To the Rev. Bill Miller of Christ Episcopal Church in Covington, “church music” is not just traditional hymns.
The Sunday before U2 headlined the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Miller led a “U2charist,” a church service built around the band’s music.
Twenty-five years ago while serving at a congregation in Austin, Texas, he founded a jazz festival. He launched similar festivals at churches in Houston and on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
He continued his jazz initiative after arriving at Christ Church three years ago. This weekend, the church hosts its third annual “Jazz in January” festival, featuring a world-class program of jazz musicians from Cuba, New Orleans and elsewhere.
The series opens on Friday night at the church (120 S. New Hampshire St., Covington) with Cuban pianist Aldo López-Gavilán backed by Houston-based saxophonist/singer David Caceres and local pianist Matt Lemmler, drummer Jamison Ross and bassist James Singleton.
The event continues Saturday night with “A Celebration of Women In Jazz” featuring French jazz vocalist Cyrille Aimée, Cuban drummer Yissy Garcia, New York pianist Deanna Witkowski and local vocalist Leah Chase, bassist Amina Scott and saxophonist Aurora Nealand.
The musicians will perform in the chancel of the church, between the pews and the altar in the area where the choir normally stands. Show time on Friday and Saturday is 7 p.m.; tickets, available at the door, are $40.
“Jazz In January” concludes Sunday morning with two jazz Mass tributes to Mary Lou Williams, the prolific jazz pianist and composer who wrote and arranged material for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. The services are at at 9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Sunday; admission to those is free.
“It’s not the usual service with jazz music tacked on,” Miller said of the Mass. “We really integrate the artist and the artist’s story, and try to pick hymns and service music that reflect the whole of what we’re doing.”
For many U2 fans, the band’s music is akin to a religious experience. The Rev. Bill Miller takes the concept literally.
Music has always been a large part of Miller’s life and ministry. While attending seminary in Chicago, he haunted South Side blues joints. He co-founded Padre’s, a music club in the tiny west Texas arts enclave of Marfa.
The walls of his Covington home are decorated with framed posters from Padre’s. A picture of Miller with the members of Def Leppard, snapped backstage after he delivered the invocation at the Houston Rodeo, occupies a place of honor on a mantel. Two of his three dogs are named for Willie Nelson and Mahalia Jackson.
The jazz festivals, which are still going strong at his former congregations in Houston and Hawaii, are his most ambitious musical endeavors. Previous installments have included a meditation on John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and tributes to Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong. Miller has booked the likes of saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, pianist Jason Moran, pianist Ellis Marsalis, and ukulele star Jake Shimabukuro.
He first heard Cuban pianist Aldo López-Gavilán and drummer Yissy Garcia at the Havana Jazz Festival a couple years ago. Of the 50 or so musicians he saw in Cuba, they were the two he most wanted to bring to Covington. “And I got ‘em,” he said, laughing. “Tell me there is no God!”
Bringing in such musicians is expensive. Sponsorships cover some costs of the festival, but ticket sales are needed to break even. Despite a strong roster, sales have been slower than expected, Miller said.
A $40 ticket, he admits, is not cheap. “But the caliber of the artists and the music quality of these concerts is so great… I’ve never had somebody say that it wasn’t worth it.”
Even if the 2018 “Jazz in January” proves to be the final multi-night jazz festival at Christ Church, Miller intends to find fresh ways to foster creative collaborations with musicians. Over the years, he’s officiated at one musician’s wedding, and baptized another.
“All these guys and girls have become my friends. It’s been one of the coolest things about my ministerial life, being able to make these connections with musicians. It’s been an incredible gift.”