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 world of jazz is a musical space with a complex history and haunting appeal--a space to revisit and celebrate. It’s that
amazing moment when you hear a really great song you haven't heard in years and you still know the tune and every word.