The service that first evening will also be a special tribute to the late Ruth Ellington, sister of Duke Ellington. Through her, Gensel and her brother developed a close friendship that grew to Ellington consulting with him about sacred music. She also played a major role in helping Gensel to establish jazz vespers as well as in supporting his efforts when he brought The Jazz Ministry downtown to Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church at 54th Street and Lexington Avenue, in the Citicorp Building. There it continues to thrive 35 years later.
In a gala fundraising week, set for October 2nd- 9th, to support the church’s many jazz programs, Saint Peter’s “All Night Soul Jazz Festival 2005” is celebrating the first 40 years of its Jazz Ministry with live performances by jazz greats, documentary films including Shepherd of the Night Flock (which is about Rev. Gensel), artwork and photography by jazz musicians such as Jeremy Steig and Joe Wilder, tributes to women jazz legends and newly commissioned works of sacred music. Clark Terry, now 84, who led the first “All Nite Soul” with his big band in 1970, will be returning this year to do it again.
Having a week-long celebration of jazz vespers was the idea of Reverend Dale Lind, Assistant Pastor to the Jazz Community, who is co-chair of the event with producer, musicians’ manager and CUNY professor Andrew Rowan. Lind, a soft-spoken Maryland County native, sometime bartender and a former partner in the legendary club The Bitter End, has been associated with Saint Peter’s since he was fresh out of seminary in 1964. Lind helped Gensel to start the Jazz Ministry, which Lind says “...was really based on John’s personal relationship with jazz musicians and their being able to call on him any hour of the night or day. They gradually seemed to regard him as their minister.”
A jazz vespers worship service is conducted every Sunday at 5 pm. The music is jazz, sometimes original music and sometimes standards on a theme of the day connected to the lessons, with different musicians playing each week. “Musicians seem to love to play here,” says Lind. “They’re delighted to have their music being played in a church.” He doesn’t make a distinction between secular and religious music, saying simply, “Some vocalists think they have to sing ‘Come Sunday’. To me, ‘Stormy Monday’ is just as religious as ‘Come Sunday’.”
The Assistant Music Director for Jazz Ministry, Ike Sturm, himself a composer and bassist, is always looking for younger musicians and fresh faces to bring “an array of different music” for the vesper services. Among the notables he mentions as performing at the October 4th concert of sacred music and spirituals he’s producing are John Patitucci and possibly Nicholas Payton. The entire proceeds of that evening will benefit musicians in New Orleans.
Over the years another tradition which has evolved at Saint Peter’s is to conduct musicians’ memorial services. Among those celebrated have been many great sidemen who died in obscurity as well as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Phyllis Hyman, Billy Strayhorn, Tommy Flanagan, Mary Lou Williams and Gerry Mulligan. For Mulligan, Lind recalls that ironically, the man who had a famous piano-less quartet was celebrated by “three of the greatest pianists ever, George Shearing, John Lewis and Dave Brubeck.”
It’s always a busy schedule at Saint Peter’s. For the past 22 years on every Wednesday there’s been midday jazz in the church’s “living room”. Cabaret star Ronny Whyte co-ordinates this series. That season was recently kicked off by Barbara Carroll, (with Jay Leonhart), as she has done for many years. It’s also home to the Duke Ellington Society. A seminar series will begin shortly to address relevant subjects for musicians such as life on the road, health insurance and finances.
The Chair of Jazz Commission which guides the course of the Jazz Ministry, is Lynne Mueller, a soft-spoken, no-nonsense jazz fan who first turned up at Saint Peter’s years ago to attend the service for Ellington’s drummer Sonny Greer. A former president of the Duke Ellington Society, she speaks with a quiet intensity of the church’s goal of “missing no opportunities to reach out to musicians and music lovers. ...To become more widely known and to be a foundation for jazz in the church across the country and around the world,” mentioning delightedly the visits from enthusiastic fans from Europe and Japan who have read about the church.
Those who work at Saint Peter’s according to Sturm “...just consider themselves to be servants of the community.” Of the Jazz Ministry, Rev. Lind observes: “This has become a mecca for jazz musicians, their spiritual home for many... They and the people who love the music will always be welcome here.” And with anticipatory relish about the final evening of the Festival, he promises “We’re going to be making great food here all day on Saturday for that ‘Sunday All Nite Soul’.”
Clearly it is a feast that’s not to be missed.