Saturday, September 22, 2012

Canterbury Jazz Mass

I wrote this cover story  for the Oct. 7, 2012 issue of The Living Church magazine.

One Sunday morning this past June, seven American revolutionaries staged an assault on the sensibilities of some 800 worshipers gathered at Canterbury Cathedral for the 11 a.m. service, causing them to react in a most un-British way.

They applauded. For several minutes. And Dean Robert Willis was gobsmacked.

“English people don’t clap in church,” Willis declared, calling the service “an absolute triumph” and thanking the young Americans for “loosing up the whole church.”

Those rebels who shook up centuries of Anglican tradition were the seven musicians who make up the Theodicy Jazz Collective. They were in England to offer the world premiere of their commissioned work, “Canterbury Jazz Mass,” a five-movement Latin Mass, for which they were joined by the Cathedral’s choir.

“It’s a really neat way to put brush stokes on prayers, to bring them to life in a really cool way, a blending of ancient and modern.,” says Andy Barnett, Theodicy’s 28-year-old founder and band leader. “Jazz brings freedom into structure so there’s room for the spirit to move. It’s finding a middle path between freedom and structure. That’s an Anglican idea.”

That spirit will be moving again this fall when “Canterbury Jazz Mass: Tradition, Innovation and Christian Discipleship” has its American premiere Oct. 24 at Yale Divinity School, accompanied by the choir of the “super Anglo-Catholic” Christ Church of New Haven. “I hadn’t really thought of jazz as a middle way,” Barnett says. “I really stumbled into it, but now I see it has potential for Christian community.”

During an 80-minute phone interview from his home in the Berkshires town of New Lebanon, NY., Barnett, who is an Episcopal priest, as well as a music director and environmental science teacher at the Darrow School, a private boarding school, and worship developer at Zion Lutheran Church in Pittsfield, MA., shared how he was drawn, seemingly by accident, into this calling, which he now sees as “the evangelism of the 21st century.”

Raised Episcopalian at St. Luke’s Church in Minneapolis, he had little experience with jazz until, as a student at Oberlin College, he was asked to start an evening service for students at Christ Episcopal Church. An organist who also played in a Christian rock band, Barnett considered those the only two forms that represented church music. He reached out to Sarah Politz, a classmate who played the trombone, and they began to flavor the liturgy with the rhythms and the blues of jazz.

It worked so well they were asked to play at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland. Over two years this “morphed into a jazz service” that combined the Anglican eucharist with jazz improvisation. While the congregation said the prayers they knew, the musicians -- on trombone, bass, drums, piano and a singer -- backed them up with appropriate rhythms. In the case of the Psalm, for instance, everyone sang the eight measure antiphon, then while the congregation read the verses the musicians improvised the music.

“A big part of that was we were not just playing at them, we went out of our way to include them in singing with us,” Barnett says. “We want mystery, spice in our life for beauty that connects us with the holy. Jazz is a good way to do that.”

And that was how Barnett began see jazz as evangelism.

“People just started coming. It really took off, especially with young families. It was uninhibited joy, and it was consistent with the gospel. It was an important seed, that service.”

The seed continued to bear fruit when Barnett went to the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and brought his jazz evangelism to the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James in New Haven, where he served as music director through his last two years of school. During that time, he says, attendance nearly doubled and giving nearly tripled.

“It became a robust, hearty community and everybody there sort of felt the joy with the music or the mood of the blues,” he said. “It was a deep call for action. It empowered people to keep on following Jesus.”

He began hearing comments from parishioners about how the service carried them through the week. 

“It kept me going too. It reminded me this music is so packed with liberation and filled with joy you almost can’t help but move, and that gives people the will to keep going, and the church too. It was in trouble.”

Barnett’s next outreach of jazz evangelism seemed as much a “stumble into” as his others. Each year Berkeley students made a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. Barnett had no way of knowing just how much this experience would change his life when it was his turn to go.

“When I heard the first note from the choir they had me,” he said.

Wanting to hear more, he asked David Flood, the organist and master of choristers, if he could attend a rehearsal. Flood said yes, and Barnett invited him out for a drink afterwards. The setting was as appropriately ancient and new as what was to come out of that meeting -- a dimly lit 400-year-old pub with a man at an upright piano playing Abba and other songs from the 1970s. Flood and Barnett escaped to the back room and Barnett played a recording of some of Theodicy’s liturgical jazz, then took a bold leap and asked if the group could play at Canterbury.

“It was such a ridiculous thing to do,” he said. “They’re the mother church of the Anglican communion. They don’t mess around.”

But Flood recognized that Theodicy was onto something, and so it was arranged that the group would return in a year with a commissioned work. From that time Barnett and sax player Will Cleary, whom Barnett credits with being the major force behind the Jazz Mass, “composed completely from scratch” music to accompany the ancient Latin prayers of the church -- Kyrie, Gloria, Doxology, Sanctus and Benedictus.

Ann Phelps, the group’s singer, planned the 10-day trip, which grew to include offerings at Sheffield Cathedral, two other churches and the seminaries at Oxford and Cambridge. The tour ran on a $15,449 budget. Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, Yale Institute of Sacred Music, Evangelical Education Society of the Episcopal Church, and Canterbury Cathedral were major sponsors.   The tour was also sponsored (in smaller part) by donations from St. Mary's Primrose Hill, Sheffield Cathedral, Oxford University, and Cambridge University, and Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham.

In preparation and as a way to refine their work, the ensemble, which also includes David Chevan, Charlie Dye and Jonathan Parker, played 98 times between September 2011 and June of this year. 

“The group really came into its own,” Barnett said. “We played jazz in church every Sunday. The project was accidental but it was filled with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit.”

The Holy Spirit wasn’t the only member of the Trinity associated with the music. While on tour the group played for a confirmation service at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church in Great Missenden. Bishop Wilson sensed the tension from the congregants upon learning that they’d be hearing jazz in church. 

“Jazz is a great metaphor for what Jesus is calling the church to be,” he assured them. “joyful, free, trusting and ready to move.”

The tour was so successful that many of the venues have expressed hope that Theodicy will return. The group will also offer "Rhythm, Blues, and Proclamation: Jazz as a Resource for Church" in February 2013 at Sewanee: The University of the South.

 “It’s evangelism for the 21st century because it’s so multicultural -- rhythm of Africa, instrumentation and harmony from Europe,” Barnett says. “It’s God’s people’s yearning for liberation. I hope it will be a model of progressive evangelism and send people out to be the hands and feet of God.”

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it is about learning to dance in the rain.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

My friend Loraine Heller, who is teaching English in China for a year, shared this popular saying in that country: The road to success is always under construction.

Friday, September 14, 2012


Chaplin is a new Broadway musical about the life of screen legend Charlie Chaplin that is largely lifeless. What’s more, this show about a man who made millions of people roar with laughter is sorely lacking in humor.

I learned about Chaplin’s life in this large (24 people) show at the Barrymore Theatre-- his traumatic childhood with an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother, his start in show business as a child in the slums of London, singing in music halls with his mother, his rapid rise to success once he moved to Hollywood and the controversy that ended his film career. But I never felt any emotional connection to the character, portrayed by Rob McClure, or, at least in the first act, to the show, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle.

The first act portrays Chaplin’s genius at unearthing and growing the character that was to become the Little Tramp and make him a fortune, eventually with his own movie studio. But McClure doesn’t have the comic flare to capture that comic craziness.

His funniest moment occurs in act two (most of the best moments occur in act two) when he’s watching a news reel of Hitler and starts parodying him because “the son of a bitch stole my mustache.” Out of this came yet another successful movie, “The Great Dictator.”

But the world, and the movie business, changed sharply in the 30s. Chaplin resists moving into talkies, but is more than willing to talk out about his sympathies toward Russia, which eventually alienates his fans and leads to the dissolution of his career.

“I miss the days when you didn’t speak,” his friend Alf Reeves (Jim Borstelmann).

The show ends as Chaplin returns to Hollywood from Switzerland where he has been living for decades with his fourth wife, Oona O’Neill (Erin Mackey), and their eight children to receive an honorary Oscar. The ghosts of people from all stages of his life filter in to sing “This Man,” which was nice, but once again I didn’t feel any engagement between McClure and his character.

I did like the show’s atmosphere. Set designer Beowulf Beritt and costume designers Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz do a great job of creating the word of old movies by using shadings of black, gray and white almost exclusively. Even Angelina Avallone’s make-up carries out the gray theme.

Christopher Curtis’s music is sweet but his lyrics are pretty much forgettable even while they’re being sung, with the exception of two songs, “What’ cha Gonna Do (When It All Falls Down)?” and “The Life That You Wished For.” Curtis also wrote the book with Thomas Meehan.

Zachary Unger is excellent as young Charlie, appearing throughout the show in flashbacks, and Christiane Noll is moving as Charlie’s mother. Wayne Alan Wilcox is good as Charlie’s older brother, Sydney, who becomes his manager. The relationship between them is the strongest one in the show.

Chaplin comes to Broadway following a successful run two years ago at the La Jolla Playhouse where it received its world premiere under the title Limelight and won McClure a Craig Noel Award for Outstanding Lead Performance in a Musical and was voted Outstanding New Musical.

For more on the Broadway production, visit

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

SURPRISE! Happy Birthday, Dear Phil

If he wasn’t surprised, he sure did a good job of acting as if he were. When Phil Hall walked into the second floor dining room at Sardi’s Sunday and the close to 30 of us luck enough to call him friend shouted “Surprise,” tears welled in his eyes. It was a great start to a lively celebration of his 60th birthday, which actually won’t occur until Friday, when he will be in Paris.

Nobody deserves these good times more than Phil, a gifted composer, playwright and singer. We met in 2007 when I interviewed him about his play with music, Matthew Passion. We’ve been friends ever since. The room was full of people with similar stories. To meet Phil is to become his friend. He’s one of the kindest-hearted people I know.

Karen Arlington, a friend and performer in the singing group he founded and directs, The Philhallmonics, arranged most of the gathering, plotting for two months with the assistance of actor Jeremy Michael and fellow Philhallmonic singer Rachael Robbins.

For an especially appropriate touch, considering we were celebrating in Sardi’s, Rachael had commissioned the artist Age to draw a caricature of Phil, which during the time of the brunch hung on a pillar at the famed showbiz restaurant before heading home to Phil’s apartment.

Theatre folk came and went. Broadway favorite Melissa Errico, a voice student of Phil’s, arrived midway through the festivities with her 3 1/2-year-old twins, Diana and Juliette McEnroe, and joined the guest of honor table, at which I was fortunate to be sitting. (That’s me in the black dress clapping behind Phil in the photo.)

This being a Sunday afternoon in the theatre district, others left early to make their matinees performances-- Tommar Wilson and Michael James Scott headed for The Book of Mormon and George Dvorsky to Closer Than Ever.

Jazz pianist Dan Furman played throughout the afternoon. After brunch he was joined by the voices of some of the women in Phil’s life. Melissa sang “a nice little Irish song by two Jewish intellectuals,” “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” She asked the twins to be her backup singers but they declined, being more interested in the chicken fingers and fries the waiter had brought them since they arrived after brunch was served.

“They’re going to go to bed because I sing this at night,” she joked.

Several Philhallmonics serenaded the birthday guy as well. Mary Anne Prevost sang “I Wake Up in the Morning Feeling Fine,” Linda Sue Moshier sang “The Music That Makes Me Dance ,” Dolly Ellen Friedman presented “Razzle Dazzle,” Rachael Robbins “Roxie” and Arlington “Love Is Here to Stay,”

Two Philhallmonics wrote their own words to hits. Lenore Fuerstman’s contribution was a rewriting of “Mame,” to which we chimed in with Phil’s name replacing Mame’s. It was fun. Here’s a sampling:

“You mention stars, who’s played with a few?
“Phyllis, Nanette, and Angela, too!
“From humble roots in Durham, amazing what a worldly life you’ve led!
“Hand-holding countless ladies has put a couple gray hairs on your head!
“So now we celebrate your big day,
“We’re here cause Karen said she would pay,
“Your smile, your sense of humor, your talent and your sweetness and your heart,
“These are the things we love in you,
“There isn’t much that you can’t do,
“We’re all your fans you know it’s true,
 “Your music’s inspirational
“Your coaching’s educational,
“We think you’re just sensational,
 “Phi-il, Phi-il, Phi-il, Phi-il, Phi-il!”

Diana Silva gave her spin to “Second Hand Rose” with “Happy Birthday, Phil Hall:”

“So Happy Birthday, Phil Hall.
“We love you, Phil,
“There’s no one else like you,
“Unsurpassed in your skill,
“Even when you play your ol’ piana,
“You’re the best of our songbook Americana.
“We sing from our hearts,
“Thanks to you, Maestro Phil.
“You teach us how to belt perfectly,
“Singing from my belly, I’m now deeper than before.
“Just like Franco Corelli I can access my core.
“Phil, you’re a wiz.
“Yes, you’re the best in the biz.
“So Happy Birthday Phil to you,
“Phil from Seventh Avenue ….Nu?”

Diana is one of my favorite Philhallmonics. I’ve seen her in three of the group’s concerts and she always stands out with the intensity of her presence and the emotional rendering of each song she solos. I got to meet her before Phil arrived and tell her that.

“As soon as I spoke to him on the phone I knew I would like him,” she said, explaining that he had been recommended to her when she was looking for a vocal teacher to guide her from the Early Music she was used to singing into popular music. “He helps you get out something that is deeper. You feel very vulnerable and that’s the place to be. He’s so encouraging. He gives you 300 percent.”

And on Sunday, we got to give a little of that encouragement and love back to him. Happy Birthday, Phil!