On the lectern at the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James

Swinging Praises

On a recent blustery Sunday, lively jazz music fills the high-ceilinged sanctuary of the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James in Wooster Square. The congregation trickles in, exchanging hellos and hugs. A five-piece band sits atop the stage riffing on Sonny Clark’s “Blue Minor.” As the tune fades, Reverend Alex Dyer, Priest-in-Charge at St. Paul and St. James, greets his guests.

“Good morning. Buenos días,” he says, stepping into the aisle between rows of pews. He asks everyone to turn to their neighbors and wish them good mornings as well.

“Good,” Dyer says. “Now that we’re all friends, let’s get up and sing.” Some piano kicks in. “And let’s sing like we mean it!”

And boy do they. The congregation shoots up and starts swaying, belting out a jaunty version of “We’re Marching to Zion.” Dyer sings too as he moves through the crowd, trotting up and down the aisle before taking a seat at the altar.

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This is a typical Sunday service at St. Paul and St. James, though it wasn’t always so. In 2010, attendance was dwindling, prompting church leadership to shake things up and switch from a traditional, organ-heavy format to a jazzier one. It had been working for the church at their once-monthly jazz vespers, a tradition started in 2006 by Emmy Award-winning composer and pianist Rex Cadwallader.

It was also in 2010 when the church wooed Dyer away from Trinity Church on the Green, New Haven’s oldest Episcopalian church, where he was the Associate Rector for Parish Life. He accepted the new gig as Priest-in-Charge, even though it was only a half-time position, meaning a pretty steep pay cut.

“I just felt a real sense of call to be here,” he says, “partly because of the wonderful history and partly because they were doing this new thing with jazz. Which was really exciting.”

It was also exasperating, at first. Singing from the congregation is a central part of Episcopalian liturgy, but the jazz didn’t immediately lend itself to that. Jazz’s building block is the eighth note triplet, not the straight eighth note of so much contemporary music, and its rhythms are highly syncopated, making for a steeper learning curve.

Meanwhile, jazz musicians are used to exercising a lot of freedom to perform a tune in whatever way the moment takes them. Indefinite improvisational sections are customary, and rhythm sections (drums, bass, piano and guitar), at least, often have sheet music scrawled with bare-bones chord changes and little else.

It’s a great way of doing things in a freewheeling jazz club but not so much in a church, where the audience has to be able to join in and follow along. “The point of the jazz ensemble is to support the congregation’s singing,” Dyer says. “I told them, ‘If the congregation isn’t singing, you have failed as musicians.’ I think their eyes got huge at that point because that is not what they’re used to. They’re used to performing.”

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But they got the hang of it pretty quickly, and soon after, the pastor and his players found a groove, blending some traditional worship elements with dashes of swing.

“We do what we call ‘a jazz mindset,’” Dyer says. “We haven’t thrown out classical hymns and all that kind of stuff,” he continues, but “sometimes, we take an old, familiar hymn and re-harmonize it or rearrange it for a jazz setting. Sometimes we do just play a hymn on the organ. And everything from Coltrane to Bach is in our repertoire.”

Dyer and the ensemble work collaboratively throughout the week to create the service, selecting hymns and readings that work well together, sprinkling in jazz standards wherever appropriate.

Perhaps the most interesting, jazz-like element of the Sunday Eucharist is the “Jazz Response.” Each week, Dyer writes a new, short sermon and delivers it in the middle of the service. Upon the sermon’s completion, the ensemble immediately launches into a musical response. Sometimes, the song is pre-chosen based on the particular mood or tone of the discourse, but sometimes the response is completely improvised. The musicians simply listen, concentrating hard on Dyer’s words and when he’s through, someone begins and the rest follow.

“It’s musical instant feedback to what people have perceived my sermon to be,” Dyer says, and it’s a respectful nod to the freedom and creativity of jazz performance. It allows for a nice moment of reflection, too. A sermon doesn’t zip through congregation member’s heads when they can sit for a moment to contemplate and interpret the day’s teachings.

Those teachings likely often reflect St. Paul and St. James’s deep commitment to social justice and helping the less fortunate. The church was the first in its diocese to elect women to the vestry in 1924 and was one of the first in New Haven to racially integrate, remaining racially and ethnically diverse to this day.

Every Saturday morning from 9am to 10:30, St. Paul and St. James helps upwards of 250 people in need by providing groceries, clothing and free basic medical checkups courtesy of Yale medical students. The program, called Loaves and Fishes, has been in existence for over 30 years and all are welcome, including volunteers.

Dyer’s beaming expression as he explains all this makes it clear he’s found his home. The “sense of call” he felt in 2010 is still there.

After the ensemble powers through a spirited version of “This Little Light of Mine,” through which Dyer sings along loudly, he sighs and addresses the congregation.

“I don’t know about you,” he says, “but I really needed that.” Congregants nod and smile, and follow him into prayer.

The Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James
Corner of Chapel and Olive Streets, New Haven (map)
Sunday services typically start at 10:30am and end around noon.
(203) 562-2143

Written and photographed by Jake Goldman.

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