Gerry and Audrey Hall used to gas up their vehicle and head to Vancouver for their weekly fix of Jazz Vespers, the music-based service at beautiful St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church.
The late-afternoon events there are based on similar gatherings that happened at churches in New York dating back to the mid-1960s, where jazz music is mixed with messages of religious significance.
The Halls, who live in Surrey, wanted to bring something similar to a church closer to home, so they helped launch Vespers in the Valley earlier this year at Northwood United Church, located in the Fleetwood area of Surrey.
Every second Sunday at 4 p.m., local jazz musicians perform for an hour in the church sanctuary, which has room for around 300 people. So far, the by-donation events have attracted a few dozen people, on average.
"We try to call it a service rather than a concert," Gerry Hall said, "but these events really appeal to anyone keen on jazz, like we are. The religious part of it is really kept low-key."
For jazz musicians on the Metro Vancouver scene, the Vespers events are paying gigs that inspire creativity.
"It's kind of special because for me, it challenges you as a musician," said Tom Arntzen, a frequent performer at Vespers events in Surrey and Vancouver. "I do a lot of other gigs, always something different, and Jazz Vespers challenges a musician to put together two things that don't necessarily go together, and that's jazz and spirituality. On first glance, those things don't seem related but in fact they are, and there's lots of material that's appropriate and works well in that context."
In advance, the musicians prepare six or seven songs to suit the theme of that week's Vespers in the Valley event, which are led by Northwood Rev. Will Sparks.
For example, the Oct. 28 event focused on new beginnings and changes in one's life, in tune with the arrival of fall and colder, rainy weather.
"It is a way to connect with people with whom we otherwise wouldn't connect," Sparks said, "but it's also a way of doing kind of a selective worship event in a non-traditional way, something rooted in music and with kind of a back-and-forth thing (between music and Sparks' spoken word), to create a great vibe."
Sparks, a jazz fan, is thrilled to see so many of the region's top players perform at Northwood (8855 156th St., at 88th Avenue). The event this Sunday afternoon (Nov. 11) features the A-list quartet of Miles Black, Karen Graves, Jodi Proznick and Bernie Arai, in "A Song to Remember" theme. Future Vespers in the Valley gatherings feature musicians Deanna Knight (Nov. 25) and Jennifer Scott/Rene Worst (Dec. 9). For details, click on the "events" link at www.northwood-united.org.
"It is a worship service," Sparks underlined, "but it is really not your traditional worship service - it's far more relaxed and conversational. The jazz is improvisational, to a degree, but so is the rest of it. Like a jazz musician, you learn your craft and then you sit down and see what happens. And that's very much what we do at Vespers."
On Oct. 28, pianist/singer Diane Lines and her three-piece band grooved on a set of songs by Irving Berlin ("I Got the Sun in the Morning and the Moon at Night"), Leon Russell ("Everything Must Change"), Stevie Wonder ("Visions"), Eric Bibb ("Don't Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down") and Nat King Cole ("Girl For Rhythm"), plus a couple of other numbers, just for kicks.
The history of Jazz Vespers is rooted in the reality of New York musicians playing well into the night and not being able to get up in time for church on Sunday mornings. The mid-afternoon Vespers was a way to connect people for whom jazz was their language.
At Northwood, the plan is to keep building momentum with Vespers in the Valley and create a community of church-going jazzers.
"Frankly," Sparks said, "the thing I've noticed is that people stick around afterward because it's such a great thing, to meet the musicians and chat with them and other people in the audience. It's more of an intimate setting than the big church downtown (Vancouver), so the musicians love it, too. It's just word of mouth. Honestly, the people who come just love it and then they wonder why the place isn't full. It's just a matter of connecting with people."