Feb.- March 2005 CJA Network Featured Article

Jazz Pianist/Vocalist

Deanna Witkowski

Playing Jazz At LaSalle Street Church: a timeline from 1996-2004


Before making the move to Manhattan, I lived in Chicago from 1993-1997. For the bulk of this time I was attending LaSalle Street Church, a lively place that I miss dearly. When I first began attending, there was a jazz service that an outside group came in and presented to the congregation. Soon after attending that particular service, I approached one of the pastors and told her that I was a jazz musician and would be interested in coordinating a jazz service in the future.

In June 1996, I got my chance. I’ve included the bulletin from this service, the first jazz-based service I’d ever put together. By this point in time, I had been playing piano on and off at LaSalle, and usually played some jazz for at least the prelude and postlude, but this service was the first one where I had the opportunity to hire other musicians and coordinate all of the music.

At LaSalle, there was a worship planner/committee that helped to select the hymns. Although my memory isn’t foolproof, I’m pretty certain that I didn’t choose “Stand Up and Bless the Lord” and “Make Me a Captive, Lord” for congregational hymns—but what I did to the hymns was to put a groove on them, which always livens things up. On “Stand Up” we did a half-time funk groove, and I reharmonized the tune a bit. I’m including the standard hymn (with my chord notations) along with a simple lead sheet that I made for the band.

I also wanted to include LaSalle musicians in the mix, so I arranged Ellington’s “Come Sunday” for the choir (for copyright reasons I’m not including the arrangement here!). For a special music slot, my quintet did a tune by the late pianist James Williams, called “Yes, Yes, Oh Yes!” I transcribed the tune from one of Williams’ recordings that featured his gospel/jazz group, ICU (Intensive Care Unit). For a prelude, we did one of my originals (that I later recorded on my first CD), “Rains in Kenya.” I had recently returned from a four month sojourn in Kenya, and lots of LaSallers had helped to sponsor that trip, so it was great to be able to present this tune to them, which I had composed while in Kenya. For the postlude we got out of the way and had a few instrumentalists from LaSalle take over.


I must have done something right the first time because LaSalle allowed me to do a jazz service the following year. I again hired outside musicians (including my regular Chicago drummer, Tom Hipskind) and worked on planning the service in tandem with a worship planner, in this case, a great film/video guy, Brett Nelson. This service was also marked as a special event in that it was celebrating the groundbreaking of a new multi-disciplinary community center that the church had dreamed about building for years (notice the “sending forth hymn”: “The Church’s One Foundation”).

The jazz portions of the service in some ways were similar to the previous year’s: I transcribed another James Williams’ tune for my ensemble (this time, a quartet); I arranged the hymn “All Creatures of our God and King” for the LaSalle choir (this has since turned into a congregational arrangement that I often use in jazz services); I put another funky half-time groove on “Praise Him, Praise Him” (check out the original version along with my leadsheet arrangement); and the quartet did a couple of other jazz tunes: the prelude was a tune I’d been playing for awhile with my band, called “Paco and Dave.” I transcribed that tune from a Caribbean Jazz Project recording. And under the “special music” slot, I included a new original setting of a hymn text by Jeffrey Rowthorn. I had recently bought an Episcopal hymnal—and if you have that hymnal, the text can be found at #394. My setting is a swinging medium tempo 16 bar tune that all of the guys can blow on. We’ve used this tune a lot in subsequent jazz services.


Soon after that last jazz service in June 1997, I moved from Chicago to New York. The amazing thing about this move was that my own worship planning and composing at LaSalle—including developing these jazz services—helped to facilitate my move to the Big Apple. In the same summer that I did the 1997 jazz service, I received my quarterly issue of IMAGE, a journal of art and religion, that I had subscribed to for several years. On page 22 of that journal was a job ad—something I had never seen before in this publication (the journal is mainly articles, short stories, interviews with artists and visual art reproductions, but no job ads). The ad was for an available music position at All Angels’ Church, an Episcopal church on the upper west side of Manhattan. I have the ad in front of me as I type this- here is a portion of the ad copy:

“We are looking for an artist (emphasis not mine- it was in the ad!), with exceptional keyboard skills embracing a wide spectrum of musical idioms and styles, from gospel to classical. In addition, he/she must be a skilled arranger and choir director. We are interested in candidates who might bring composition skills as well as a sensitivity to music as it relates to other artistic disciplines.”

I read this ad and felt that it was describing exactly what I wanted to be doing both inside and outside the church, and that I possessed the skills outlined in the ad. I ended up applying, interviewing, and getting this full-time position. For part of my interview, I brought with me the bulletins and music from past LaSalle services that you have access to on this site.

While I was at All Angels’, I still returned periodically to Chicago to perform (and still do!), and even returned and did jazz services and concerts at several churches-- but never ended up going back to LaSalle to play until the fall of 2003, several years after I had left All Angels.’ I had been putting a Chicago area tour together with my amazing Grammy-nominated saxophonist, Donny McCaslin, and contacted LaSalle to see if there might be interest in having my group return to present another jazz service. Laura Truax, who had stepped in as senior pastor since my LaSalle days, was wholeheartedly behind hosting us again.

I’m posting the annotated version of the bulletin for this service here, so that you can get a sense of how we flowed from speech to music. Kathy Neely, the worship planner for the service, was very detailed in writing what the worship leader would say, and sometimes even what I would get to say! I often get asked how to plan jazz services (and will be doing an audio lecture on this to be posted on this site)- in this case, it helped me to know that it was Christ the King Sunday. Because of this calendar event, “All Creatures of our God and King” was appropriate, so we took the setting that I had originally begun work on as a Lasalle choral arrangement and had the congregation sing it with my quartet. The listed hymn of response, “Christ the Light,” is a Phos Hilaron original setting (“O Radiant Light, O Sun divine…”). This is an appropriate vespers (evening) service text, but because the setting is so fun- and different from my other pieces- we included it here. I had originally written this setting on commission for a jazz hymnal put together by my friend, pastor and jazz pianist Bill Carter.

The overall feel of this service was different than the previous two, because it was like a homecoming. At the 11 am service, Bob Weaver, a great supporter and friend from LaSalle, introduced me by giving an anecdote of coming to LaSalle as a newcomer and hearing me play a Monk tune in the service. Soon after this, he was at Orchestra Hall to hear a double-bill with the Dave Brubeck Quartet (Mr. Brubeck has also written quite a bit of liturgical music) and Bill Russo’s Chicago Jazz Ensemble, of which I was then a member. He turned to his wife Rebecca after we walked on stage and said, “Isn’t that the girl from LaSalle?” And according to Bob, my playing (and choice of material) was one of the things that drew his family to LaSalle!

The other thing that was different at this service was that the congregation had been learning some of the music ahead of time. I had sent music ahead and for several Sundays, some dedicated time was spent in learning the music- so everyone was singing with gusto!

We also had a separate music folio printed for the congregation. Having all of the music in one place worked really well. And we used a folio again the following year, when, yes, we returned to LaSalle!

LASALLE – TAKE FOUR (the most recent installment)

After our 2003 service at LaSalle, Pastor Laura said, “why don’t we make this an annual event?” So, when I found out that the great Brazilian musician Hermeto Pascoal was coming to Chicago to give two concerts down the street from a friend’s house (where I always stay when I’m in town), and that his concerts were taking place about a year after my group’s last LaSalle appearance, I contacted Laura, and the church graciously moved around their schedule to accommodate having my band come for another jazz service.

At this service, all of the music- except for the opening song, and a Taizé piece (which I had arranged in more of a gospel vein), were original pieces. I had the scripture text to go on, as well as the fact that it was Reformation Sunday. I’ve included the bulletin here- check out the great call to worship that Kathy Neely again superbly wrote.

One of the main passages for the day was from Jeremiah 31. In it, God speaks of a “new covenant” that he will write in the hearts of the people of Israel. I have a song with original lyrics (and music) that seemed apropos for the service, called “New Things I Now Declare.” Laura liked the piece so much that she not only kept referring to “new things” in her message—she also asked us to reprise part of the tune as a sermon response. Here is a portion of the lyrics from “New Things”:

New things I now declare, says the Lord
New dreams I want to give you on your way
Let me clasp you by the hand, and I will never let you go
For, my child, I want you to know
That when you’re sitting in the darkness
And you think I’m not around,
Remember, I’ve already left my presence here
And all you have to do is lift your head
To find my night-time sign
For you can only see my stars when it is dark
And new things I now declare, says the Lord

We again had a separate music folio for the congregation, and the lyrics to “New Things” were also printed in the folio so that people could check out the text if they wanted to do so.

I am very grateful to LaSalle for continuing to support me by welcoming my band, my music, and by their joy-filled participation that was clearly in evidence at each of these jazz services. I trust that my experience will give you new ideas, new dreams, and new hopes for your own worshiping community.