Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index

Part 119 - Paul Ferguson’s Jazz Vespers
Story filed May 2, 2008

Cleveland trombonist, composer and arranger Paul Ferguson says, "Jazz and spiritual life share a common goal – transformation. Jazz musicians transform tunes; spiritual masters help transform lives." From this premise, Ferguson has composed, arranged, conducted and recorded Jazz Vespers, an unusual combination of big band jazz and sacred music.

The idea began when his sister Anne Wilson, the music director at Forest Hill Church in Cleveland Heights, suggested that he create some new material for a jazz service at her church. "The first time we did it," says Ferguson, "I did an arrangement of ‘Be Thou My Vision.’ Another time I did an arrangement of ‘If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee.’ He also heard some other religious songs at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights and thought to himself, "Wouldn’t it be great to orchestrate some of these things for a big jazz band?"

After arranging a number of religious songs and composing others, Ferguson asked the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra to perform what became a religious suite. He had been the lead trombonist and an arranger for the Cleveland big band for 20 years.

Ferguson’s unusual Jazz Vespers was first performed by the CJO the first week of April, 2007 at the Cleveland Bop Stop. "It happened to be the worst weekend of weather of the entire year," he recalled. "It just snowed without stopping for about 48 hours, but we still had decent crowds and I was able to assemble a wonderful band, a special version of the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, including my old friends Russ Schmidt on piano and Jim Rupp on drums." It was essentially the same band that played on Ferguson’s earlier CDs, Live at the Bop Stop and Friends.

The performance was recorded by Azica Records and released on compact disc in early 2008. The band performed Ferguson’s suite February 29 at St. Paul’s Church where he had originally heard some of the music. A record release party and concert was planned for the Bop Stop on March 8, but again Cleveland was hit by a major snowstorm and the party was postponed until April 25.

Ferguson’s religious suite includes six of his arrangements of religious music and two original compositions. "The first song, ‘Evening,’" he says, "is the invitation to join the evening prayer. ‘Be Thou My Vision’ is an old Irish hymn. ‘Holy Manna’ is a southern gospel tune."

One of Ferguson’s original compositions is "Looking Around," featuring saxophonist Kent Englehardt. Paul says the song is based on a verse in the gospel of Thomas: "The apostles are asking Jesus questions and he answers them with somewhat often very cryptic replies, but some of them are straight forward. At one point, the apostles say, ‘Jesus, when will the kingdom of heaven appear?’ And Jesus says, ‘The kingdom of heaven is spread out all over the earth, but people do not recognize it.’ And I thought, ‘That’s pretty amazing.’ And it’s also very cryptic because it means the kingdom of heaven is found in a beautiful sunset as well as perhaps the death of a two-year-old. It’s something which we can’t comprehend fully."

The other Ferguson original composition is called "Walk Forth." It’s based on the theory of a French theologian that the Beatitudes could be re-translated. Ferguson explained, "Instead of ‘blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek,’ a better translation from the Aramaic could be, ‘walk forth, ye poor, walk forth, ye meek, and seek justice.’ It’s more of a participatory sort of a religious walk."

All but one song of his religious suite begin quietly and then evolve into something intense, and then sort of drift away. "I don’t know if that is a metaphor for life," says Ferguson laughing.

While much of his big band vesper music is based on Christian influences, Ferguson points out that it is essentially spiritual and not confined to any one religion. He says vespers has its roots in Jewish evening prayer. "One of the songs, ‘Let Immortal Flesh Keep Silence,’ is a French chanson from the 17th century," he says, "but, if you play it just by itself, it sounds more Hebrew than Christian to me."

Arranging sacred music for a big jazz band is unusual, but not unique. In the 1960s Duke Ellington, nearing the end of his prolific life, wrote and performed a series of sacred concerts. Drummer Louie Bellson, who played on Ellington’s sacred concerts, has also composed and performed big band jazz religious music. In recent years, there was a Sacred Jazz Festival in Dallas, a World Sacred Music Festival in Olympia Washington, and a Sacred Jazz Concert by the Wayne State University band in Detroit – all performed by big jazz bands.

For Paul Ferguson, it makes perfect sense for jazz musicians, composers and arrangers to transform religious music into big band jazz. He says, "The spiritual life is something that everybody should attempt to address." He has done it as few others have.

Copyright 2008 Joe Mosbrook

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