'Jazz Mass' concert Sunday an invitation to community, including non-Catholics, to experience parish atmosphere

DETROIT — Parishioners and visitors alike will be getting into the groove with the Holy Spirit this weekend.

This Sunday, Nov. 11, St. Mary of Redford Parish in Detroit will be jamming as Detroit-based conductor James Tatum and singers and musicians from the Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church will be performing the “Jazz Mass,” a concert composed of selections from the Mass setting that take on the rhythm and feel of jazz.

While dubbed the “Jazz Mass,” the concert is not a Eucharistic liturgy, but rather a series of music selections that compose the Mass.

The “Jazz Mass” will be at 4 p.m., free of charge. St. Mary of Redford is located at 14601 Mansfield St., right off Grand River Avenue in the Grandmont-Rosedale neighborhood in northwest Detroit.

“Jazz is soulful, and the ‘Jazz Mass’ will be a tribute to soul music,” said Brenda Cornish, development director at St. Mary of Redford. “Our parish is in a predominantly African-American area – 80 percent of Detroit is African-American – and at one point in history, African-Americans didn’t feel welcomed in the Catholic Church. This concert, acquiring a jazz musician to compose a Mass, is our way of reaching out to the community, saying this parish welcomes you.”

The “Jazz Mass” concert was made possible by a Catholic Foundation of Michigan “Church in the City” grant, designated for parishes to try new, innovative evangelization programs to reach out in the city.

“We got the idea for a ‘Jazz Mass’ from other parishes doing ‘Jazz on the Lawn,’ and we thought it’d be a good idea,” Cornish said. “We knew of Mr. Tatum, who composed a ‘Jazz Mass’ years ago, so we thought of inviting him. This is a great event for people who aren’t necessarily Catholic, but could come in and embrace the Jazz music and see what we’re all about at St. Mary’s.”

Composer James Tatum first composed the “Jazz Mass” concert in 1976 for a performance at St. Cecilia Parish in Detroit, modeling his composition after famed jazz musician Duke Ellington.

“I was asked to compose the 'Jazz Mass' after the major Detroit riots and turmoil,” said Tatum, who leads the James Tatum Foundation of the Arts, an organization that promotes music classes and scholarships for youths. “It blew my mind when I was first asked to compose the 'Jazz Mass,'” Tatum said. “I was really impressed by Duke Ellington, who wrote a sacred ‘Jazz Mass’ back in the late '60s, early '70s.”

When asked to compose his own “Jazz Mass” concert, Tatum started listening to Ellington’s composition while drawing influence from his own background, learning music at Prairie View A&M University in Texas and traveling across the country and world, playing and writing jazz.

Tatum, a member of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church on the corner of Grand River Avenue and Grand Boulevard, learned the ins and outs of Catholic liturgy and rubrics to compose the “Jazz Mass.”

“The Jazz Mass has a very melodic theme, the sections of the Mass are very much in sync, flowing into each other, one theme after another,” Tatum said. “You’ll have wood, brass and wind instruments and the voice, the messengers. We’ll have more than 100 participants singing.”

The concert will follow the order of the Mass, with the Gloria, the Alleluia, the Offertory and other traditional parts of the Mass, but presented in a style of music many may not associate with the Catholic Church.

“The point of this is to open the doors and let the people know what we’re about here at St. Mary’s,” Cornish said. “Once I became a member of this parish, I had someone who lives in the neighborhood say they never got an invitation to come to this church. This is an invitation to come on in; we’ll greet you and invite you to come see what this is all about.”

“The point of this is to open the doors and let the people know what we’re about here at St. Mary’s,” Cornish said. “Once I became a member of this parish, I had someone who lives in the neighborhood say they never got an invitation to come to this church. This is an invitation to come on in; we’ll greet you and invite you to come see what this is all about.”

Cornish hopes once people come in the doors of St. Mary of Redford, they will be absorbed by the architectural and acoustic beauty of the parish, which the Sunday prior celebrated its 175th anniversary with Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron on Nov. 4.

“The church’s acoustics are a perfect venue for this type of performance,” Cornish said. “People who don’t know what we do as a Catholic Church will come in and hear and understand parts of the Mass, what the Mass is, through the sounds of jazz. Music is always considered universal, always inviting and bringing people in. For years, it was the music that drew people to the Mass.”

Fr. Charles Morris, pastor of St. Mary of Redford, said the “Jazz Mass” concert is the type of evangelization effort the parish needs to reach out to the community.

“If you’re looking at reaching out to the larger community, connecting Catholic tradition with one of the great gifts of culture to the world, this fits the bill,” Fr. Morris said. “Hopefully people will come to this, people in the neighborhood and the community. This is our way of showing people that we’re here, with our great hospitality, opening our church and its exquisite beauty to this masterpiece of music. It’s how we create a connection.”

Cornish adds the “Jazz Mass” concert is the perfect “shallow-entry point” into the Catholic faith, a one-of-a-kind performance that will surprise attendees.

“They will be surprised with the professionalism of the choir and the soloists, a Baptists choir singing a Catholic liturgy, bringing us all together in Christ,” Cornish said. “It’s different; it’s new, but it’s sacred. You will feel the soul of the singers and musicians, giving glory to God in this unique, authentic way, which I think will really connect with the community.”