Shannon McNally

Jazz and Jesus: A match made in heaven — Covington church marks fifth annual Jazz in January concert series

“It’s really a music festival in a sacred context, and the concerts on Friday and Saturday night are just like concerts you go to hear everywhere, except it’s somewhat unique in that the setting is a very peaceful one. People are there to listen to the music. It’s all about listening to the music.”

This year’s festival is set to run Friday through Sunday, Jan. 24 to 26. The Friday concert will be headlined by Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Shannon McNally, with the New Orleans Catahoulas and their focus on Crescent City rhythm-and-blues. Saturday will feature psychedelic soul from Kalu and the Electric Joint, along with Birds of Chicago and their distinctive folk-informed brand of Americana.

It all culminates Sunday with what has traditionally proven to be the weekend’s major draw: a Mass in which the music of a well-known performer takes place of traditional hymns. In the past, the festival has celebrated the music of Bob Dylan, The Beatles, U2 and others. This year, New Orleans’ singer-songwriter Erica Falls will lend her voice to pay tribute the gospel legacy of Aretha Franklin.

It’s a selection that’s got music buff Miller particularly geeked.

“So many of (Franklin’s) songs contain spiritual themes,” he said. “Even the love songs — love is a deep and broad concept, and her material is really a match made in heaven for this Mass. The hard part was kind of narrowing it down and choosing the songs.”

This year marks the fifth year for Jazz in January at Christ Episcopal, but its legacy goes back much further.

Miller’s appreciation for music is decades old, dating to when he was a teenager with a creative streak. At one point, he even recorded a country-Western album. Later, he owned a music club in his native west Texas. (The name of that joint: Padre’s, naturally.)

Then, about two and a half decades ago, while part of a church in Austin with a number of jazz buffs in the congregation, Miller got the idea to put on a festival. That concert series, still going strong, just celebrated its 25th year.

He later exported it to Hawaii, where he lived for nearly 10 years. That series, the All Angels Jazz Festival, is still rolling along as well. So is another he helped found in Houston.

And while he’s the energizing force behind the concert series, he’s quick to give most of the credit to the musicians enlisted to help pull it all off.

“Every place I’ve lived, I’ve found musicians to be really open to the idea of collaborating and kind of intrigued and interested in doing this,” Miller said. “Our track record speaks for itself. We know a little bit about music; we’re going to honor it.”

Although Jazz in January doesn’t feature an overt religious message outside of the Sunday Mass, Miller says that doesn’t mean it falls outside of the church’s overall mission. As he sees it, creativity is itself a tribute to the Creator. Celebrating it, as in Jazz in January, is even more so, whether it comes with overt praise and worship or not.

“Faith communities way back when commissioned the finest musicians in the world to collaborate with them and write sacred compositions,” he said. “You think back to the European composers whose finest work was commissioned by churches. I think we’ve lost some of that. A lot of the churches, the quality of the music isn’t what it should be.

“But we really do celebrate creativity as a gift from God, and we celebrate all musicians doing God’s work in that way.”

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