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Aug 16, 2013 | Carol E. Barnwell

Jesus, Worship and All That Jazz


St. James’ Austin and St. James’ Houston


Mag_Jazz1[Diolog Magazine] Jazz services have been an integral part of worship at St. James’, Austin and St. James’, Houston for more than 15 years, and while the music is not strictly “jazz,” the vibe never disappoints. 


In both services, music sets the tone for joyful worship, whether it’s jazz or jazzed-up hymns, spirituals, gospels or spirit-filled secular music. Both services began in the late ‘90s and were designed to offer an alternative for people who wanted a later and more relaxed opportunity to worship. In Austin, they use the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer for its inclusive language. In Houston, St. James’ uses Rite II from the Book of Common Prayer. In both congregations the music and worship leaders bring a lifetime of experience to their roles that shape the jazz service. 

St. James’, Austin

Martha Pulkingham is rooted in the charismatic movement in the Episcopal Church. It began in the 1960s at Church of the Redeemer, Houston and has evolved into the Community of Celebration based in Pennsylvania Living in community, members of Celebration offer themselves in service to the Church and to the world. Pulkingham’s father founded the movement and her mother was a church musician.


Today, Pulkingham is worship leader for the jazz service at St. James’ in Austin, where she first brought her joy and enthusiasm as a volunteer. She was then asked to join the staff. A licensed professional counselor in private practice, she also works with the SIMS Foundation, a group that subsidizes counseling for musicians. 


“I was surrounded by a rich musical experience, blending traditional music with what was mostly folk music at the time. I thought this was normal and only later [found] it was not a usual worship experience in the Episcopal Church,” she said. At St. James’ the sense of community in worship and the commitment to inclusivity drew Pulkingham in the same way she hopes the Jazz service will speak to others.


“It connects with people and I think reaches them on many different emotional levels … When it’s done well, it’s not distracting but draws people into the worship experience,” Pulkingham said. 


She often invites professional musicians from Austin’s wide-ranging talent pool “who add a rich musical texture to our worship with their improvisational abilities as well as jazz interpretations of traditional hymnody.” The number of singers and musicians ranges from a few to a full rhythm section and “another horn or two.” The choral section sometimes has four, sometimes 12. The music draws heavily from The Hymnal 1982, Lift Every Voice and Sing, Come Celebrate and Wonder, Love and Praise, adding jazz influences and roots gospel. Pulkingham, whose husband is a jazz musician, said her job as worship leader is to know who is coming—paid or volunteer—and to draw on the gifts that are present, including a core number of people who make up their choral group. 


Their 5 p.m. service is a smaller congregation than the one on Sunday morning, but it’s growing. While not as racially diverse as the morning worship services, Pulkingham said it seems to draw families with small children. The late afternoon time was originally chosen to appeal to professional musicians, college students and other night owls. 


But it’s a very personal reason that leads one person to choose a jazz service over a more traditional one. “I believe that music, whether Bach or roots gospel, when done well, connects with people on an emotional and spiritual level,” she said, “whatever style it is … as long as it’s done well, that leaves room for an experience that’s worshipful.”


Music is obviously not the only expression of worship, but Pulkingham believes it plays an important role in either distracting from or adding to the quality of the entire worship experience. “It allows people to open up and more fully experience the word, the message, and each other, and I think it has the capacity to stay with us—like when you find yourself during the week humming the tune or song you sang or heard. I think it reaches us in places that the spoken word cannot.”


She believes the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer also adds a freshness to the worship service. “It’s not too unfamiliar, just different.” While worshipers looking for traditional or contemplative experience might be disappointed if they stumbled into a jazz service, most have a very positive response. Some members said they chose St. James’ as their church home because of the jazz service. 


The choral group is not only a ministry to others, but a place of ministry for its members. It has been a place of healing for Laura Lucinda McCutchen. “These people come together and create a spiritual place in time and space, and the music is the result,” she said. “The people are the vessel of God’s love. They love me and accept me no matter who I am on that day, because that’s what Jesus calls us to do and because, in the big picture, it gives us joy, even when it’s hard, which sometimes it is. I hope I show others in the church and in the world the same kind of love and acceptance I feel. I sure couldn’t share this love and this faith without the experience that our service and our people give me.”


St. James’, Houston

Concurrently, in the late ‘90s, St. James’, Houston, began a contemporary jazz service introducing the Contemporary Jazz Ensemble, led by drummer/percussionist Samuel Dinkins, III. The group offered up spirituals, gospel and spirit-filled secular styles of music along with jazzed up traditional hymns at a noon Eucharist. The service brought many new parishioners to St. James’ and after five years in the parish hall, attendance had grown enough to move into the church.


Dinkins, originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., grew up in the United Methodist tradition and has been a musician for more than 40 years. He has performed with many groups and artists, including James Cleveland, a singer and composer who is known as the creator of modern gospel sound; R&B and gospel singer Stephanie Mills; jazz pianist and composer Joe Sample; and Aretha Franklin. Dinkins brought this rich musical heritage to the worship at St. James’. 


Dinkins said that the music he chooses to begin the worship experience is designed to “usher in the Holy Spirit and prepare God’s people for praise and worship.” The congregation uses a sung arrangement for the Nicene Creed, and a jazz interpretation of the Doxology and Sanctus. Dinkins uses improvisational elements of jazz, but he said, “the congregation also experiences gospel, spirituals, hymns, praise and worship and R&B/pop styles of music.” 


“The Ensemble has Bible study during their weekly rehearsal,” Dinkins said. “We study the readings and use songs in our repertoire, as well as find and write new music that supports the message of the Scriptures.” The group also does an artistic response to the Gospel each week. 


“The jazz service opened the door to other ways of worshipping,” Dinkins said, noting that the worship experience and its order of worship are welcoming to non-Episcopalians as well as familiar to Episcopalians. “During the passing of the peace you’ll hear the song ‘The Mission of St. James’ as the congregation sings and dances. Our mission is ‘to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, share our gifts and bring together all people.’” 


“This service allows me to express something that is almost cellular to me … I grew up in an alternative way that was very focused on worship … I love being a part of it,” Pulkingham said. Worshippers may not understand why, but they experience intrinsically all the joy Pulkingham brings as worship leader. 


Dinkins promises if you visit St. James’, you will be “blessed by the Word,” and you will “leave singing.”  


What’s better than that?