Church of Sound: jazz in the house of the Lord

Church of Sound in the St James the Great Church in London

Hallelujah! With Church of Sound, the Ancienne Belgique is turning the Brigittines church into a jazz club.

Inspired by Kanye West’s Sunday Service, the Ancienne Belgique is going to church to celebrate its 40th birthday. The Brussels concert venue is no stranger to the Beguinage Church, but it is now also coming to the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula and the Chapel of the Brigittines. At the latter, Church of Sound, the London-based organization that regularly fills the Church of St James the Great in East London with jazz music, will celebrate next week’s Mass.

Jazz in the house of the Lord? It’s not new. In the early twentieth century, black musicians in the United States were forbidden from playing in the clubs and concert halls of white people. So they would go to church to play gospel, spirituals, but also jazz. Duke Ellington composed three Sacred Concerts especially to be played in church, even John Coltrane would regularly perform at churches.

“There’s something special about these places,” says Lexus Blondin, who founded Church of Sound with musician Spencer Martin three years ago. Blondin is a French DJ who has been living in London for a while and is also the driving force behind Total Refreshment Centre, a London platform and label for young musicians based in an old warehouse. Martin is a musician who used to play the organ in churches in exchange for a corner where he could set up his recording equipment.

“These are tough times for grassroots venues in London, due to licensing laws and high rents. And then there are all these churches that are actually perfect for concerts, with their thick walls and no immediate neighbours. And of course, their core business is bringing people together.” Community building is a key ingredient of the Church of Sound evenings. “We serve drinks and food beforehand, we play records, and at the end there are no bouncers kicking everyone out.”

Church of Sound is deeply indebted to the people of the parish, Blondin says. “Every time, we move all the benches, and we’re even allowed to install a bar. That gives us the freedom to programme widely and to pay our artists. With the rent we pay the church, they can afford to repair their organ, for example. It works for everyone, really.”

During the concerts, the musicians play in the centre of the space, surrounded by the audience. “It brings an intimacy to the show that is quite rare to see. The musicians also love that energy, they start playing in a different way.” The live music project has already brought some of the innovators of the flourishing London jazz scene to church, like Yussef Kamaal and Maisha. Normally they play a songbook by jazz greats like Alice Coltrane or Idris Muhammad and then showcase some of their own stuff.

In Brussels, the American multi-instrumentalist Kahil El’Zabar and his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble will perform their interpretation of the work of the spiritual jazz giants John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders before they offer a taste of their own work. “Kahil plays drums, cajón, thumb piano, he chants and shouts. I saw him perform last year. It will be mesmerizing.”

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