Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sacred music workshop offerings

Often I am asked how by church musicians and pastors about how to use jazz in worship services. Particularly, church keyboardists who are not jazzers often want to use some of my liturgical jazz after I visit, so that their congregation can continue to sing the music after I leave!

I have two suggestions: first, my From This Place songbook. This book contains lead sheets, fully notated piano parts, choral scores, and bulletin inserts that correspond to 14 of the 15 pieces on my sacred jazz recording of the same name. All of the piano parts also have chord symbols- so it's a great way for keyboardists who are stymied by a G7(#11) to see the symbol and a written out voicing of that chord in the piano score. Click here to download a sample from the songbook.

Second, have my trio come and give a workshop at your church! We are available to work with just singers, or with singers and instrumentalists, or with music directors and pastors. Here is a description from a recent workshop:

How does one integrate jazz in worship in an unforced, organic way that involves the entire congregation? Do you have to know how to improvise in order to lead your community in a jazz arrangement of a well-known hymn? Does the congregation have to have printed sheet music? How do you tell the drummer what kind of feel to play (or, if you are a solo pianist, how do you lead without a drummer)? New York-based jazz pianist/composer/vocalist Deanna Witkowski is a former Episcopal church music director who actively composes sacred jazz for corporate worship. With her trio (acoustic bass and drums), Witkowski will lead participants in singing original hymn arrangements, psalm settings and service music with and without sheet music. Keyboardists will be provided with fully notated piano parts in addition to lead sheets (chords and melody) to use in their respective congregations. A resource handout with links to additional sheet music resources and sacred jazz composers will also be provided. Witkowski's sacred jazz recording, "From This Place," along with her corresponding sacred jazz songbook (14 sacred jazz pieces: congregational, choral, and solo, with fully notated piano parts, lead sheets, and bulletin inserts) will also be available for purchase.

And finally, a video for today: here's my trio leading my setting of Psalm 141, "Let My Prayer Rise," at First Baptist in Wheaton, MD.

Stay tuned for more suggestions of how to creatively integrate jazz into the musical repertoire of your congregation...and let me hear your suggestions as well!

Friday, October 16, 2009

New interview in the National Catholic Register

From the October 18-24, 2009 issue of the National Catholic Register

Sacred Jazz’
Deanna Witkowski’s Compositions ‘Heal the Soul’
BY Judy Roberts

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 (

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.”

Friday, August 21, 2009

New review of From This Place in JazzTimes!

Yesterday I happily found the new issue of JazzTimes in my mailbox. The magazine had ceased publication for a couple of months, and I was just happy to see it back in circulation. Flipping through its pages while on the subway, I thought, "I wonder if they've reviewed From This Place" -- and then I found my CD cover (with a review) on page 73! Since the review has not yet been posted on their website, I'm posting it here in its entirety.

Deanna Witkowski- From This Place- by Christopher Loudon (Aug/Sept JazzTimes)

Following the hallowed path of Mary Lou Williams, pianist and vocalist Deanna Witkowski devotes her fourth album exclusively to the blending of jazz and liturgy, drawing on scripture, the Mass, 19th-century poetry and original verses to build this expansive house of musical worship. Four notes into saxophonist Donny McCaslin's bluesy intro to "Let My Prayer Rise" it becomes evident how invigorating this marriage of secular and spiritual will be. With the slightly scorched purity of Witkowski's vocals (and the angelic virtuosity of her playing) as the central pillar, McCaslin, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Scott Latzky circle like impish altar boys, never irreverent yet eager to splash her white lace with vibrant daubs.

The cornerstone of From This Place is a four-part extraction from the evening jazz mass Witkowski wrote a decade ago for Manhattan's All Angels' Church (where she served as music director). For two segments, she forms a glorious union with vocalists Peter Eldridge, Kate McGarry and Laila Biali to create what might fairly be called the Holy New York Voices. McGarry and Biali later return for the soaring a cappella "Never Before," which tells of the revelation to Mary that she will bear the Christ child. But perhaps most praiseworthy is the tracing of Mary Magdelene's Easter morning epiphany on the title track, begun in cold shadows then opening up like a glorious sunrise.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

"take the dimness of my soul away"

I'm doing some last-minute work on a new setting of another nineteenth-century hymn text for my quartet to play this Sunday at New York's Saint Peter's Church. This particular text was written by an Irish poet named George Croly. There are so many vibrant images in Croly's text that I decided to try to write some new music to attempt to get inside the lyric.

Usually when I set text, I spend some time meditating on phrases that stir something in me. The meditation can involve sitting down at my bedroom desk and seeing what images come to mind from a particular word or phrase, or sitting at the piano and improvising chords/melodies to the text, or walking down 42nd Street and having the text come to mind as I encounter the city. One verse in particular in Croly's poem holds power for me:

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
no sudden rending of the veil of clay,
no angel visitant, no opening skies,
but take the dimness of my soul away.
(emphasis mine)

What does it mean for my soul to be dim? If I really experience my life from my soul (and not just with my mind or my body), then in some respect I am "seeing" my life from my soul. Perhaps my eyesight becomes diminished when I expect the Divine to speak only through "extraordinary" events: the "opening skies," the "dream," the "prophet ecstasies." If God can take the dimness of my soul away, perhaps I can recognize God in an inner stillness, even in the midst of a chaotic day.

Many mornings, I ask God to help me to feel God's presence during the day. But usually the prayer is more of a reminder for myself, to ask for help so that I can be aware of God being as close- closer, even- than my own heartbeat.

God, please take the dimness of my soul away.

Monday, April 6, 2009

New CD (April 7), NPR interview (April 12) and Easter!

April is a great month for new beginnings...I'm looking forward to Easter this year even more than in previous years for a couple of reasons. One is that the night before Easter, I'll be received into the Catholic church. The other is that on Easter morning, my new sacred jazz recording, From This Place, will get a big boost with my interview on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Sunday! I'm going to be celebrating all weekend.Italic
If you'd like to check out the interview (it will be archived starting at noon on Sunday) or hear clips from the new release, visit my website at

Here is an excerpt from the liner notes to From This Place which gives a good sense of what the disc is about:

As I write in early December 2008, the Christian church is observing Advent, the first season of the annual liturgical calendar. Advent, according to one dictionary, means an “arrival that has been awaited (especially of something momentous).” This recording, my fourth as a leader and my first focusing specifically on sacred music, is something that I have wanted to make for over seven years.

I want to clarify at the outset that I view all music as sacred, if it is made with intent to heal, uplift, and rejuvenate spirits. One unique aspect of From This Place is its focus on text: from nineteenth-century poets, scripture, the Mass, and occasionally, my original verses. My journey towards creating this music and working with text had its impetus in a move from Chicago to New York City eleven years ago.

I arrived in New York having accepted a fulltime position as music director of All Angels’ Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. During my tenure at All Angels’, I composed the genesis of two jazz masses (one present here) and wrote musical resettings of old hymn texts (I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say, Pass Me Not, Take My Life and Let It Be) as well as occasional lyrics and music (Never Before). I found that I loved having a service for which I could write new settings of text that was either said or sung each week. It reminded me of Bach’s time, when the church was a patron of the arts.

In 2000, several months after I left All Angels’, I started to wonder if the music I had composed for services could be used in other houses of worship. I began to build relationships with churches in the hopes that, in addition to playing my instrumental jazz in more traditional jazz venues, I could present my sacred music in the context of worship.

To my delight, in every church in which I have performed, both regular churchgoers and clergy have responded with resounding support. I feel that I am in the company of Mary Lou Williams, the innovative pianist/composer who wrote liturgical jazz in her later decades and brought her music to churches and schools all over the country. To see myself in a tradition and yet breaking new ground is awe-inspiring and also a bit scary at times. But the fact that so many people have shared with me how this music has impacted the way they experience centuries-old text, much of which they may have heard or spoken week in and week out for years (or never heard at all), has confirmed that I am on a right path. I invite you to join me in this place where old and new converge to remind us that hope does indeed exist, even in times of fear or uncertainty.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Learning to trust the path...labyrinths...

A couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of being the guest musician for a conference entitled "Being Whole in the Eyes of God" at Stony Point Center, a retreat center about an hour outside of NYC. This particular event's focus was on how churches can be more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities. For me, it was also a reminder that all of us share brokenness, whether it is physical or spiritual or emotional-- and that this brokenness is often where we encounter the presence of God. I know that I encountered God's Spirit in this gathering of friends.

While I was at Stony Point, I visited my favorite spot on their property: a stone labyrinth (see photo). One thing I love about labyrinths is that there is only one way to walk, and even though you can't tell how you'll reach the center, and that the path is windy and seems to sometimes take you further away from the center rather than closer to it, you actually trust that you are moving towards an arrival point-- because if you stay on the path, you do indeed make it to the center. This reminds me of a poem by Denise Levertov that I set back in 2004 for Concentus, a women's choir based in Rochester. The poem, "I learned that her name was Proverb," speaks of how everyone we meet, whether we recognize them or not, lead us into our own labyrinths "towards the time and the unknown place where we shall know what it is to arrive."

Right now I feel like I am in a labyrinth trying to get my sacred music CD out, trying to book tours, trying to have mental and emotional rest. I struggle with trusting that I will reach an arrival point. This is why walking labyrinths is so helpful to me- it is a reminder that all I must do is walk on the path that has been given to me and trust that God is leading me. So simple, yet so hard.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I heard the voice…but I changed its music

Last week, I finished mixing my upcoming sacred music recording, From This Place. Three of the pieces are new settings to hymn texts from various nineteenth century writers.

I love the fact that words have potential to become new for us. I think that’s why in so many faith traditions, sacred scriptures are read again and again—we somehow get another chance to become part of the story.

But often, words can become stale, or overused, and their power is diluted. When words are married with music, in order for the words to be more than just words, there has to be a combination of melody, harmony, and text that allows the words to penetrate our spirits in a deeper way than they would if we were just saying them, or reading them.

I love many old hymns, but to be honest, sometimes I find myself loving a particular text more than a particular tune that’s been married to the text. Case in point: an 1846 text by the Scottish hymn writer, Horatius Bonar, called “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” I’ve heard various musical settings of this text, but Bonar’s lyrics jumped out at me as wanting a new setting that would breathe as the “resting place” that is found in the presence of God. Bonar’s first verse reads:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto me and rest;
lay down my weary one,
lay down your head upon my breast.”

I came to Jesus as I was,
so weary, worn, and sad;
I found in Him a resting place,
And He has made me glad.

Each of the three verses speak of hearing God’s voice, and then of responding in some way. I responded by writing a new setting—you can hear the first two verses here.