Over 31 years of Jazz Vespers in Niles
For over 30 years, Karen and Bruce Anderson have hosted a monthly Jazz Vespers service at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Niles. They have presented hundreds of local and national jazz artists over the years, so we thought it would be good to talk with them about how they started the series and what they have coming up in the future.
1. You have been hosting a Jazz Vespers at the Lutheran Church for many years. What year did you start it and do you remember the first musicians you featured? A Jazz Vesper Performance in 2015
Karen: Gosh—it goes back to 1985, and it featured my brother Tony Thomas on synthesizer and piano. It was done in memory of our mother who died in May of that year. We used the evening prayer (Vespers) service in the hymnal, with two readings for the day and two Psalms. And then we had Tony, who is a very excellent classical organist and jazz musician, play his music in our church. Then I guess it was a year later our good friends, Judy Roberts, Nick Tountas, and Rusty Jones did the second one in the church. I guess we did two more the next year and four more the year after that. And then we went to once a month, and finally twice a month in more recent years with a break in July and August. Bruce and I just can’t list all the people we’ve had, but it’s been just great hearing such wonderful musicians playing in the church. We should mention that early on there were two prominent members of Resurrection who were jazz lovers, Bob and Donna Beil, who were so supportive of our endeavor. Thrivent for Lutherans helped out with a grant for the honorarium for the musicians and we decided to dedicate some of the money from the offerings to Lutheran Social Services of Illinois/Augustana Ministries for Developmentally Disabled Children and Adults, where I had worked for a number of years. We’ve continued to do that to the present. 2. Bruce, you are not only the pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, but you are also an accomplished bass player. How did you get interested in music and playing the bass? Bruce: My mother was a very good pianist and church organist. I grew up listening to her play Bach, Handel, Brahms, etc., at night when I was in bed. Mom tried to teach me piano, but I wanted to play ball. Then one day I heard one of mom and dad’s records featuring the French horn; I think it was a Richard Strauss composition. I would come home for lunch in LaGrange Park and lie down by the record machine. I wanted to make that sound and that music so I started taking lessons on the horn. We moved to Kenilworth my eighth grade year, and then I attended New Trier High School. There was an extraordinary music program there, thanks to a wonderful teacher, Sam Mages. I became immersed in classical music, band and orchestra. Then on my 16th birthday, my sister, Sandy, who loved jazz, made the mistake of giving me a Hampton Hawes Trio album, with Red Mitchell and Shelley Manne. I was “hooked.” I went to Paul Siebenmann’s legendary record shop in Wilmette and Paul steered me to Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, etc. As Nick Tountas’ T-shirt said, “Jazz Ruined My Life.” Mr. Mages suggested I play string bass if I wanted to pursue jazz, since the French horn was a very difficult instrument to play in that medium, although it has been done very well by a few. So I began playing bass and really was taught by a very close friend over the years, a wonderful musician, Bob Ravenscroft, along with Steve Bagby, Rich Samuels, Doug Mitchell, Bob Sanders and others at New Trier. We played many, many jobs on the North Shore, in private homes primarily. Back in the late ‘50s, jazz was loved by so many people, and we heard Basie and Cannonball, etc., down at the Blue Note and so many other places in the city—it was a wonderful time. 3. Where did you develop your passion for jazz music? Bruce: I guess I can say this for Karen, too. When she first heard Oscar Peterson she just loved it, and it grew on us both as we listened to it. She was a classical musician too. We met at Augustana College, Rock Island, and played in the orchestra together. She’s a violist and also a trained vocalist. She tried out for my band in college and kids me because she didn’t get the job. But she got me instead, which must be the boobie prize, because it was bad enough being married to a jazz musician the first seven years when we were first married. But “the pits” was being a pastor’s wife for the past 42 years—we’ve worked together all the way. We both just love jazz; it is America’s artistic gift. Musical historians and other scholars can articulate this better than I, but the love of this music is something that is shared by so many people of many different backgrounds, and it is universal music. Just think of Zvonimir Tot, such a fine guitarist, who heard American jazz when he grew up in Serbia, or Marcin Januszkiewicz, who heard this music in Poland, and plays so very well. Jazz is, in my opinion, a very soulful music. It’s improvised—musicians take a chance, like jumping off a cliff and skydiving. You could crash, and you depend also on those with whom you are playing, to support you. At its best, jazz music is from the heart, being created new every time, and music that requires real listening by those who have come to hear it. The audience must participate, and when good jazz music is played and listened to, something magical happens, or, let’s say, something very spiritual happens and it’s wonderful. As it is said in the Bible: “He (or she) who has ears to hear, let them hear.” 4. Did you perform in clubs and venues before you became a pastor? Bruce: Yes. In high school I played mostly in private homes with Bob Ravenscroft and others. We had a big band for a while too, that was lots of fun, then in college in the Quad Cities, where incidentally there was lots of good jazz music in the early ‘60s. Karen and I lived in the back of a drum shop in Moline. Mary Belson, Louie’s sister, lived upstairs. There was so much jazz there at that time and there were very good musicians. So, I really began playing in clubs in the Quad Cities during college on the weekends, and also my first year of seminary, after college in Rock Island when Karen and I first got married. My dad was a pastor in the Lutheran church, and I had admired his work growing up. But truth be told, I wasn’t ready to commit myself to the ministry when we first got married. And so during my first year of seminary, I decided to drop out. We opened and owned a jazz coffee house in Davenport, called the Take Five; it was a little bit of heaven. Rusty Jones, my old friend, was the drummer as we began. Karen and I had the club for almost three years, with jazz four to five nights a week and with me playing the bass. Then I got a chance to play full time in Cedar Rapids at a place called Joe’s Tender Trap. I played with a legendary pianist, Cal Bezemer, also Lee Konitz and Dave Sanborn, and J.R. Monterose, plus playing in lots of places in the Quad Cities. For a while, I was on the road and wound up playing in Chicago for about a year and a half, much of it at the Back Room and other clubs that featured jazz. Those years are full of memories with the chance to play with wonderful musicians. Roger Wonderscheid was on drums, and Eddie Harris would sit in at the Back Room quite a lot. Well, anybody who was a musician in Chicago in the ‘60s remembers how great it was. Everybody was working; there was a lot of fellowship. Back in the Quad Cities we had such good fellowship—annual holiday parties together, etc. We were working all the time and the money was pretty good. At any rate, I went back on the road with a very good jazz trio and singer. We played all over the country, including Alaska, and with a month at a time at each venue. I met so many musicians at this time, all over the place and had a great time although I missed my family, Karen and our infant daughter, Connie. At this time I found it very helpful to play handball—my hobby—at the YMCAs, wherever I was. Finally, there were some good jobs in the Quad Cities as I began to make up my mind to go back to seminary in St. Paul, Minn. and prepare for the ministry and follow in my father’s footsteps. You know, you can, as Ira Sullivan says, make the life of a musician as good or bad as you want. I met some nice people in nightclubs over the years and won’t forget them. 5. What was the concept for starting the Jazz Vespers at Resurrection? Bruce: I shared this idea with Karen. After my ordination in St. Paul in 1974, I was called to serve at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, in Niles. It was so nice to be just a few miles from where I grew up. The organist at Resurrection, Carolyn Sanderson, was my sister’s roommate in college, and her husband, John, is my brother-in-law’s brother. My father had been what we now call “Bishop” at the time when Resurrection was founded in 1963. At the time of my installation at in 1974, the Bishop looked me in the face, held up his hands in the stance of a jazz bassist and said, “No moonlighting—do you understand?” I knew exactly what he meant; I couldn’t serve “two masters.” I sold my bass, gave away all my records and concentrated on my work as a pastor. I put jazz out of my life totally; I did not listen to jazz, and filled that void up with Chicago Symphony tickets, hiking out west, etc. Incidentally, I did not play for 22 years, but finally in the mid-‘90s I bought a beautiful bass, and have played with friends at church and occasionally for a low-key job. Karen and I host the Vespers and enjoy it. I do not play at the Vespers, which are mostly for the jazz musicians playing for a living. I plan to play my bass when we have our last Vespers, before I retire. In the early ‘80s, I went back to school to work on a Doctor of Ministry degree in a consortium of seminaries in St. Paul. It was an ecumenical group, including pastors and priests from many denominations, including a Jewish rabbi. It was a five-year program of hard work, with summer school and frequent trips to the Twin Cities. At one of the retreat seminars we were asked to write an autobiographical statement before we presented our papers on different aspects of ministry. I had omitted the seven years of my life when I played jazz music. A Roman Catholic priest from India asked me what I did during those missing seven years. I told him I played jazz music for a living. He kept questioning me: “Were you proud of it?” he asked. I answered, “Well, yes, but my folks were not too happy about it. “How did you feel about it?” he asked. I said, “I loved those years and was thankful that I was able to play the music.” And then he asked, “What about the people you played with, have you been in touch with them?” I told him no. “No.” “Were they your friends?” he asked, and I said, “Yes. They’re my best friends.” He looked me in the eye and said, “You need to put your life together. You need to put those two parts together, and find your friends again.” I came home from St. Paul and told Karen what had happened in the seminary, and we came up with the idea for the Vespers. But my father’s friend, Pastor John Genzel, of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York, had done this before, who also has hosted Jazz Vespers for years. So I felt like I was following in Pr. Genzel’s footsteps, and, in a way, my dad’s. When I mentioned to Karen about the seminary and the priest’s words, we both decided to check with the congregation. We began the Vespers in 1985 knowing we had support from the congregation, which they have gladly given ever since. 6. You have featured such luminaries as Ira Sullivan, Judy Roberts, Larry Novak, Rusty Jones and many others throughout the years. Is there a certain process you go through to line up the artists for upcoming Jazz Vespers? Karen: I’ll answer that; I’m the “fall guy.” Bruce leaves this pretty much up to me. There are so many gifted jazz musicians in the Chicagoland area. We have tried to ask as many as would like to play, and over the years have tried to feature as many players in the area as possible. Sometimes we hear about someone new—a younger jazz player—and we try to give him or her a chance to be heard at the Vespers. We’d like to do the Vespers every week to include them all; there are so many good musicians that should be heard. Of course, Ira Sullivan, Judy Roberts, Larry Novak, Willie Pickens, Rusty Jones, Lady T, Maryanne Riel and a few others are so very close to us, and people want to hear them, so they are included more frequently. We don’t have a process, but we would like to include some of the younger, wonderful musicians, like Willie Blair, who just played for the first time a few Sundays ago, and people like Petra VanNuis, Andy Brown, Ben Paterson and others. There’s so much talent out there and they need to be heard. 7. Looking back over all the musicians you have featured, is there one who really stands out or is there a particular performance and why? Bruce/Karen: Oh, gosh—that’s such a hard question to answer. We both have been just amazed at the quality of performances over the years. Looking back, there has never been a bad Vespers yet in all this time! Different people bring different gifts. Yes, some players may be more technically proficient and well known. And there have been some stellar performances to be sure—Sullivan, Roberts, Frank D’Rone, Frank Winkler, Eldee Young, Bob Ravenscroft, Dwight Killian and Rob Moore, as well as Chuck Mahronic from Music Serving the Word Ministries, Ron Perillo Trio, Kelly Sill and Kelly Brand, Willie Pickens, Billie and Renee Foster from Gary, Bill Brimfield and Marc Pompe and so many others. Over the years—please excuse us if we’ve left your name out— people have found the listening atmosphere at Resurrection and the intimacy of the sanctuary, including a beautiful Mason Hamlin grand piano, have been very uplifting and there have been so many great performances that we can’t highlight just one or two. You know, everyone has something to say. When jazz music is played from the heart, that’s a gift of God. My good friend Bob Ravenscroft says that he lets the Holy Spirit guide his playing. Musicians bear their soul, and that’s the greatest gift of all and what the Vespers are all about—it’s a celebration of this spiritual gift of God. 8. Why do you think featuring jazz music works so well in a house of worship? Bruce: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” (Ps. 150) “Praise the Lord with timbrel, the harps and the horns and the voice,” and so forth. Our friend, Bob Appelbaum, who lived just a few doors from Resurrection in Niles and now lives in California, writes music and plays frequently in synagogues here in Chicago and California. This music is honored in the Psalms, which is also Jesus’ hymnal. Jazz belongs in God’s house, as well as Bach, Handel and the rich hymnody of the Christian church. Music is one of the most precious gifts that God has given to humans. It is a universal language that unites us with people all over the world. And so we celebrate it in our church and invite people to play or to listen and be a part of it, no matter what their religious affiliation is or if there’s no affiliation at all. That’s what the Vespers, which we think of as jazz cantatas, are about. The Vespers are a celebration of God’s creation, which includes jazz music. 9. If someone wants to start a Jazz Vespers at their church, do you have any advice for them to help make it successful? Bruce/Karen: (Ask) Do you love jazz music? If you don’t, it’s not going to honor the musicians who play it. Most jazz musicians now have a very difficult time, not just making a living playing their music, but getting the respect they deserve for this gift, which is truly a blessing and a curse at the same time. Hardly anybody can make a good living from playing this music in our culture today. You and your congregation have to want to do it. Music Serving the Word Ministries, of which we are a partner, was founded by my friend Bob Ravenscroft, and has many good ideas for you to help enhance your worship or your offering of this artistic media. You can contact them at MusicServingtheWord.org. Do not host a Vespers or series of Vespers if you think that your congregation will make money from it. At best, expenses will be paid. You must give the musicians at least an adequate honorarium and allow them to sell their CD’s after the performance at the reception. Stick to it for the long haul; it takes a long time to build support for this endeavor. You may be able to serve as pastor and congregation to a few when called upon in a natural way (weddings, funerals, baptisms, etc.), but this will happen when it does. We have never understood the Vespers as a means for gaining new members for our congregation, converting people in any way or making money for the church. Hosting the Vespers has got to be a gift of love, because you love sincerely the music itself and the musicians who play it. You also might contact Lynn Glabe Mueller at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan, N.Y., as well as MusicServingtheWord.org. 10. What performances do you have coming up in March and April and is there a place where people could get more information if they would like to attend? Bruce/Karen: The Lutheran Church of the Resurrection is located at 8450 N. Shermer Road in Niles, one-half mile south of Dempster Street. Our phone number is 847-965-8210. We are redoing our website. We just need to go through our host to get it online again. It will be at lcotrjazzchurch.com. The schedule for the rest of the season is from March through June. Here is the schedule: March 13, Marcin Januszciewicz on piano, Brian Sandstrom on bass, Phil Gratteau on drums with vocalist Frieda Lee; Sunday, April 3, with Music Serving the Word’s Chuck Mahronic on piano and singer, as Carol Rogers will present the Jazz Psalms project; the third Sunday of April, the 17th, will feature an unusual evening of music, written by Zvonimir Tot, a guitarist, with a five-piece ensemble; the first Sunday of May will be with Bob Ravenscroft and his beautiful program called “LoveSong,” as he plays piano; the third Sunday of May is yet to be scheduled; and June 5 will feature organist Tony Thomas from Memphis, Tenn., a Hammond artist, with Mike Finnerty on sax, Andy Meachem on guitar, Doug Mitchell on drums, plus a vocalist, Mark Demmin. All Vespers begin with a gathering at 7:30 p.m. A free will offering is taken to give an honorarium to the musicians, and a portion of it goes to our annual gift to LSSI/Augustana Ministries, which benefits developmentally disabled children and adults.
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