Sacred Jazz: An Interview with Deanna Witkowski | Sojourners

Sacred Jazz: An Interview with Deanna Witkowski

090415-deanna-witkowskiCongregational worship music has plenty of variety these days. Depending on the church, you could hear traditional hymns, a gospel choir, or arena rock. What's harder to find on a typical Sunday morning is a jazz quartet. For many of us, jazz music is reserved for smoky nightclubs or public-radio broadcasts. That's why pianist/singer Deanna Witkowski is something of an anomaly. She's a musician who feels as much at home in a secular club as an evangelical sanctuary.

Witkowski, 37, is a graduate of Wheaton College who left Chicago in 1997 to pursue her musical dreams in the Big Apple. While working at various New York churches, where she composed original hymns and directed gospel choirs, she has built a career as one of jazz music's most exciting young talents. With From This Place, her fourth major album, Witkowski combines her love of jazz with her love for God to create something she calls "sacred jazz." We spoke to her as she prepared to celebrate Resurrection Sunday.

URBANFAITH: What is sacred jazz, and how is it different from regular jazz music?

WITKOWSKI: "Sacred jazz" is a term that I use for lack of a better one. I call the music on From This Place "sacred jazz" because it takes sacred texts -- from the Mass, scripture, and 19th century hymn texts -- and sets them in the medium of jazz.

To be honest, I don't see my music as being either "sacred" or "secular" -- in fact, I write in the liner notes to From This Place that "I view all music as sacred, if it is made with intent to heal, uplift, and rejuvenate spirits." So, in a sense, I'm using the term "sacred jazz" solely as a way for listeners to have a heads up that there is a bit of a different focus with this new recording in contrast to my previous recordings, which don't have the sacred text aspect.

Who are some of the most significant sacred jazz artists?

Again, many of the musicians who have done "sacred jazz" have had that as only one aspect of their larger work. I'm thinking of Mary Lou Williams, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck; also, Ike Sturm, Bill Carter, Chuck Marohnic. These last three players are currently very active in their churches, either as pastors or music directors, and actively compose new music for liturgy.

How did your latest album come together?

It's a culmination of years of work. The genesis of several of the pieces came from my time as music director at All Angels' Church in New York, where I served from 1997 to 2000. I came to All Angels' knowing that the church wanted to fill that position with a composer and pianist who could write and play in many different styles.

After I left All Angels', I started wondering if other churches might be able to use the music I'd written for their own congregations. I started booking concerts and services in various churches when I'd travel, and this eventually led to being asked to write several of the other pieces on the album. Three of the pieces -- "Let My Prayer Rise," "Christ the Light," and "Song of Simeon" -- were commissioned for use in a jazz hymnal and have texts that are used at evening prayer services.

One thing that was very different for me in preparing for this particular recording was the amount of time that I spent with all of the texts. I sing more on From This Place than on any of my earlier three recordings, and because of the nature of the texts themselves I devoted a lot of energy to meditating on praying through the various texts. For instance, with my setting of the "Kyrie," where the text is basically just "Lord, have mercy" and "Christ, have mercy," I made a list of specific images or situations where I wanted to ask God to have mercy. All of this, I think, influenced how I sang the text. Doing this recording gave me the privilege of going back and really experiencing what these texts and musical settings mean for me on a deeper level.

From This Place is also the title of a track on the album. Can you talk about the significance of that song?

The title track was written for an Easter jazz vespers that my quartet played two years ago at Saint Peter's Church in New York. I wanted to compose something new for Easter, and so I meditated on one of the passages for the day, which tells the story of Mary Magdalene going to Christ's tomb three days after his crucifixion. She finds the tomb empty and thinks that Christ's body has been stolen, and asks a gardener what has happened with the body. The gardener replies by speaking Mary's name, and Mary recognizes that the gardener is the risen Christ.

As an act of reflection, I started imagining what Mary might have felt like from the moment she woke on this particular morning until the moment where she recognized Christ. In writing the words, I wanted to give a sense of what must have been an overwhelming emotional journey for Mary on this particular day. Before recording this piece, I told my band about the overall dynamic movement and sense of what is going on in the text and music: The piece basically has a slow build into the section where Mary is asked by two angels why she is weeping. At that point, her mind races:

I wonder if they want to hear the story of my life/ the deadness that I'd carried before I met this Christ/ my aloneness in hiding from the hurts that I'd received/ my fearfulness in not knowing now in whom I could believe/ but even as my mind is racing now I sense behind/ I turn around to find a man is standing by my side/ he asks me why I weep and who I'm looking for inside/ I ask him if he's taken the body of my Christ/ he answers me by speaking my name...

At that point, Mary experiences a moment of heaven breaking open and knows that she has seen the Lord. She runs "from this place" to tell the world that Christ is alive. I didn't have a title for this piece for about a year -- I just called it the "Mary Magdalene song." But as I began to think about the whole recording, I liked the idea that I am coming "from this place" -- "this place" meaning a focus right now on this sacred jazz, on being a strong musician and a committed Christian, and on just being who I am and not caring so much what others think.

What kind of reactions have you received so far as you've been promoting the album?

Because of the nature of this project, it doesn't fit neatly into an established genre. The jazz publicists have said that they love the music but don't know what to do with it. I understand for radio formatting that not everyone is going to want to air a religious song in a regular jazz show. They might decide to air it on the Sunday morning gospel show, but I'm not sure this music even fits with a gospel show. It's a different kind of project, and I've realized there are very few people who are doing this kind of thing.

And let's face it, there aren't that many opportunities on the radio to hear regular jazz anymore, let alone a faith-based jazz.

To be honest, my album isn't even just jazz -- the record crosses a bunch of musical genres. So if the term "jazz" gets in the way of having someone check it out, then I'm all for dropping that moniker. I don't sit down at the piano and say, "Today I'm going to write some jazz." Unless I'm commissioned for something specific, I'm just writing music. And with my background in both classical and jazz, and as someone who plays a lot of Brazilian and Latin styles, what comes out of my pen is often all over the map.

As I was describing some of your music to an acquaintance, that person said to me, "I just can't worship with a saxophone in the song." Her comment wasn't meant as a judgment or anything, but I think it's representative of how a lot of Christians look at certain styles of music. Many probably struggle with fitting jazz, and other styles that you don't usually hear on a Sunday morning, into their conception of what constitutes "worship music."

First, I'd ask your friend to just sit down and listen to the music. God wants to use anything -- even saxophones -- to reach people in any way He can. I think people can sometimes set up mental roadblocks to experiencing something new. God created the saxophone, and He created musicians who worship Him with the saxophone who are sensitive to the environment in which they're playing. My saxophonist, Donny McCaslin, actually helps to accentuate some of the text by how he weaves around my singing, or leaves silence, or harmonizes with me. His playing itself is so expressive and emotional. I would encourage your friend -- or anyone -- to listen first before dismissing it.

Sounds like you've dealt with these kinds of criticisms before.

Sure, and I realize that everyone has different musical tastes. But the problem is when we attach moral judgments to our tastes. For instance, I once had someone come up to me after a service where I'd played part of an original mass setting, and this person told me that she couldn't worship with my setting. The implication was that my music was somehow inappropriate or not worshipful enough. (She prefaced this by saying that she'd prayed about whether or not to tell me this). I told her as diplomatically as I could that I'm not responsible for her personal worship experience during a service, and that there may be certain pieces that she just isn't drawn to musically. She could choose to sing or to silently pray the text, but to make a judgment that the music is not good because it's not serving someone's particular musical tastes -- that's just wrong. Church is not supposed to be a shopping mall experience where we search until we find exactly what we want -- or fight until we get it. We are in community, so there will be some things that we like and some things we dislike. That goes for musical styles as much as for anything else.

So, from your perspective, what makes music worshipful?

I'd say that it's similar to what makes washing dishes worshipful, or being a lawyer worshipful, or being a mom worshipful; it's the intent behind the action. If my intent in playing and singing is to glorify God, it's going to be worshipful for me. I can't judge what someone else will find worshipful.

That's not to say, though, that I'm not sensitive to others when I'm in the role of worship leader. There needs to be a particular sensitivity involved in leading people in congregational singing. My intent is still to worship God, but I may have to change how I approach playing or singing a piece to fit that particular congregation or the needs of occasion. It's about being sensitive to the environment. Any good musician is going to understand her or his function -- whether that function be to take a solo, to have interplay within a group, to lay down a groove, or to serve a congregation's song in playing in a way that reinforces the text or the mood at any specific point of the service.

Your music has always drawn from different cultural styles. How did you develop a love and curiosity for other cultures?

I was recently on a panel at Wheaton College with [bassist] John Patitucci, who played on my album. One thing that John emphasized that day that I really like is that we live in one world. We don't live in a Christian world some of the time and the secular world the rest of the time. One of the things I like about Catholicism is its emphasis on seeing God in all things. If God is present in all things, then He's present in the joyful feel of a samba, in the depth of a jazz ballad, in reggae, in Latin jazz, in salsa.

For two years, I worked as a music director at a church that had one of its services in Spanish. If I had come into that situation and played straight-sounding hymns, the majority of folks wouldn't have been able to relate to the music. But since I play a lot of Latin and Brazilian jazz, I was able to take some hymns and add a salsa feel, or a cha-cha, or a samba. The people loved it. It's funny to me sometimes to think about how I was the white girl leading a large congregation that was primarily Ecuadorian, Colombian, and other Latin cultures. But I also think that people appreciate when you show respect to their culture, when you eat their food, when you learn their language, or play their music. In a sense, you're welcoming them into your life and they have a chance to welcome you into theirs.

Why don't we see more of that kind of musical diversity in our American evangelical churches?

In white America, we tend to separate music from our everyday lives. I like how African and Latin American cultures don't do that. They know how to express the height and depth of emotions in music, in dance, in community. Isn't the church supposed to be about celebrating community? We live in a global community where we have access to many different styles of music, and we should take advantage of that.

How can churches use their music to encourage diversity and bridge cultural divides?

I wish that in general there was more openness among music leaders in learning from different cultures and traditions. For instance, I now attend a Catholic church where there is an interim music director who formerly served in Episcopalian churches. Right away I noticed how some of the "Protestant hymnody" outside of the usual Catholic hymns were incorporated into the service. And that's fine. I would hope that churches could learn from each other -- if music directors were actually given several Sundays off per year where they were asked to do research -- perhaps by attending a church of a different denomination or ethnic group -- they might find more resources for their own congregations.

Also, I do think that there is a wealth of great hymnody, as well as some hymns where perhaps the words are great and the music isn't, or vice versa. The challenge can be to take some of these pieces and arrange them in such a way where their meaning can be opened up. That's one thing that I really like on From This Place -- that I'm taking familiar text like "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior" and writing new music that allows a new experience of the text. It's just like in jazz: there has to be reverence for tradition but also a bringing in of new ideas so that we're not simply venerating the past. We're supposed to be living the tradition, which means that we are living it in present time. There are so many musical styles available to us today other than worship choruses, hymns, and pop music -- I would hope that the church's thinking would expand in regard to useable musical styles -- maybe there could even be saxophones!

portrait-edward-gilbreathEdward Gilbreath is director of editorial for Urban Ministries Inc., editor of, and the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity. He blogs at Reconciliation Blog. This article appears courtesy of a partnership with

Hear Deanna this Easter on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Sunday. For more information about Deanna, and to hear samples of her music or order CDs, visit her Web site at

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