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The Arts

Jazzing up the hymn book

Workshop at First Congregational brings jazz, gospel performers to town

The workshop will take place on Saturday, Oct. 22 at 880 Western Ave. in West Brattleboro from 1 to 5 p.m. The cost: $10 per person, $20 for families of three or more. For those who pre-register, the cost is $8 per person or $16 for families. To preregister, call First Congregational Church, 9 a.m. to noon, at 802-254-9767.

WEST BRATTLEBORO—Sometimes it takes a force from outside to shake things up — even if what is shook is something as solemn as a church hymn.

In this spirit, the First Congregational Church has invited the “Minister of Music” and the lead soprano from All Peoples Christian Church in Los Angeles to lead a workshop on gospel music on Saturday, Oct. 22.

It is open to anyone who would care to learn more about singing, no matter their individual beliefs or religion. Participants will be also invited (and encouraged) to take part singing in the 10 a.m. Sunday worship service the day after the workshop.

The idea for the workshop came to Joseph Amico, the church’s pastor, during a service when everyone began singing the assigned hymn, “This is the Day.” Although the organist played the music as well as he usually did, and the people sang with their usual enthusiasm, Amico felt “as if the song came straight out of a hymnal.”

Amico remembered having heard this song sung with so much more verve.

As a pastor of a small multicultural, multi-racial church in South Los Angeles before coming to Vermont, Amico said that what was very memorable about All Peoples Christian Church had been its “outstanding music.” And when people ask what he misses most from his old church, he always says, “I miss the music.”

It was at All Peoples where he had heard “This is the Day” sung with such exuberant passion, as that church’s congregation clapped hands, hit tambourines, and made the song such a raising of the spirit.

So Amico turned to his new congregation in West Brattleboro and asked if they could “jazz the hymn up a bit.”

Not really to his surprise, Amico found that the congregation was not only quite successful in breathing new life into the hymn, but they also really enjoyed themselves doing so.

Spontaneously jazzing up “This is the Day” proved such a hit with his congregation in West Brattleboro that Amico went to the church’s deacons to ask if he could arrange a workshop on gospel singing.

The deacons were excited about the idea.

When Amico was leaving his Los Angeles post, Aeros Pierce, the minister of music at All Peoples, and Frankie Stewart, the lead soprano and an elder there, said that they would be delighted to “come up to Vermont and do a workshop,” he said.

Amico took them up on their offer.

Pierce, a jazz musician, received the NAACP Theatre Award for best music director for the play “Bananas,” based on the life of actress, dancer, and singer Josephine Baker. The play was performed at the 2009 National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., and the National Black Touring Circuit Black History Month Play Festival in Harlem.

Stewart studied music at Tuskegee Institute, but has never performed professionally. When Amico first heard her soprano voice, amazed, he asked her where else he could see her perform.

She told him that she was an amateur and had done her only singing in the choir. Amico believes Stewart is a great undiscovered talent, “sort of a black Susan Boyle.”

Championing diversity

The feat of bringing black gospel singers to primarily white protestant Vermont is not out of character for Amico, who has a long and varied history championing diversity.

Before becoming pastor at First Congregational, he served as a consultant for Brattleboro Retreat, where he set up the first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) inpatient psychiatric and addiction treatment program in New England.

As an ordained United Church of Christ minister, he worked with the UCC and the Congregational Christian Church of Mexico to form a Church Without Borders in the Southwest.

Amico thinks that the Oct. 22 gospel workshop will mean a great deal to a number of different kinds of people, from devoted parishioners to those who will come just for the music.

The workshop will include a combination of favorite hymns on which Pierce and Stewart will put a new twist, as well as other church songs for which they will provide some new jazz arrangements of their own.

The Sunday worship service will be jointly planned by Amico and Pierce, with Stewart singing solos, and backed by the jazz-and-gospel-trained workshop participants.

“Windham County is in for a musical delight!” Amico promised.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #122 (Wednesday, October 12, 2011).

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