Ecstatic Improvisation

St. Cecilia's Jazz Festival

St. CeciliaJazz and blues, folk, country and bluegrass - all of these musical forms have deep cultural ties to the gospel, and all of them have been a part of the church services of various Christian denominations in this country since its beginning. But a jazz festival at First Presbyterian Church? What's the connection? "None that comes to my mind," admits Scott McNulty, organist for First Presbyterian and founder of the St. Cecilia Music Series, which he's been conducting in the North Austin church for four years.

"It's more that this particular church has been open to all kinds of people and music. First Presbyterian in Austin was the only church in the South that stayed true to the northern denomination when the Civil War broke out. It had kind of a history of being as open and inclusive as they could be, and the members have been awfully good about that. The jazz is just a part of who this church is, it's not the only part."

First Presbyterian has been on Mesa Drive since 1978, but its history dates back to the 1850s according to McNulty, with the church's first sanctuary being at the corner of Seventh and Lavaca. This weekend, these north Austin Protestants will offer the first multiple-day music festival independent of the church proper in its long life. In most cases, especially as it involves organized religion, the longer the tradition, the tougher to make change. That doesn't seem to be a problem, though.

"Every church I've been in, I've started some kind of a concert series - as much for the people in the church as for the community," explains McNulty. "Somehow this one took hold ... The impetus for this: Our pastor, Robert Bruce, loves jazz. We started more in a classical vein, harpsichord, violin, and early music - that kind of stuff. But because Bob enjoyed jazz, it was an area I wanted to get into."

Senior Pastor Robert Bruce confesses.

"I think [jazz] has a place in the church," says Pastor Bruce. "It hasn't, historically, in most Anglo churches - certainly not in Presbyterian churches, but it's a different world. The Presbyterian tradition, historically, has been a very rational, Northern European-oriented tradition like most white Protestant congregations in America have been. As a consequence of that, the music itself was sort of rational, Northern European music. The shortcomings of that have become pretty apparent. This whole other side of ecstatic speech that was more part of African-American church has become a valid part of the Christian experience. I heard someone say that jazz is ecstatic improvisation - I like that very much. It's a free form, so it fits with a free prayer form and a free-flowing style of worship. I think we're trying to get a little of that."

Jazz performances in church are not a new phenomenon to Austin. St. James Episcopal on East MLK, which McNulty cites as the inspiration for this project, has been holding them for years, and other churches have held their own lower profile jazz festivals as well. Beth Ullman, who, along with her husband, pianist/composer Rich Harney, bassist Spencer Starnes, and drummer A.D. Mannion, performs at the St. Cecilia fest on Saturday, says playing any house of worship is a good gig.

"The audiences are great," enthuses Ullman. "They don't talk, they don't drink, they don't smoke. They're just there to hear it."

Ullman likes this room in particular.

"Those stained-glass windows are the neatest thing about that room," she says. "They're just gorgeous; over 100 years old and huge, from the floor to the ceiling, almost. So, if you're in there at night around 8pm before the sun goes down, it's beautiful. And they have the seating sort of in-the-round, and a beautiful grand piano. For a jazz artist it's a really great room."

Stone, hardwood, and glass in a high ceiling room can offer amazing acoustics. When combined with uplifting music, these architectural designs can lead to something akin to spiritual inspiration. Pastor Bruce senses this quality in his church and in jazz music.

"Jazz does, in a way that a lot of traditional church music does not, talk about some of the real depths of human experience - the basic hopes and protests of what goes on in the human condition," he says. "That's religious stuff, any way you cut it.

"But I also hope the connection is made between the church being able to embrace a cultural form - a musical form - that has not traditionally been a part of their church music, and that folks see that these are not incompatible. I'm confident that a year or 14 months from now we'll have a regular jazz service. This jazz fest is making no attempt to be a Christian service. There won't be any liturgy except on Sunday morning when we have the jazz service. Other than that, the jazz fest is a jazz fest."

As apartment complexes, condos, strip malls, and new roads to get to all of them pop up at an amazing rate, the rapid growth of the northern reaches of this city would seem to offer endless renewable resources in the way of congregations. But, most of them being white folk in the high-tech fields, is jazz in church what they want, or is that better left to churches like St. James Episcopal, whose roots are dug deep into the music?

Scott McNulty

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

"The jazz shows and the organ recitals have been the most popular events of our series," asserts McNulty. "People have really responded to it."

The purpose of St. Cecilia's Jazz Festival is not just to bring jazz to the members of the church, but to open the church's doors to the larger community.

"The whole Austin community," according to Martha Mortensen Dudgeon, co-coordinator of the jazz fest and pianist for the Friday night showcase of Claude Bolling's "Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano" with Megan Meisenbach on flute.

Pulling the entire city of Austin up to the North Side for jazz is a tall order indeed, but these Presbyterians are hopeful. Though he recognizes the long-standing divisions inherent in American religions, Pastor Bruce places great faith in the unifying power of music.

"Churches, unfortunately, are a pretty segregated part of our culture," he says. "I don't think it's that the churches themselves are not prepared to accept people in a multi-racial setting. It's that folk, when they go to worship - it's such a historical thing with people. They tend to go where their families went, and worship in an Anglo church, or in a Hispanic or African-American church. They tend to be very different in style, and that's tended to separate them.

"That's one of the things that's hopeful about a function jazz serves, not only for the church but for the broader community. It's something that can bring us together. It's purpose is not to bring us together, which probably means it can bring us together better than something whose purpose is to do that. It cuts across racial lines.

"I think in a city like Austin, you have so many different kinds of people that music probably cuts across the lines that divide us more than anything else. In that sense, it can be a very hopeful thing not only for the church, but insofar as the church reflects some of the divisions within our communities and culture, it also helps us to have a possibility of overcoming those."

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