Sacred music and … jazz? One composer's response to Vatican II

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For American composer J.J. Wright, the Second Vatican Council's call to inculturate the Church's ancient musical traditions into "mission territory" – while preserving its unity – is something he has adopted personally with one of his greatest passions: jazz.

Referring to Vatican II's documents, Wright told CNA that when people go to a new culture for the sake of evangelization, "one of the ways you can (evangelize) is by incorporating into the Western-European traditions of the faith, the native traditions."  

He said that for him, the United States could arguably be called "mission territory," since the culture is "definitely not like a Catholic culture." Because of this, "I see one of the ways of evangelization through sacred music."

When the Second Vatican Council's constitution on the Sacred Liturgy "Sacrosanctum Concilium" was published, it asked that provisions revising liturgical texts allow "for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions and peoples, especially in mission lands, provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved; and this should be borne in mind when drawing up the rites and devising rubrics."

In paragraph 119, the document noted that "in certain parts of the world, especially mission lands, there are peoples who have their own musical traditions, and these play a great part in their religious and social life."

Because of this, "due importance is to be attached to their music, and a suitable place is to be given to it, not only in forming their attitude toward religion, but also in adapting worship to their native genius."

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' document "Sing to the Lord" expresses a similar request, saying that "every bishop, pastor and liturgical musician...should be sensitive to the cultural and spiritual milieu of their communities, in order to build up the Church in unity and peace."
Wright said that for him, making sacred music sound familiar to peoples' own individual and cultural realities opens "a lens into the deeper tradition." While he finds the merge between jazz and sacred music to be an expression of his own faith, it's "not meant to define sacred music."

"It's more like I'm speaking their language so that they can find a way in."

Wright is an American pianist, conductor and composer who holds Masters of Sacred Music from the University of Notre Dame and was previously a member of the United States Naval Academy Band.

During his time in the Navy, Wright collaborated with well-known jazz vibraphonist Dave Samuels on a Latin-jazz CD that ended up winning a Grammy.

He is currently working on his doctorate, and for the 2016-2017 academic year is living and studying in Rome while he writes his dissertation and interns with the Sistine Chapel Choir.

In addition to his studies, Wright has just released a new CD called "O Emmanuel," which is the first of his projects that features both jazz and sacred music as part of the same project.

While not all of the songs have the jazz element, Wright said the CD is meant to follow a spiritual journey that "encompasses the whole tradition of sacred music from chant to polyphony, up through modern music and jazz."

Though the new CD is his first larger attempt at joining jazz and the tradition of sacred music, Wright said he would be willing to write a jazz Mass should he ever have the opportunity.

Prominent names in the world of jazz such as Mary Lou William and Dave Brubeck have already written Masses in the style. William herself, a convert to Catholicism, performed her third Mass for Pope Paul VI in Rome in the early 1970s.

"One of the things I've been really cognizant of is that there are very strong opinions on both sides as to what types of music are appropriate for the liturgy," Wright said, explaining that while a jazz Mass might be in his future, his new CD "is not liturgical."

He said that his CD is "an experiment to test the waters and to see if this works," adding that while it works for him as an artist in terms of being "an authentic expression of my faith" and to be "a really invigorating way to create art," he is also open to how other people will respond.

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Another unique element of the new CD is that it features the Notre Dame Children's Choir, which consists of Christian sacred music vocalists up to the age of 17.

As a project that's free and completely supported by the university, the choir is mean "to engage with people who don't have as many privileges" in the area, such as immigrants and those who live in poverty.

The idea, Wright said, is to "create an environment where you can bring people from different backgrounds together in sacred music," teaching them values such as inclusiveness.

In terms of how this vision relates to the CD, Wright said the choir's director wanted the CD to be "a catalyst" for the greater mission of the choir, which focuses on how new music can "excite young people to want to build a great tradition of sacred music for now within the spirit of diversity and social justice."

Wright said he can see his entire life's work as a sacred music artist involving this sort of partnership, "because it's a way to unite people in an extremely non-confrontational way."

Another "really cool" aspect of jazz is that it opens the door for people, particularly children from different demographics, to come together.

"Our sacred music tradition is a white tradition, it's Western-European. That's not a slight, that's just what it is," he said, noting that jazz "is a predominantly black tradition and it's the music of the African-American people that flourished through the 20th century and flourished through their oppression."

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What they were able to do is create "this incredible body of art that represented their struggles in our society," Wright said, explaining that he sees jazz as a way to unite people from different backgrounds.

"Not only are the two different types of people coming together, the two music are coming together and they each have a home," he said, adding that when people come together and build this type of "organic union of community, you can maybe break down" some of the barriers that might be separating them.

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