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Jazz & Saint Peter's: Five Decades Together

posted Jul 3, 2014, 11:35 AM by Lee Mergner

A History of Jazz at Saint Peter’s


By James E. Pitt (written in 2003)


In the beginning, nearly 39 years ago, many churchgoers as well as the jazz community looked with varying degrees of suspicion, bewilderment, and apprehension at a singular action of the Lutheran Church in America's Board of American Missions: an official call for a full-time Pastor to the Jazz Community--the first of its kind in the world.


That unusual announcement in 1965 was a milestone in religious annals, culminating several years of service and devotion to a pastoral ministry to a very diversified, talented and peripatetic group of human beings.


Like jazz, the Ministry evolved not from a traditional music score or long theological study, but spontaneously, ad lib, from deep feelings and needs. It was, in fact, invented and nurtured into being by John Garcia Gensel. As the Board noted in its recommendations: "There is a jazz  community which needs a Christian ministry and, in Pastor Gensel, our church has a qualified and experienced missionary."


Equally important, despite some early doubts and fears, members of Saint Peter's Church accepted both the missionary (as Associate Pastor) and the mission as a vital new work of the Church and unstintingly gave financial and affectionate support through the years.


Some congregants, of course, still have trouble distinguishing between ragtime and a riff. But they have watched and prayed and participated and grown in their appreciation of the need for and the spiritual validity of the Ministry. Through changed customs and disrupted patterns of worship, hand-clapping, foot-stomping crowds with an astounding range of dress, ethnic back-ground, speech and decorum, and unfamiliar, sometimes disturbing tonalities, the congregation has steadfastly kept the faith and the Ministry alive and well. And for most, there is today a quiet pride that the Ministry's unique attraction for all media has helped make Saint Peter's "The First Church of Jazz" and one of the best-known Lutheran churches in the world.


It was almost miraculously serendipitous that such a man and mission were joined. Born February 16, 1917, in the tiny Puerto Rican village of Manatã, the young Juan Garcia hardly seemed the candidate for the titular accolades he would earn in later years: the patron saint of jazz, the human jazzmobile and, in Duke Ellington's tone poem from his Second Sacred Concert dedicated to his "Special Reverend, The Shepherd Who Watches Over the Night Flock.”


The struggling Garcia family felt young Juan would have a better opportunity on the mainland and sent him (at the age of six) to live with an aunt (whose family name was Gensel) in the small farming town of Catawissa, Pennsylvania. He got on well, became a hard-working student and a baseball and soccer star in high school. In 1933, then a teenager, he went to a dance in Berwick, Pennsylvania, saw and heard the great Ellington Orchestra, and became a lifelong fan of what Dr. Billy Taylor has named "America's classical music."


John Garcia Gensel went on to complete his college and seminary studies and entered the ministry in Mansfield, Ohio. He next served as a Navy Chaplain on Guam, then as "Atomic Pastor" to nuclear power plant workers living in trailers in Ohio. After ministering to two congregations in Puerto Rico, he was assigned to New York's Advent Lutheran Church at Broadway and 93rd Street in 1956. During this time, when the Big Apple's concrete canyons were alive with the sound of swing, Pastor Gensel's interest in jazz continued and expanded. He read jazz historian Marshall Stern's book, The Story of Jazz, attended Stern's course at the New School, and began visiting jazz clubs as part of the curriculum. He loved the music but, more importantly, he began to know, talk with and understand the special lives and problems of the musicians. They soon responded to his warm and open manner and his genuine interest in their music and their troubles.


For three years, he "moonlighted" as a missionary to the night people. But the hours got longer and longer and he persuaded church officials to allow him to devote half his time to the cause. In 1965 the full-fledged Ministry came into being. As one writer then noted: "It is a highly unusual flock—one not defined by dogma or measured by geography, assets or membership rolls."


The first of over 1,500 Jazz Vespers, the most visible part of this unorthodox Ministry, was held in 1965 with Pastor Gensel and trumpeter Joe Newman collaborating on a jazz service composition, “O Sing to the Lord a New Song.” In 1970, the first All Nite Soul, a 12-hour jazz marathon, was held to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Jazz Vespers. In October 1995, the 25th anniversary of what is now the city's longest-running jazz festival will be celebrated.


Vespers and other services, special concerts, the commissioning of jazz masses and other compositions for Vespers, have provided hundreds of jazz artists with opportunities to communicate with God in their own words, with music they feel, and in an atmosphere of acceptance. Before the Jazz Ministry, neither the jazz performer nor the music that is his or her life seemed welcome in any church. Now it is as natural for Eddie Bonnmere or Tommy Flanagan to sit down in the sanctuary at the keyboard of Billy Strayhorn's personal Steinway (which he donated to the Ministry) or Jane Jarvis to swing a Christmas carol, as it is for Choirmaster Thomas E. Schmidt to play “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” on Saint Peter's famed Klais pipe organ.


Pastor Gensel, as his successor Pastor Lind continued to do, officiated at many weddings and baptisms, as well as countless funerals and memorial services for both little-known and legendary musicians and champions of jazz, including Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, King Curtis, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, Eubie Blake, Alberta Hunter, Erroll Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Roy Eldridge, Sarah Vaughan, Teddy Wilson, Major Holley, Zoot Sims, Eddie Barefield, Bill Evans, Mel Lewis, John Hammond, Barney Josephson, and Max Gordon.


In January 1994, Pastor Gensel retired and Dale Lind, who was the interim jazz pastor, received the unanimous recommendation of Saint Peter's Parish Council and the affirmative vote of the congregation in July 1994 to succeed Pastor Gensel as Pastor to the Jazz Community.


A longtime jazz aficionado, Pastor Lind has been a friend and associate of Pastor Gensel's for more than 30 years. Both attended the same seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Born in York, Pennsylvania, Pastor Lind received his Bachelor of Divinity in 1964 from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, and a Mas-ter of Sacred Theology in 1970 from the New York Theological Seminary. His first call was in 1964 from Saint Peter's congregation to be its Assistant Pastor. In 1968, he accepted a call to special service in a self-supporting "Worker-Priest" ministry of the Metropolitan New York Synod. He served in that capacity until the late 1970s.


Pastor Lind credits Dave Brubeck's 45 rpm recording of “Take Five” with triggering his life-time love of the makers and sounds of jazz, aided by campus concerts of big band greats such as Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey. He met John Garcia Gensel when Pastor Gensel came to speak at the Seminary in the early 1960s. When Pastor Lind settled in New York he often made the rounds with Pastor Gensel to such clubs as the Half Note, Five Spot, Birdland, and Slugs, and met and heard such noted musicians as John Coltrane, Joe Williams, Ramsey Lewis, Lou Rawls and many others. His extracurricular work—bartending at Miss Lacey's Supper Club and Knicker's Restaurant, running Preacher's (his own jazz club), and co-owning the Bitter End/Other End Cafe in Greenwich Village—also brought him into close touch with many musicians. Pastor Lind still resides in the Village near the jazz scene, now with his wife Marsha Clark Lind.


Over the years, the Jazz Ministry at Saint Peter's has faithfully nourished the traditions and forms of the art of jazz with love and respect, while nurturing, counseling, and befriending thousands of musicians, their families and friends in time of need. With the installation of Pastor Lind, the Ministry stands at the threshold of its fourth decade of making joyful noise to the Lord, and supporting the people who make and love that music.


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Today the Jazz Ministry at Saint Peter's nears its 50th year, hosting an annual All Nite Soul Festival, Midday Jazz, Jazz on the Plaza concerts, Jazz 4 All workshops, memorials and many creative programs.  Bassist/composer Ike Sturm serves as the music director for the Jazz Ministry and creates new music for weekly Sunday jazz services at 5pm.