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Peoria Presbyterian Church Gets Jazzy

Vesper services to mark the passing of day and the onset of evening are a tradition that derives from monastic life, and dates as far back as the 6th century.  Much Vesper music is based on the melodic lines of Medieval Gregorian chant.

If you pop in Sundays for 4 p.m. Vespers at the beige brick Westminster Presbyterian Church on West Moss Street in Peoria, you’re like to hear something that sounds more like the music of Dave Brubeck  In fact, the motto of Westminster’s evening’s prayer service is “Swing A New Song Unto the Lord.” 

Westminster is taking an ancient prayer tradition and renewing it with contemporary jazz. David Hoffman, a local jazz icon who for 13 years was once the composer-arranger for the Ray Charles Orchestra, leads the Sunday combo.

“The act of making music is intrinsically spiritual, at least for me. It all goes together, at least in my sensibilities," Hoffman said, seated at his piano one Sunday before the Vespers service began.

A soft-spoken man with a long beard and silver hair that reaches below his collar, Hoffman plays both trumpet and piano at the church. He also teaches at Knox College and Bradley University.

“There is usually a theme every week. This week’s theme is light, and I do try to evoke something about the spiritual theme involved. I like the feeling of a Vesper service having roots in that monastic feel and so I try to do something appropriate, he said.

This particular service features a composition co-written by his old boss, Ray Charles, called "Light Out of Darkness." 

Hoffman also creates an original composition for each service. This week, it’s a meditative piece he titled “Wave Particle Duality.”

“I started out with a simple chord progression that goes from A to F  with that F being in one of the ancient modes called the Lydian mode. It kind of sounds expansive," Hoffman said as he played the chords on the  grand piano in Westminster's sanctuary.

"And if I put that in a jazz context of say three-four time, then you can come up with little themes with that," he added. "You don't just take a hymn and put a jazz rhythm to it. That to me is kind of an easy way out. We want to do things in a way that creates a little more depth.”

There are spoken prayers and a sermon in between songs, but it’s clearly the music that brings people in.

In addition to Hoffman, the Vespers combo includes Andy Crawford on bass, Jamika Russell on vocals and Bob McIntyre, a medical doctor from Bloomington who drives in to accompany the group on drums.

Hoffman says the jazz service has put him back in touch with his own religious roots.

“I was raised in Springfield, and went to the First Christian Church, which I don’t even know what kind of denomination it was. I was an irregular church goer, on the road for 13 years, so my going to church was basically visiting whatever I could."

Pastor Denise Clark-Jones says her mostly white, middle-aged, and elderly congregation hopes the jazz service will appeal to a broader group of people -- especially those seeking a spiritual community.

“Jazz is uniquely American, but it also crosses cultural boundaries. Virtually every ethic community has its form of jazz, sort of the melting pot of  music. And I think that’s what we’re all about in terms of the gospels, breaking down barriers," Clark-Jones said.

Hoffman called the Vespers service "an outreach to try to reach as many people as you can and bring them into a community that’s supportive and where people like being here.”

Westminster has a long history of supporting local and regional artists and musicians through its Gretchen Iben Arts Series. 

It will soon be a year since the church started its Jazz Vespers. Brooks Daniel said the service has grown from attracting mainly people like him, a longtime church member, to bringing in outsiders who hear about the jazz through word of mouth.

“I think jazz creates a context in which you can hear new things in old doctrine and you can hear some stuff you’ve never heard before," Daniel said.

Presbyterian churches are traditionally known for their rectitude and seriousness. So have any congregation members objected to giving this ancient prayer practice some new varnish?

Not so, said longtime congregation member Marge Willadsen.

“I have not heard anything negative and that’s unusual. When there’s a change usually somebody is going to complain about it, but I have not heard any," Willadsen said.

Pastor Clark-Jones agrees.

“Jazz is an interesting format. Much of the music comes out of a religious background from gospel music and it’s very participatory and free-flowing and that lends itself to a faith experience and worship," she said.

Hoffman has performed on five continents and with such musicians as Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Willie Nelson and Randy Travis. He says he’s content to be home again in central Illinois, and has found a spiritual base at Westminister Church.

“I was thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I walked in and managed to get the alarm off without setting it off -- which the first time I came here I did that -- but  I walked in and thought this is feeling like home. The congregation makes me feel very much at home and I’m making music here.”

And making music, Hoffman said, is what he was born to do.

The 4 p.m. Sunday Jazz Vespers service at Westminster are free and open to the public.