It was a total fluke. A friend and I were headed to Firestone for a grueling night of studying when I spotted a sign outside of the chapel: “Jazz Vespers: October 27, 8:00 p.m.” I glanced at my phone: October 27, 8:02 p.m. A minute later, we were tiptoeing to our seats in a pew near the altar, planning to head out and get to work by quarter past.
Because Opening Exercises were virtual during my COVID-altered first year, I had never set foot in the chapel. Turns out it’s breathtaking: the dramatic stained glass, imposing ribbed arches, and massive pipe organ lend the space a sacrosanct quality palpable even to the nonreligious visitor like me. I guess that’s why it was so jarring to hear the animated strains of jazz—which I usually associate with street festivals, bars, or maybe packed concert halls—reverberating against the nave’s towering vaulted ceiling. After a spirited performance of Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin’,” that classic of swung funk, it was pretty weird when nobody clapped or hollered. Weirder still was the abrupt transition to the Conditor alme siderum, followed by Reverend Alison L. Boden’s solemn words of invitation—“Let the Infinite be blessed / who sustains the universe”—and a hymnal rendition of Psalm 141 from the Chapel Choir, a cappella. Without warning, I was transported from a 1950s New York club to a 1320s Italian monastery (I’ve been reading The Name of the Rose, okay?).
The event was billed as “an interfaith experience of poetry, music, and quiet centering.” That first part is something of a misrepresentation. I mean, it’s called vespers. Every one of the dozen texts read or sung throughout the evening had Judeo-Christian origins, and three came straight from the Bible. Of the four jazz pieces, three were expressly Christian. Over coffee after the fact, Dr. Nicole Aldrich, who was appointed Director of Chapel Music this summer and is responsible for the Jazz Vespers liturgy, told me she regretted the interfaith label: “The way that I imagined it when I started was including readings from other traditions, but I ran out of time, frankly. If it is to become an interfaith service, we need more voices at the table; it can’t just be me alone in my office.” Moving forward, she said, she’ll market the event as “inclusive.”
Religious homogeneity aside, the ornate wooden chapel doors were open to anyone who could prove they’d been vaccinated, including members of Princeton town, making for a small but eager congregation of relatively diverse ages, races, and, ostensibly, creeds. Timid at first, by the time “Thank You, Lord” by Walter Hawkins came around, many in attendance were singing along. For that, credit Audrey Welber on the saxophone and clarinet and Adam Faulk on the piano: they were the stars of the show, tasked with making vespers jazzy. Strangely enough, the closest I came to a spiritual experience wasn’t during either of the planned moments of silence but rather when I witnessed Welber, so completely in the groove, begin to dance and snap her fingers in rhythm with one of Faulk’s solos. And then there was the end of service, when the choir and the instrumentalists engaged in a call and response—a line from a chant, then a few glorious seconds of pure improvisation, bolder and more frenetic than any of the prepared material. I couldn’t decide whether to close my eyes and take in the sound or keep them fixed on Welber and Faulk, whose lexicon of bodily cues and implied tempo counts, inscrutable to me, allowed them to operate in perfect synchronization. As the modest crowd began to disperse, the two musicians grinned and shared a hug.
I had expected to drop in for five or ten minutes—a history Canvas post was calling, after all—but when I checked my clock as we filed out, I was surprised to find that we had stayed a full hour. On the way to the library, my friend remarked philosophically, “Jazz Vespers makes God sound sexy.”
Jazz Vespers continues on February 16, March 16, and April 20, 2022 at the Princeton University Chapel.