Making Music at Jazz Vespers with Bethany Baptist Church, Newark, NJ

By Gregory Burrus

I often tell a musician or folks in general, I am going up to Bethany Baptist Church Jazz Vespers and I can’t count the amount of times that the questions are: What is a Jazz Vespers?  Is it something I should attend?  Can any type of jazz musician play there?  Well here’s some answers for Jazz musicians looking for another venue to play in, for Jazz lovers and for those who may not be a Jazz lover.  Let’s start with some definitions.

Vespers is the sunset evening prayer service in the Orthodox, Western and Eastern Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran liturgies of the canonical hours.  The word comes from the Greek ἑσπέρα ("hespera") and the Latin vesper, meaning "evening.

Jazz, as most know Jazz, was born in the United States and is still really the best music to represent America and it’s a serious form of improvisation.  According to Jazz America, "It is partly planned and partly spontaneous; that is, as the musicians perform a pre-determined tune, they have the opportunity to create their own interpretations within that tune in response to the other musicians' performances and whatever else may occur 'in the moment' -- this is called improvisation and is the defining element of jazz."

Well, playing off both those explanations, a sunset evening prayer session that allows for the inclusion of improvised jazz music is clearly what Jazz Vespers is all about.  Let’s examine it through the eyes of one church's mission to a successful jazz vesper series.

Enter Bethany Baptist Jazz Vesper 

Don Bradon, Vince Ector, Jerry McCune, at Bethany Baptist Church -  Image: Gregory Burrus

Don Bradon, Vince Ector, Jerry McCune, at Bethany Baptist Church -  Image: Gregory Burrus

In 1870 a small group of African Americans got together and worshiped somewhere in Newark, NJ.  Now let’s fast forward to more recent times when the Reverend M. William Howard, Jr., staying true to the mission of worship, assumed leadership as 12th pastor of Bethany.  According to Bethany Baptist Church history, Reverend M. William Howard, Jr.  guided the congregation through a series of facilitated discussions in developing the Church’s Mission Statement that commits the church and its members to “recruit, equip and deploy followers of Jesus Christ for discipleship and transforming service to others…” Among the initiatives Dr. Howard undertook by the culmination of his first decade as pastor in 2010 were a Jazz Vespers worship service that recognized Jazz for it sacred dimensions.   

What Makes a Successful Jazz Vespers? 

Well, I have attended a lot of the Jazz Vesper sessions, and I see many activities in action that led to continuing success such as strong, continuous church leadership, historic relationship with past musicians, connections to today’s jazz environment, members giving in service to the church, and finally some great jazz music.

Strong, continuous church leadership - Dr. Howard led the initiative in building a memorial plaza at the entry way of the church, amongst many other initiatives.  This plaza has stood the test of time and addresses the mission in that the memorial plaza remains a historical reminder of past members, including a long standing member, world renowned Jazz musician Earl May.

Historic relationship with past musicians - Earl May, born September 17, 1927, is one of the most prodigious and prolific bassists of the postwar era, lending his rich, round sound to sessions headlined by jazz icons John Coltrane, Chet Baker, and Dizzy Gillespie and many, many more.  Earl May passed in January 2008 at age of 80 and has a stone as a reminder and tribute in the Bethany Baptist Church memorial plaza.

Rashaan Roland Kirk- Multi Instrumentalist, Earl May -Prolific Bass Player -Image Composite Gregory Burrus

Rashaan Roland Kirk- Multi Instrumentalist, Earl May -Prolific Bass Player -Image Composite Gregory Burrus

Jazz Vespers History – The vespers committee is made up of members and there are a few historic connections.  One I will mention is between the Earl May, the legacy stone I mentioned above, and the wife of Earl May.  Lee May keeps the legacy alive by being a member of the Jazz Vespers committee and fully participates in the service side of helping folks feel comfortable when they come to the vespers.

Connections to Today’s Jazz Environment – Knowing who’s who in the Jazz environment and how to get the best musicians to play at your Jazz Vespers is a challenge for sure. Well how about having Dorthaan Kirk, known as Newark’s First Lady of Jazz without Playing a Note.  This title was bestowed upon Dorthaan Kirk a few years ago by John Schreiber, president and chief executive of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.  A very fitting title since Dorthaan Kirk is the widow of famed blind instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk.  Rashaan Roland Kirk played with the likes of Charles Mingus and Quincy Jones among many other famous jazz musicians.  With a past connection like that which means longstanding, deep connections to some of the best Jazz musicians around plus Dorthaan Kirk now works for WBGO jazz radio 88.3, a Newark public jazz station.  The respect she has along with other members of the jazz vespers comity is very evident in that top professionals show up year after year to play in the Bethany Baptist Church Jazz vespers program.

Jazz Vespers Member Lee May with Gregory Burrus at Jazz Vespers Fellowship after Bethany Baptist Church

Jazz Vespers Member Lee May with Gregory Burrus at Jazz Vespers Fellowship after Bethany Baptist Church

Members giving in service to the church - The church members are very enthusiastic about the program and attend on a regular basis.The members volunteer before, during and after the jazz vesper program to make sure visitors and musicians feel welcomed, regardless of your religion, race, or whatever.  They serve food after the evening in the hall downstairs which fills up with folks enjoying the food, discussing the Jazz and connecting with neighbors.

Enter Great Jazz Music at Bethany Baptist Church Jazz Vesper

Well with all that, who plays when it’s time to listen to some serious Jazz?  How about the best of the best in the Jazz arena?  Over time I have heard some of the best world class musicians playing in Bethany Baptist Church Jazz Vespers.  Familiar names like Junior Mance, Yvette Glover, Hilton Ruiz, Cyrus Chestnut, Jimmy Heath, Earl May, Lizz Wright, David ‘Fathead’ Newman, Mulgrew Miller, Slide Hampton, Sonny Fortune, Houston Person, and Geri Allen.  This year’s headliners consisted of Band of Bones, led by David Chamberlain, Courtney Bryan Quartet featuring Brandee Younger, Vincent Herring Quartet, the Peter Bernstein Group and Dee Daniels.

So musicians, looking for a new venue to play in?  Jazz fans, want a new place to listen to some great music?  Did I mention Bethany Baptist Church Jazz Vespers is Free?  Yup you get to enjoy the company of fellow members, in a spiritual environment, donate when you can, and let some really cool jazz music wash over you.  It’s another form of American Jazz, and it’s a great time for sure.

About the Writer

Gregory Burrus out enjoying Jazz with Dorthaan Kirk, Newark’s First Lady of Jazz

Gregory Burrus out enjoying Jazz with Dorthaan Kirk, Newark’s First Lady of Jazz

Gregory Burrus is a supporter of local businesses, community events, jazz, blues musicians and local art exhibitions.  On a regular basis Gregory promotes art, music, business, history, government and local community events through social media marketing, writing articles, blogging and photo journalism.  Gregory Burrus resides in beautiful, historic town of South Orange, New Jersey, the home of beautiful gas lamps, many historic buildings, some wonderful old trees, the South Orange Performing Arts Center, Seton Hall University, South Mountain Reservation and many gorgeous, vibrant, growing communities in the surrounding North Jersey towns and cities of Essex County.  Having fun living life while helping others. Connect with Gregory Burrus:  Facebook | Google+ | YouTube | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest | Vimeo