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In the Beginning Was Jazz

In the Beginning was Jazz.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Brecon Jazz Festival, the Rev. Dr. Stephen Roberts explores the relationship between jazz and faith and looks back over the special jazz services held at Brecon Cathedral.

Producer: Karen Walker.

38 minutes

Last on

Sun 10 Aug 2014 08:10


Please note: 

This script cannot exactly reflect the transmission, as it was prepared before the service was broadcast. It may include editorial notes prepared by the producer, and minor spelling and other errors that were corrected before the radio broadcast.


It may contain gaps to be filled in at the time so that prayers may reflect the needs of the world, and changes may also be made at the last minute for timing reasons, or to reflect current events.


BBC Radio 4.  [time check]  On the weekend that sees the 30th anniversary of the Brecon Jazz Festival, Sunday Worship, presented by the Revd. Dr. Stephen Roberts, Senior Lecturer in Modern Theology at Chichester University, looks at the relationship between faith and jazz.  Over the years during the Festival Brecon Cathedral has hosted many Jazz services. Drawing on archive from these events we begin today with The Adamant Marching Band processing through a packed Cathedral as the Sunday morning congregation strikes up  ‘O When the Saints’ …



Music (O When the Saints! Brecon Jazz Service 2007)



Stephen Roberts:

Good morning and welcome to Brecon, in mid Wales. I’m standing on the bridge over the river Usk, which runs through the heart of the town, broad and gently flowing, untroubled by the changes this town has witnessed over the centuries, a symbol, if you like, of the constancy of the natural world amidst the continuous flow of history. To many, it speaks of the beauty of God’s creation, and thousands come here each year to delight in the stunning scenery of the Brecon Beacons.


Music  (Humphrey Lyttelton & his Band: Joshua)


Stephen Roberts:

But that’s not the only reason people come here.  For thirty years now, over a weekend in August, this small market town has hosted the internationally renowned Brecon Jazz festival, welcoming into its streets some of the great names of Jazz.  George Shearing, Humphrey Lyttelton, Wynton Marsalis, McCoy Tyner, Cleo Laine and Abdullah Ibrahim are just a few of the Jazz giants who have graced this town with the beauty and genius of their music.


Music continues.


Stephen Roberts:

Many associate Jazz with seedy bars and smoky clubs, and certainly it’s no stranger to such places.  So, what’s it doing in a nice place like Brecon?  Does it really belong in the midst of such outstanding natural beauty?  Well, what I’d like to explore is the idea that Jazz comes from, and points us back to, the very same source as the mountains that surround us here.  What I want to suggest is that:  ‘In the beginning was the Jazz, and the Jazz was with God...’


Music (Duke Ellington:  In The Beginning God)


One of the great Jazz musicians of all time, Duke Ellington, understood the relationship between Jazz and the creativity of God, as was magnificently displayed in his series of Concerts of Sacred Music in the 1960s. Here, exploring that theme of creation, is ‘In the beginning God’


Music continues

Stephen Roberts:

O God the source of all life,

from whom all things come and to whom all things return, we thank you

for the wonders of creation in which we glimpse your glory,

for the richness of human life in which we encounter your loving presence,

and for the joyful exuberance of Jazz in which we experience your prodigious creativity; teach us to use all the gifts you have given us to mend a broken world, to bring compassion to all who suffer, and to wonder continuously at the mystery of our existence, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen. 


Music     (Kairos Ensemble: Arms of the Everlasting)



For me, as a lover of Jazz and wannabe Jazz saxophonist, faith and Jazz go hand in hand; the one helps me understand and appreciate the other all the more.  That’s why I’ve so valued the opportunity over a number of years to come to the Sunday morning service during the Brecon Jazz Festival, which this weekend celebrates its 30th anniversary.   To mark that milestone, and to celebrate the important place of Brecon Cathedral in the festival, this morning’s programme incorporates some of the material recorded here in previous Jazz Services, including this favourite old hymn in which the enthusiastic congregation of Jazz lovers is accompanied by the traditional Cathedral organ and by the Adamant marching band, a regular fixture at the festival, ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord’.   



Music (Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.  Brecon Jazz Service 2002)



I’ve come now into the intimate grandeur that is Brecon Cathedral, where I’m joined by the Rt. Rev. John Davies, Bishop of Swansea & Brecon who, as Dean of the Cathedral, led those Jazz Services for many years ….


Short interview with Bishop John.


Music (trad jazz extract – Adamant Marching Band)



I still remember one of the first Jazz tunes I ever heard in my early teens, Keith Jarrett’s ‘Inflight’.  The power and intensity with which the music burst into my consciousness was like a musical ‘big bang’ that’s been unfolding for me ever since - a musical expression of the God who ‘flung stars into space’.  It remains with me, alongside many other examples of the sheer vibrancy, aliveness and creative excitement of Jazz.  For me, the belief that jazz can play a vital role in Christian faith, comes from reflecting on the beginning of John’s Gospel which is ready for us by the Rev. Caroline Owen.


Rev. Caroline Owen  Reading                     

John 1: 1-14   (NRSV)

The Word Became Flesh

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own,[c] and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God



In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God.  What if we were to replace ‘Word’ with ‘Jazz’?  In the beginning was the Jazz, and the Jazz was with God... and, even, the Jazz was God? 

When John talks about ‘the Word’ he refers to the creative word of God in Creation: ‘God said, let there be light, and there was light’ – God creates through the Word that he speaks, and creates extravagantly: a living, vibrant and expanding universe filled with diversity of life. This ‘Word’ is not something book-bound, but living, dynamic and active. The Word is the creative life force that is part of who God is eternally.   So… why replace this with Jazz?

For me Jazz is more than just a hobby.  Some of the times that I feel most alive are when I’m playing my saxophone with Wonderbrass, an extraordinary explosion of sound from an amazing group of people with whom I’m privileged to play, and who have played here in Brecon on many occasions.   In playing and listening to Jazz I find meaning and enrichment: my life and my world are enhanced and enlarged.  Playing and listening to Jazz I encounter something of the truth and reality that are at the heart of existence; I’m in touch with the creative principle of life itself; in touch… with God.   That’s why, for me, Jazz can function like John’s ‘Word’, as a way of thinking about and describing the creativity of God.

When Christians come to worship Sunday by Sunday, they’re coming to encounter the mystery at the heart of existence.

That’s why it’s such a great thing that the Cathedral has wholeheartedly embraced the Jazz festival and opened its doors to this wonderful music.


Music (David Newton: Blessed Land.  Brecon Jazz Service 2010)



One of the exciting features of the jazz service has always been the great music, with some wonderful interludes that provide such a great opportunity for prayer and reflection.  This piano solo is from the 2010 service, Blessed Land, played by David Newton.


Music continues.



For me, part of the beauty of the Psalms is precisely that they don’t only reflect the beautiful.  All of life is there expressed.  The psalms were the hymn book of a people who had been released from slavery.  And, as we’ll hear a few moments, the experience of slavery runs into jazz by way of the poignant longing of the spirituals and the visceral laments of the blues.  Listen to the words of Psalm 130:


Psalm 130            Rev. Caroline Owen

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;

Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.

I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.



Over the years that the service has been going, many clergy have had the opportunity to reflect in their preaching on the relationship between faith and Jazz.  I was delighted to get that gig myself a couple of years ago; but one of the outstanding sermons was delivered in 2007, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.  It was preached by the late Tony Crockett, who was then Bishop of Bangor. He was a lifelong lover of jazz who’d been a longstanding supporter of the Jazz service, and his sermon reflected that passion.  But Tony had been diagnosed with cancer – from which he would die not long after  -  and in an extract from that sermon – which contained some of the hallmarks of jazz – its sense of humour and also its pathos -  it was evident how his love of jazz also informed his faith and his theology.     


Sermon extract   The Rt. Rev. Anthony Crockett (2007)                  

Well, what a morning, as the old spiritual says!  Well, I’ve been an aficionado of the Brecon Jazz Festival since my days as the Rector of Dowlais in the late ‘80s   and, as you all know, Dowlais, over the Beacons, is the latin quarter of Merthyr Tydfil.  (laughter) I wonder how many of you remember Courtney Pine in 1992 in the Market Hall?  And did you wonder, like me, how can anyone make one breath last so long as he blew on his saxophone.  I remember George Shearing in 94 sitting at his piano on the stage at the Market Hall and saying, “I want to start with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and see where it goes from there” (laughter).  And he launched into the 1st Movement, the Adagio, and then he was off for fifteen minutes or so as he took us through a totally entrancing array of the most beautiful improvisation imaginable.  It was magisterial, inspiring, moving.

Now this year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire.  The ending of that crime against humanity, for that’s what it was, and a sin against the God of creation.  And yet if it weren’t for that hateful institution of slavery and its aftermath, especially in Dixieland, we wouldn’t be celebrating jazz here this weekend.  If that isn’t an example of divine and human improvisation I don’t know what is. For it was out of that combination of the deepest suffering , and its expression in biblical imagery and African rhythmic music that jazz grew in New Orleans, and then in the more secular atmosphere of New York and Chicago.

And it was absence of musical score, it was the presence of the African emphasis on rhythm, the beat, that has given us what we’re celebrating here this morning and this weekend.

I want to make one point this morning, and it’s this. Of all the forms of music, it seems to me it is jazz which offers us an integral pattern for coping with the brokenness of this world.  A world of pain and the denial of human dignity.  The secrets of its hope are not dissociated from that longing of people of colour that God would rescue them as in the story that he had once rescued the people of Israel from bondage in the land of Egypt.  It finds expression in this willingness, this drive, to improvise, which is such a feature of jazz.  To be willing to play with a theme, as George Shearing said in his market hall concert in 1994, and see where it goes, for our lives are what they are, and often not as we might wish them to be.  And the creative invitation to improvise is an invitation to be bold and to look for the possibilities.  The sad fact is, of course, that we do like to have our lives planned, doggedly to follow the musical score, as it were.  And then when something comes along which upsets our performance, and in Rabbi Burns’ words “the best laid plans of mice and men, gang aft agley”, what then? Disappointment.  Bitterness. Despair, even. Or perhaps, by God’s grace, a willingness to improvise on what life has given us.  You know, I have a feeling, that God creating in us as free willed creatures, has made us for that task, to improvise.  To take the theme of His creative love for us and to see where it goes.  You and I are not robots.  We’re not hard-wired to follow a programme.  We are persons free to respond to God’s creative love for us and to share in God’s work of creation and re-creation.  Remember that Christian people believe in a God who comes among us to improvise with those who have no score and to be called a glutton and a boozer, a friend of collaborators and low-lifers. And, you know, in a funny kind of way, in a white-knuckle kind of way perhaps, improvisation is an exciting way to engage with life.

Well, there we are.  God bless jazz.  God bless Brecon Jazz. God bless us all in our calling to improvise in the face of life’s challenges and filled with God’s spirit to produce some really great music in our lives.   Amen.  



Music (Beth Allwood and the Little Voice Band: Amazing Grace. Brecon Jazz Service 2008)


Stephen talks to the Rev. Caroline Owen, widow of Anthony Crockett the former Bishop of Bangor.


Music (David Rees Williams: When I Am Laid in Earth)



And now our prayers, led for us by Bishop John.


Bishop John Davies:

Creator God, we give you thanks for Jazz.  We thank you for Jazz musicians throughout the world and for the joy they bring to so many.  We pray for them in their work, that in their improvisations they may unfold the mystery of our existence.

Especially we pray for the Brecon Jazz Festival celebrating its 30th anniversary, and the work of this Cathedral in exploring the relationship between faith and Jazz.

Suffering God, we thank you for the meaning in the midst of pain and bewilderment that many have found through music.  We pray for those who suffer through sickness or loss, that they may receive the grace to improvise what is, and know the comfort of your presence with them.

We pray for those affected by the tragedy of conflict and warfare or the powerful forces of nature that in the midst of their devastation they may know the peace of Christ.

Liberator God, we pray for those who are trapped in slavery through poverty, oppression or addiction, that the subversive freedom expressed in Jazz may break through and topple the powers that enslave them.

We make these prayers through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.



And we end our prayers with Duke Ellington’s arrangement of the Lord’s Prayer, sung live by Esther Marrow during one of Ellington’s Sacred Music Concerts.


Music (Duke Ellington: The Lord’s Prayer)



The theologian Don Saliers has written widely about the relationship between music and faith. He has a wonderful description of worship as ‘humanity at full stretch before God’. The joy and pathos of Jazz can help us to live like that.   

So may the divine improviser inspire us to live life at full stretch, improvising what is, pursuing the elusive mystery at the heart of our existence; may God give us joy in the rich vibrancy of creation and sing the blues with us in times of sorrow.  And may the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be with us all, now and for evermore.  Amen. 


Music (He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. Brecon Jazz Service 2001)

Music (Adamant Marching Band: traditional jazz)



Sunday Worship came from Brecon with archive recorded in Brecon Cathedral. The service was led by the Revd Dr Stephen Roberts. The producer was Karen Walker. Next week Sunday Worship comes live from Gloucester Cathedral as the Royal School of Church Music’s Millennium Youth Choir and the Dean of Gloucester explore the theology of rest and relaxation during this holiday period.



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