Better Get It in Your Soul:What Liturgists Can Learn from Jazz

  I’m a long time accompanist/church musician but have absolutely no experience performing jazz music, so I was initially more than a little intimidated by the idea of adding jazz to the liturgy.  So, when my copy of Reid Hamilton and Stephen Rush’s book arrived, I did the sensible thing: I started at the back and checked out their bibliography. (This is my standard way of deciding whether I have wandered into foreign territory with a new author.)  In this case, the expansive suggested reading list included works by Annie Dillard, John Bell, Meister Eckhart, Madeleine L’Engle and many more, with references to music ranging from Southern Harmony to Taize, from Bach to Coltrane.  I was instantly hooked.

Authors Reid Hamilton and Stephen Rush are the Chaplain and Music Director of the Canterbury House at the University of Michigan and their Sunday night services do indeed include jazz and much, much more.  They compare the liturgy of the service—the order of worship—to a jazz musician’s chart, a starting point and framework for creativity, improvisation, and the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Their aim is to have liturgy and music “work together as a cogent and coherent whole.”  The choice of music is not limited to jazz; in fact, “jazz” is used as a metaphor for any music that resonates with a congregation and engages participants.  Depending on the parish, a “jazz mass” could just as easily be based on folk music, bluegrass, hip-hop, or even polkas!

From this premise, Hamilton and Rush proceed to address a variety of topics including musical style, liturgical planning, utilization of worship space, and, in particular, clergy-musician partnerships.  They emphasize that this relationship is at the heart of collaborative liturgical planning: “Priests and musicians seeking a meaningful liturgical experience for their congregations are encouraged to start first with their relationship to each other–nurturing respect, love, sharing, and a common language to discuss their faith.”

The role of the church musician is explored more specifically in Chapter 10 (“Church Musician—Gig or Calling?”).  Stephen Rush discusses an eclectic grouping of three great church musicians—Johann Sebastian Bach, Olivier Messiaen, and Thomas Dorsey—as well as his own journey as a church musician. 

Along with the more philosophical considerations of liturgy and music there are plenty of “nuts and bolts” takeaways in the generous appendices, including sample Rite II outlines from Canterbury House services, a list of musical resources indexed by liturgical theme, as well as a Blues Mass and series of Psalm tones composed by Stephen Rush.

This is a valuable text for church musicians and clergy in any parish setting but it  particularly provides a fresh view on liturgical planning for college campus services.  As the authors suggest, college students are, after all, the Church’s best “beta testers” and campus ministry is a great place for a “liturgical laboratory”!  This closing quote concerning church music is perhaps applicable to campus ministry in general:

“Great things take a lot of work, and this work is God’s.  It’s worth it.” 

Highly recommended:
Better Get It In Your Soul: What Liturgists Can Learn from Jazz
by Reid Hamilton & Stephen Rush
Church Publishing (2008)
ISBN: 978-0-89869-574-8

Available at Amazon:

One Comment on “Better Get It in Your Soul:What Liturgists Can Learn from Jazz

  1. Whew. Thanks for “getting it!!” This could almost be our press release. And yes…START with the bibliography…by all means!! good reading!!!

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