We Pastor Stephen Jones, Seattle First Baptist Church
Lately, the beautiful, gothic sanctuary of Seattle First Baptist Church has been filled with the sounds of live jazz on the last Sunday of every month. Last summer, Dr. Stephen Jones, the new pastor at the church got together with a volunteer committee of dedicated congregation members and organized a monthly Jazz Vespers series to showcase some of the area’s top performers. The series was inaugurated in September with Don Lanphere’s group and has been going strong ever since. Dr. Jones had previously been at a Detroit area church where he developed the current model for a jazz concert series. The idea of a jazz vespers program has been around for a while in Boston and New York, but it was new to Detroit at that time. Although he has an extensive background in theater, Dr. Jones freely admits that he wasn’t originally a jazz fan and really didn’t like it too much when the series began in Detroit about 10 years ago. “We had jazz lovers in the congregation who knew the local scene and had a passion for the music, but...I came of age in the rock generation and it’s been an acquired taste....I’ve learned to enjoy it as I’ve learned more about it.” Although each concert features an inspirational interlude during which Dr. Jones gives a brief, nondenominational talk, the secular nature of the SFBC vespers series sets it apart from jazz vespers in other cities. As Jones put it, “...we wanted it to be more of an actual jazz concert because 90% of jazz isn’t appropriate for a liturgical service and it would require the musicians to compromise. I’ve found that watching jazz musicians come in and do their thing is really exciting, and I’ve seen how much spirituality there is in this music, particularly when you let the musicians loose....unlike what happens when you ask them to play an up-tempo version of ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘When the Saints Go Marching’ when that’s not what they would normally do.”
Jones emphasized that the reasoning for launching a concert series of this nature is several fold. “Most of the people who play here haven’t been in church for ages, and I see the vespers series as a type of ministry to musicians in that they get an opportunity to perform and be appreciated in a beautiful 800-seat concert setting with a respectful, non-smoking, non-drinking and, most importantly, non-talking audience where they’re not playing background music. We’re not trying to convert musicians to the church, but we feel that this is a special setting for live jazz.”
In addition, Jones emphasized what he sees as the need for the Baptist church to soften its image and develop a more open-minded attitude. “What people think of when they hear the word Baptist is often a harsh stereotype of rigid, close-minded, even bigoted ideology. Jazz has a history of tolerance and integration and the church played a big role in it’s development.”
Lastly, the vespers series is a way to develop some public visibility for SFBC. Although Dr. Jones noted that Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church offers a weekly noon jazz service, he feels that the SFBC Jazz Vespers is unique. “We’re not in competition with other churches, but every congregation if it’s going to be vital has to know what makes them utterly distinct. ‘Why would they come here?’ Many congregations don’t know the answer to that question. Just the fact that we’re a welcoming and affirming congregation for sexual minorities in the city – you’ve got to know who it is that you’re trying to reach. With a membership of around 750, we’re one of the larger and more vital of the downtown Baptist churches in the nation but it’s difficult work to keep them healthy and vital – and you can’t afford to make too many mistakes.”
The concerts have been drawing between 150-180 listeners on average with the majority of the audience coming from outside of the SFBC congregation. Although the church is subsidizing its publicity and advertising, the series is largely paying for itself, and is a solid success for its first season. Dr. Jones’ theater experience is apparent in details ranging from onstage lighting to staffing and organization of the concerts. The first few concerts of this series were plagued by some technical problems having to do with miking and the adjustment of the house PA, but the church has overhauled and improved it’s sound system in recent months. Also, this is more of a mainstream audience, so don’t look for cutting edge improvisational music in this venue. However, Steve Jones’ philosophy far outshines any matters of taste or stylistic preference. “I think this church is a very healing, forgiving, reconciling community and I obviously want more people to experience that because I think the world out there needs it,” says Jones. “We’re not living in neighborhoods where we know one another; we’re not living in communities where we feel community; and congregations are one of those places where, when people get sick or experience loss or a death in the family, you’ve got a whole community that’s going to walk through that with you. It’s a very important facet of what we do here.”
The April 27th Jazz Vespers concert at SFBC featured the Clarence Acox Sextet with friends from the Garfield High School Jazz Ensemble. On May 25, from 6-8pm, Seattle First Baptist welcomes Zazou! On June 29, Karin Kajita will perform. The vespers are free and open to the public, but a free-will offering will be taken during the interlude to pay the musicians. Dress for the concerts is casual and informal, and light refreshments will be served afterward in the Church’s Fellowship Hall. Seattle First Baptist Church is located at 1111 Harvard Avenue, one block from Madison and Broadway at the corner of Harvard and Seneca on the east side of First Hill. Free parking is available in the adjacent lot at Boylston and Seneca. For more information contact: seattlefirstbaptist.org.