For jazz artist Deanna Witkowski, music is a form of prayer. Not only does the 37-year-old composer, pianist and singer sometimes go to her piano to pray, but she has written music for two Masses as part of a collection of works called “sacred jazz.”
Her “Evening Mass,” along with jazz renditions of texts like “Let My Prayer Rise” based on the Psalms and “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” by 19th-century Scottish poet Horatius Bonar, can be heard on “From This Place” (Tilapia Records), Witkowski’s fourth album and her debut in this genre.
Appearing with Witkowski on the album are Grammy-winning bassist John Patitucci, saxophonist Donny McCaslin, drummer Scott Latzky, and vocalists Laila Biali, Peter Eldridge and Grammy nominee Kate McGarry.
A convert to Catholicism who was received into the Church last Easter, Witkowski has been doing sacred jazz in earnest since moving to New York City at the end of 1997, when she took a position as music director of All Angels Episcopal Church.
Before that, she had been coordinating an annual jazz service at LaSalle Street Church, a nondenominational congregation in downtown Chicago.
At All Angels, Witkowski said, doing a worship service every Sunday and having access to great instrumentalists and a gospel choir gave her the chance to focus more on writing sacred jazz.
Although she left All Angels in 2000, a “Sanctus” she wrote is still sung at the parish every week. She doesn’t know for certain how many other churches are using her music, but whenever she performs in a church as a guest musician, she tries to incorporate as much of her work as possible into a service.
Often, she said, “After I leave, churches might use parts of one of the Mass settings or another piece as part of a permanent repertoire.”
In hopes of sharing her music with as many churches as want to use it, Witkowski has written piano parts for keyboard players who can’t work from chords alone and made the sheet music and other materials such as bulletin inserts available on her website (DeannaJazz.com).
The idea of using jazz liturgically is new for many congregations, Witkowski said, and response to it has been mostly positive.
“Generally,” she said, “the reaction is that people love it because often the texts are ones they’ve lived with their whole lives, heard every week, or heard in one setting for years and years and years. They get to experience the text in a different way, and it hits people in a new way.”
Those who object to playing jazz in a worship setting typically are people who haven’t heard the music, Witkowski said. Once they experience it, she said, they usually like it.
For Witkowski, who considers all music sacred “if it is made with intent to heal, uplift and rejuvenate spirits,” jazz works in church because the rich harmonies can bring out the text in ways that other styles of music cannot.
“Harmony in jazz already is very meaty and can be used in a way to really deepen the text, to have you sort of feel the text more,” she said.
Furthermore, Witkowski added, playing jazz in a group can be a model of community and a characteristic of what the Church is supposed to be as the different parts of the body work together. “It’s very much an intense kind of listening to each other and supporting each other,” she said, “but having this give-and-take and everyone being in community together and recognizing the presence of God in that. I think that in itself is just powerful for the Church to see and to have that be a part of a service.”
In her album notes, Witkowski said she sees herself as continuing in the tradition of the late jazz composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams, who wrote liturgical jazz later in her life.
Jesuit Father Peter O’Brien, executive director of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, said Williams, who also was a Catholic convert, composed three jazz Masses, the first in 1967 at the encouragement of Pittsburgh’s Cardinal John Wright.
Before that, he said, she wrote various individual pieces, including a hymn in honor of the canonization of St. Martin de Porres.
Father O’Brien said jazz is appropriate for use in church because it has a spiritual power that grew out of the suffering of the black slavery experience spanning four centuries.
“It’s the experience in the music that gives it its power,” he said. “Mary Lou would say jazz is healing to the soul.”
Although Witkowski is not black, Father O’Brien said, “she does play thoroughly and very well inside the jazz tradition. ... To me, Deanna’s music is restful and prayerful. ... Deanna is the real McCoy. She’s a good, strong musical player. She’s got sincerity, and she’s very prayerful.”
Witkowski, who holds degrees in classical piano performance from Wheaton College and jazz piano performance from City College of New York, said with the release of “From This Place” and her efforts to get her sacred music out to a wider group of people, she is seeing what she does as a ministry.
“It’s joyful for me to be able to share this music in parishes and to hear from people how it affects them,” she said.
Even when playing at a festival or in a club, she said, she hopes her music can facilitate healing or give someone peace. “I think being a musician is a privilege and also a huge responsibility,” she said, “and I definitely see all this as part of my vocation.”
Judy Roberts writes from