening experience as well. It is available both as a CD and a download. All the tracks are available for free on YouTube, and can be found on iTunes, Spotify, and all the usual places. I am selling downloads and discs through CD Baby. The website for that is listed here. The cover art is by my friend Margaret Adie. I hope you give it a listen, and I really hope you enjoy it! Thanks!

Recorded a jazz demo with Dan Torosian

March 30, 2018. Yesterday, I had the privilege of recording some jazz tunes with saxophonist Dan Torosian and his quintet for a new demo. We had Tarik Hassan on bass, Aaron Lack on drums, and Erik Telford on trumpet. We recorded at George Oldziey’s studio in Austin, Texas. You can hear the five tunes we recorded here:

Jazz Piano in Worship–text of my talk


Presbyterian Association of Musicians

University Presbyterian Church, Austin, Texas

January 20, 2017

Good morning.  My name is Shawn Ellison.  I want to thank the Presbyterian Association of Musicians for inviting me to speak to you today.  Today I’m going to talk about Jazz in Worship, play some music for you, and, at the end, leave some time for questions and discussions.  I’d love to hear any stories or insights you may wish to share.

Who here is a church pianist or organist?  

Choir director?


Although I have had some classical training, I consider myself more of a jazz player and improviser.  I have been playing music for a living in Austin for about 36 years, doing a variety of gigs, from restaurant work to ballet classes to educational programs to weddings and parties–and church.  I currently play at two churches–I’m at Prince of Peace Lutheran on Sunday mornings, and I play for the 5:30 pm Sunday service at St. James’ Episcopal.  (Some of you may have heard about the annual “Jazz at St. James’” event that SJE hosts every November.)  As a working musician, my talk today will reflect a practical and pragmatic approach to including jazz in a worship service.

So…what is jazz?  What does that word connote for you?

Jazz is an American art form, a style of music developed in this country through the convergence of African and European cultures.  It is our nation’s cultural and musical contribution to the world.

The experience of African slaves in this country–an oppressed people, kidnapped and deprived of their own culture, retaining fragments of that culture through singing, drumming, dancing–was the foundation of what became jazz.  This culture in exile influenced–and was influenced by–the white citizens of their new country.  As the decades went on, other cultures, such as those from Cuba, the Caribbean, and Brazil, made an impact on this music.  

Jazz got its start in New Orleans around the turn of the 20th century.  Because it has been around for about 120 years, its definition has changed over the years as different styles of this genre have evolved and gone in and out of fashion.  In this lecture, I am using the broadest possible definition of jazz–one that includes all styles of jazz, as well as Gospel and Blues.  

GOSPEL MUSIC can be traced back as far as the early 1600s, from a time when “line singing” (call and response) of hymns was used in worship.  Gospel music was typically dominated by vocalists, both solo singers and choirs, with rhythmic accompaniment provided by hand-clapping and foot-stomping.  There was often the element of call and response, hearkening back both to the line-singing in America, as well as the older C & R tradition in African music.  The gospel style is very participatory, and in a way it erases the distinction between performer and audience.  

The lyrics were all Christian themes. Gospel songs often had themes based on the OT stories of the enslaved and exiled Israelites, stories which resonated with this oppressed community.  Though Gospel music has continued, evolved, and changed over the decades, it is still a powerful and vibrant form of worship.  For example, during the civil rights struggles in the 1960s, many Christians, black and white, found solace and inspiration in this music.  One could argue that the civil rights struggle has not ended, and so the relevance and need for this music remains.

Gospel music, with its emphasis on rhythm, improvised vocal styles, and its use of call and response, should be considered to be among the foundational influences of jazz, and for this reason I am including gospel music in this broad definition.


Like Gospel, BLUES music is another foundational precursor to jazz.  It developed in the deep South in the late 19th century, and incorporated some of the same musical elements as gospel:  call & response, vocal improvisation, and driving rhythm.  Like Jazz, which began shortly after blues, it also descended from African work songs, spirituals, “field hollers”, ring shouts, as well as European-American folk music.  

Although the lyrical themes of Blues songs tended to be secular, they had a sort of spiritual component, as the musicians who wrote and performed these songs dealt with themes of oppression, hard times, and finding strength in the midst of adversity.  The Blues offered its performers and listeners catharsis, transcendence, and dignity. Like the Psalmist who cries out to God for comfort, mercy, and salvation, the Blues singer speaks to everyone’s common experiences and emotions and validates our humanity and vulnerability.


So, what is jazz?  What defines it?  What do we mean when say that the music of Charlie Parker is jazz, while the music of Bach or Lady Gaga is not?

It’s not easy to provide a complete and comprehensive definition of jazz, but I offer that, among the essential characteristics of jazz, the following three Elements are fundamental:  (1) Rhythm, (2) Complex, rich harmonies, and (3) Improvisation.

Rhythm–the importance of rhythm in jazz traces its lineage to the drums of Africa, through the hand-clapping and foot-stomping of slaves as they sang, to the modern drum kit of today.  Of course, all music has rhythm.  But one unique aspect of jazz is “swing” rhythm.  Now every rule has its exception, and you often won’t find swing in Latin styles of jazz.  However, the swing beat, that uneven subdivision of quarter notes, is a such a distinctive sound that you could hear a drummer gently tap a few beats on a ride cymbal, and you would immediately identify that sound as jazz.

[Demonstration on piano if necessary]

Complex, rich harmonies–you won’t find many pure triads in jazz, unless they are superimposed on another chord to create a thick, lush harmony.  Jazz harmonies use the upper extensions of chords–the 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th–to create beautiful harmonies.  Consequently, melodic lines are not limited to the diatonic scale, but often incorporate different types of scales–diminished, whole-tone, pentatonic, chromatic.  

[Piano demonstration of chord extensions if necessary]


Improvisation is one of the defining characteristics of jazz.  It is spontaneous composition, based on the form and harmony of the tune.  When I teach kids about jazz, I often define improvisation as “making it up as you go along.”  

Improvising is both challenging and fun.  It is a framework for self-expression, for creativity.  It is an act of creation.  To improvise in a group setting requires cooperation, being present in the moment, listening to your fellow musicians, responding without judging.  These habits–cooperating, being aware and present, listening, responding kindly to those around us–can also be applied in real life–at work, at home, in conversations.

Before I move on to the next section, does anyone have any questions about what I’ve talked about so far?

The 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)

To expand on this quote, music is also a language of its own, and jazz, as a form of music would be just as appropriate to use in church as any other form of music in order to communicate with God.  To borrow an idea from the Hindu faith tradition, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna (who is the incarnation of God in this story) says that any gift, “offered in devotion, I will accept as the loving gift of a dedicated heart.”  To apply this principle to music, whether we are playing a Bach prelude or a Brubeck rondo, we offer it up to the Lord, not as a egoistic display of virtuosity, but as the loving gift of a dedicated heart.

As I mentioned earlier, Gospel music shares many of the same elements of jazz–rhythmic intensity, improvisation (vocals), call & response.  Gospel shares the same family tree as Jazz.  And Gospel came out of the church.  So, playing jazz in church is, in a way, putting it BACK into the church.

For centuries, churches have used the music of their own time to connect with their congregations.  

  • Today’s “Praise” music emulates the pop-rock styles of popular artists, and may–we hope–make the songs’ message feel relevant to young people.
  • “O Sacred Head” was originally a secular love song.
  • “Ein Feste Burg” was a martial song (or possibly a drinking song, depending on who you ask.)

Many of the hymns we use today were written in the 19th century.  These hymns are often quite beautiful, and may remind us of our childhood experiences of worship.  But perhaps an occasional foray into something new, unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, can lead us to expand our acceptance of what is worshipful.  


Allow me now to cite precedent by referring to some historical examples of jazz music that was written and used for sacred purpose. If you have your outline, you can see the list I put together of SOME of the composers who have written sacred jazz music.  Some of these names are no doubt familiar–others are not.  

  • 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)
  • Rob Landes, “Jazz Gloria”

Most of us remember the great Vince Guaraldi for his unforgettable tunes that accompany the Charlie Brown animated cartoons.  It turns out that Mr. Guaraldi also wrote a jazz mass.  Who knew?

John Coltrane and “A Love Supreme”

John Coltrane is one of the towering figures in jazz.  He is universally respected as a saxophonist, an improviser, and a composer.  His 4-part suite “A Love Supreme”, recorded in a single session in 1964, was a personal expression of his gratitude and devotion, as well as his struggle for freedom from drug and alcohol addiction.  Jazz was his language, and he used it to express his gratitude to the Creator.

Duke Ellington and the Sacred Concerts

The great Duke Ellington is another major figure in the story of jazz.  He was a pianist, a prolific composer, and a band leader for over 50 years.  Though he is mostly known for the many secular tunes and recordings he produced, he also composed three Sacred Concerts, which were basically suites of songs with religious themes, for performances in cathedrals.

1965–Grace Cathedral in San Francisco

1968–Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC

1973–Westminster Abbey, London

Ellington called these concerts the “most important thing I have ever done.”  Like Coltrane, Ellington used his unique voice in the language of jazz to express his devotion to God.  


So let’s assume that we all agree that it’s OK to include jazz in worship. How do we put on a jazz worship service?  I’d like to start by making a distinction between two different roles for music in a service–vocal vs. instrumental.

The distinction between vocal and instrumental music is no different than any normal worship service–hymns are sung, a choral anthem is sung.  Typically (but not necessarily) the prelude, offertory, and postlude are instrumental.

If you want to have jazz musicians (solo pianist, or some combo like piano, bass, drums, sax for example) play the instrumental pieces (prelude, offertory, postlude), then you can simply let the musicians do their thing.  Obviously, it works better if there’s some agreement between the clergy and the musicians about the tunes, or at least the type of tunes, to be played.  When I’m selecting music to play for these parts of a worship service (a normal service–not necessarily jazz), I tend to pick music for both Prelude and Offertory that I consider “contemplative.”  For a Postlude, I tend to go more with “joyous.”  It’s important that the clergy and music staff are all on the same page.  That way you won’t be passing the collection plate to a frenetic version of “Giant Steps.”  

As an example of an instrumental jazz piece, I am going to play for you an arrangement I did of Beach Spring.  You’ll no doubt recognize this beautiful melody–I re-harmonized it with some jazz chords.

[Play “Beach Spring”]

Now that of course was a hymn.  I would like to suggest to you–you’ve come with me this far–that even a secular jazz tune can find a place in a worship service.  I have often used Pat Metheny tunes, as well as jazz standards from the Real Book as instrumental service music.  So far, I have not been struck by lightning!  So far.

Sometimes, the title of a tune will hint at a spiritual image or idea.  Jazz tunes like “Someday my prince will come” “When you wish upon a star” “Look to the sky”, can be used not only because of their beauty, but because their titles also contain sacred imagery.  Here is a jazz ballad by Denny Zeitlin, “Quiet Now.”

[Play “Quiet Now”]

Now let’s look at hymns and congregational singing.  

Reharmonizing familiar hymns in a jazz style can reveal some unexpected beauty.  It can also be a real challenge for a congregation to sing.  But reharmonizing hymns also invites us to literally hear things in a new way.  

In a few minutes, I will play some reharmonized hymns.  But first I’d like to offer two suggestions on how to make these reharmonized hymns singable.

  1. Have a song leader, a cantor, or even a choir who will lead the congregation through the hymns.  Even a familiar melody can be difficult to sing when a note that was once the tonic of a chord now functions as the #11 of a very different chord.  So a strong-voiced song leader can ease the passage through the stormy seas of weird jazz chords.
  2. Play the first verse of the hymn normally, with the standard and familiar harmony.  Then when you spring the new and unfamiliar version on them in verse 2, they’ve at least had a run-through.  

You may find that a congregation, though they may be receptive to listening to jazz, may not be ready to sing along with jazz harmonies.  If that’s the case, you can still incorporate jazz into your instrumental pieces, or in rehearsed choral anthems.  The idea is to incorporate a jazz style into the service gradually, going from simple and familiar to more complex and unfamiliar, in order not to intimidate congregation members who may be unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable with this idea.  A “jazz service” can start this way–instead of being all jazz–it can be a more inclusive way of incorporating something new into the familiar and a more accessible way to encourage members to attend and learn a new way to worship.


While researching this talk, I ran across a wonderful resource that I want to share with you. There is a website called  It is run by Rev. Bill Carter, a Pres. minister and jazz pianist.  There is an amazing amount of info on this website.  He has a DVD from 2012 called “Jazz belongs in church.”  He offers a free download of the study guide from that DVD.  I found his Ten Tips for Planning a Jazz Worship Service in that study guide.  

  1. Take note of where there is already service music
  2. Invite the jazz musicians to do what they do (arranging jazz versions of hymns; picking appropriate tunes for the service)
  3. It’s all about the singing (the musicians’ primary role is to lead the singing)
  4. Take seriously the power of instrumental music (can be a form of wordless prayer; can express range of emotions from sadness to joy)
  5. Announce jazz worship ahead of time (allows people to plan to come–or not come; publicity may lead new visitors to your church)
  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 (a jazz service may take longer than a normal service–allow time for that)
  10. Musicians and clergy should collaborate on an integrated liturgy

At this point, I would like to play for you a few hymns that I have re-harmonized to give you an idea–one possible approach out of an infinite number–as to how to make a traditional hymn sound “jazzy”.  I will play it once “normal” then with the new harmonies.

Jazz players sometimes refer to melodies or harmonies as “inside” or “outside.”  These terms refer to the level of dissonance or complexity.  I tried to use a range of harmonizations in these examples.  I’ll start with a couple of hymns that are–to my ear–more “inside.”  Then, as you will hear, the harmonies get a little more dissonant, a little more unmoored from traditional tonality.

“Ein Feste Burg”

“This is my Father’s world”

“He is Born”

“Lasst uns erfreuen” (All Creatures of our God and King)

“Be Thou My Vision”

Before we go, I want to play one more short piece.  It’s a piece, part of a set of short “hymns” I wrote in 2001 as I tried to process the grief I felt after 9/11.  I gave most of them a number as a title, but this one I called “Hymn of Peace.”  On this day, (January 20, 2017) our nation is undergoing a change in leadership.  No matter what your political persuasion, I think we all are united in hoping and praying for a peaceful world.  So I offer up this little piece of music as a prayer for peace, tolerance, and kindness.

[“Hymn of Peace”]

Thank you.

Comments?  Questions?

New recording on the way

This past Saturday I went into the studio of my friend Tommy Byrd and recorded an album of music for ballet class.  We recorded 25 short tunes in 6 hours.  I had a lot of fun working with Tommy.  I will get together with him this weekend and do some mixing.  I don’t know when I’ll have it ready for release, but I am working to make it happen as soon as possible.

The music I recorded is all improvised, based on chord changes I’d worked out in advance.  Although I made the recording for a specific purpose–ballet class–I’d like to think that people might just enjoy listening to it outside of dance class.  I need to figure a lot of stuff out soon–how to get it on iTunes, how to sell CDs from this site, and many other business and technical details.  I will keep people posted through this website regarding its progress.

Rather than give all the pieces generic titles like “medium waltz” and “fast 2/4” I decided to give each piece a name.  Each piece is named after a different bird species.  (Tommy Byrd pointed out to me that it was appropriate that I was recording at the Byrd house!)  The working title of the CD is “Aviary.”  Details to follow…

Amplify Austin 2016–Symphony of Soul


I have been working with Symphony of Soul the last few years. They are a non-profit group dedicated to bringing live music to residents of care facilities. I go out once or twice a month to entertain for an hour or so. It is immensely rewarding to watch as some of our senior citizens begin to smile, tap their feet, and sing along to the old tunes that I play. It feels so good to spread a little joy.

This week, Symphony of Soul is participating in the Amplify Austin fund-raising campaign. I have set up a page to raise funds for Symphony of Soul. Any funds raised through my page will make their way back to me as payment for future performances. I hope you will consider supporting this worthy cause. You can view my page here:

Thanks in advance for your support!