For the past dozen or so years, I’ve sung in the choir of our local church. Each Sunday, we lead the congregation in hymns and sing an anthem, something by Brahms or Rutter. With a clock tower, a weathervane, and Ionic columns, the Dublin Community Church is a classic 19th-century New England house of worship, of the kind that appears on calendars and postcards. Inside, the painted wooden pews lead up to a simple altar: a bare maple drop-leaf table. The minister, awaiting the start of Sunday service, sits on a Victorian loveseat that’s probably as old as the church itself.
Downstairs, a deacon turns up the heat, as the church, six days gone cold, takes a while to warm up. These are the stripped-down days of winter. But in February, on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the old furnace has help as we come together for what has become the hottest day of our year: Jazz Sunday. At this annual event, four jazzmen arrive, stepping through snow to carry their telltale instrument cases into our chaste, high-ceilinged sanctuary, setting up next to the piano beside the choir. Usually, they wear dark glasses and dark suits. Scott Mullett is their leader, a local legend who once played sax with greats like Woody Herman and Artie Shaw and has performed with Aretha Franklin and Lou Rawls. For years, he was on the road, and then he came home to roost: our gain. His frequent appearances at Boston-area clubs and bars and similar venues always bring in the crowds. Surely this white-steepled venue is his most unusual. Sometimes he’s been up till all hours, playing a gig in Boston; yet he manages to get to Sunday service on time. He’s accompanied by a trumpeter, a bass man, and a drummer. Scott is a man of few words; his language is his sax, which sings, wails, moans, and cries.
The sanctuary fills. Scott snaps his fingers a couple of times, and they swing out into “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Barbara, our choir director, who’s usually up in the loft turning out the usual Bach or Handel organ prelude, works the piano like Jelly Roll Morton. Close my eyes and I’m in New Orleans. This is our faint effort to tie in to Mardi Gras–a way for us slightly uptight Northern Protestants to steal a bit of joy from our more fluid Southern cousins. As the service begins, we move on into the hymns, maybe “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” or “Down by the Riverside.” Scott and his men listen to one verse and then jump in with their harmony. Earlier, we rehearsed our anthem together; “Amazing Grace” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” are favorites. The choir sings a lot of oos and ahs and amens; we know we’re just backup for the main attraction. Our voices blend with their hot sounds. The congregation starts to sway, a bit stiff at first, smiles broadening, and finally they bring their hands together in time with Scott’s beat.
Lent is an arcane Christian ritual of self-denial and abstinence. Some people give up something for which they have a weakness, like chocolate or alcohol. Some fast. It’s a hungry time. Mardi Gras is actually French for “Fat Tuesday”–the last day of eating without restraint before the fasting days of Lent arrive. And so we invite these music men into our church to give us one last good meal. And when we leave the church, our hunger sated, even the snow seems to have melted, just a little.