At the start of Bright Sunday worship services, Rev. Stephen Sturgeon told his congregation at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Logan that this meeting would be different.
“Remember, this is the one time each year when it is acceptable for Episcopalians to shimmy and shake during worship,” he said. “You may dance, clap, and even raise your hands above your waist.”
And they did, with the help of the Jon Gudmundson Jazz Combo, lead by the director of Jazz Studies at Utah State University.
Gudmundson’s ensemble — with Maureen Killila on vocals; Nate Ostermiller on guitar; James Schaub on bass; and Sam Bryson on drums — sprinkled hymns and gospel songs throughout the service.
“To me, it’s not so much bringing them together as it is bring them back together,” Killila said, referring to jazz and liturgy. “They used to be more together, certainly in other parts of the country and other parts of history.”
The band kicked things off with Isham Jones’ 1936 standard “There Is No Greater Love” as a prelude to the gospel “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” It only took a few bars before Gudmundson, on saxophone, emerged from behind his music stand and began animatedly soloing close to the congregation.
During communion, the band performed Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5,” at the request of Sturgeon. Gudmundson played a few lines of the song’s famous saxophone riff and Ostermiller, Schaub and Bryson got their turn in the spotlight as well, doing solos for over 10 minutes as members surrounded the altar for their chance to participate in communion rituals.
Gudmundson’s band concluded service with a nod to jazz’s roots, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Members stood up, clapped and danced as Sturgeon took the hand of another member to dance down the aisle.
The Sunday after Easter is known as Bright Sunday, meant to “celebrate the joke that God played on the Devil when he raised Jesus from the dead,” Sturgeon said in an interview with The Herald Journal. As such, an often humorous sermon would be the centerpiece of services at St. John’s that day.
“Bright Sunday became an occasion to tell kind of a ‘Joke Sunday,’” Sturgeon said.
A reverend who served the Logan Episcopal church before Sturgeon spoke with Gudmundson about having Jazz Mass on Bright Sunday, which he agreed to do.
“So we were having jokes and jazz,” Sturgeon said.
Then, after the Right Rev. Scott B. Hayashi, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, attended Bright Sunday services at St. John’s, he informed church officials they could no longer joke about the devil on that day.
In place of the humorous sermon, Sturgeon switched to reading the annual Easter statement from Bishop Michael Curry, who is remembered for his speech at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.
But the main focus of the Bright Sunday service at St. John is jazz, Sturgeon said.
“When we went to doing this service, it was not a difficult transition,” he said. “We take a lot of gospel hymns or spirituals and do jazz arrangements, and Jon’s very good at that.”
Church member Teri Painter said she enjoyed Jazz Mass.
“It’s so nice to just listen to Jon playing again. He’s really quite something,” she said. “This church is all about music.”
Another church member, Georgiana Banellis, said in some ways, Jazz Mass sends a uniquely spiritual message.
“The Devil is not happy ... but we are,” she said. “We’re joyous because Christ is here now. The resurrection has come.”
“ALL THIS SPACE”
Sturgeon said the concept of Jazz Mass originates in Louisiana — the home of Mardi Gras and funerals that include a procession of musicians.Sturgeon believes Jazz Mass is appropriate for post-Easter services for the “pure energy and joy” that it brings, as the holiday is a celebration among churchgoers of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“You would not do a Jazz Mass during Lent,” Sturgeon said with a laugh. “That would make no sense.”
Lent is a period of fasting or giving up luxuries of life in preparation for Easter, a symbolic way of commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion.
Killila thinks jazz music is appropriate for church service because she believes “God doesn’t necessarily want us just to sit and take a structured approach to things.”
Killila also believes there’s a correlation between jazz’s improvisational nature and Sunday service itself.
“To me, it’s really using all the space you can find. That’s what Jazz is about — to find space in the structure (of the song),” she said. “So, it’s just everybody finding all this space for joy.”
Gudmundson agreed with Sturgeon that jazz and just about any kind of music is suitable for church service. Holding Jazz Mass isn’t any different than what members of the church were doing centuries ago when the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was new, he said.
“Back then, the world was a lot quieter,” Gudmundson said. “Imagine what it must have felt like to walk into that amazing cathedral in 1300 and hear them fire up that organ. It would have been rocking the house. It would have been happening.”
So, “we’re just doing what has been done always,” Gudmundson said.He hoped people found his band’s performance uplifting.“The idea is to get the message across. If you put it to a song, it makes it easier to remember,” Gudmundson said. “Some of these things that we do have been said or chanted for a long time. Because of that, there are some real weight to those words.”
Gudmundson noted how every so often, Sturgeon will change up the words used in prayers.
“I really prefer the old way,” Gudmundson said with a laugh. “But when we do the new way, it shakes me out of my usual thing and it makes me think about the words and the meaning more because it’s a different way of saying it.”
And the same can be said for when jazz is applied to songs sung during mass, he said