Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Jazz in this House

Churches have become one of the few sectors of American society bullish on jazz. More and more houses of worship are integrating jazz into their services. Along with St. Peter’s in New York, St. Augustine’s in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans stands as one of the original churches to minister to and with the jazz community. After Katrina, the Catholic diocese announced plans to close St. Augustine’s, but granted a stay to allow the congregation to try to meet certain goals, including fundraising targets. A recent Reuters report is optimistic they can make it, but the Times-Pic sounds less confident.

In New Orleans Playing a Jazz Chorus, Samuel Charters describes St. Augustine’s:

“It was certainly the only church in the world where a flamboyant portrait of Louis Armstrong hung next to a stained glass window depicting the Virgin. Under a 19th century oil painting of Jesus across the church, Louis, in a green tuxedo jacket, raised his trumpet—and eyes—as if in tribute. On a nearby wall, Louis smiled cheerfully in close-up, while just above him, Christ, bearing his cross, was being flogged by a vengeful figure behind him. There were paintings of Mardi Gras Indians, who gather close to the church in their costumes on Mardi Gras. Hanging from the arch before the altar was the church’s marching banner. It was made of green felt with gold fringe, and in the center was a painting of Louis Armstrong.” (p. 188)

St. Augustine’s boasts a rich and instructive history. Its famous parishioners include Homer Plessy (vs. Ferguson) and Sidney Bechet. It was the first church to reserve space for captive slaves to worship and was the site of the founding of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family, “the second-oldest African-American congregation of religious women.” In 2004 The Tomb of the Unknown Slave was dedicated on church grounds with a plaque donated by the estate of legendary musician and youth bandleader Danny Barker.

Jazz @ Lincoln Center will soon host the fifteenth anniversary concert of Wynton Marsalis’ In This House, On This Morning. Along with St. Peter’s, St. Augustine’s has established the tradition of sacred jazz that inspired Marsalis and many other composers and musicians. The St. Augustine’s community thinks they have almost made it. You can support their efforts here.