In 1987, when Tom Goldsmith came to Salt Lake City to be the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, he brought with him the memory of a jazz program he had attended in a New York City church a few years earlier. And in the 25 years since he started it in 1989, his version of Jazz Vespers—a “jazz alternative” to his Sunday-morning service—has developed a loyal following, most of whom are not Unitarians. “We opened the door to the jazz world and a whole new community came pouring in,” he recalls.
From the outset, Goldsmith had a clear idea of what he wanted Jazz Vespers to be. “Jazz Vespers is not a jazz club,” he says. “It is the means of awakening a spirit within a deeply appreciative audience.”
Over the years, that audience has responded by asking Goldsmith to officiate at jazz weddings and to conduct jazz memorials. “It is a ministry,” Goldsmith says warmly. “The musicians and I serve the jazz community, and we’re filling a real need for that demographic.”
Goldsmith has steered Jazz Vespers away from a musical style he describes as “toe-tapping” or “easy-listening.” A level of sophistication is required of the listener, he says, even when an entire program is a tribute to the likes of Bob Marley, the Rolling Stones, James Brown or Carole King, as was the case in 2013.
“It is an educated audience that listens attentively,” says Steve Keen, a prominent jazz pianist who led Jazz Vespers from 2003 to 2009.
It is also a generous audience, judging from the fact that Jazz Vespers pays its own way, through donations. “I call it the Unitarian Jazz Miracle,” Goldsmith says with a smile. “It has never cost the church a penny.”
Despite its stately colonial exterior, the First Unitarian Church is conducive to jazz, Goldsmith says, because it is an intimate space—not a big hall. On the Sunday nights devoted to Jazz Vespers, the pews fill early for the 90-minute program, made up of performances by some of the city’s best jazz musicians and Goldsmith’s often-wry commentary, which he calls “View from the Other Side of the Wasatch.” The early arrivals wait expectantly under the dimmed lights on the chandeliers, fiddling on their smartphones and reading their Kindles. The overflow crowd settles into an adjacent room to watch the performance simulcast on a big screen.
I confess to having a tin ear for jazz. I have a history with Dave Brubeck’s iconic Time Out album, and I like a few tracks on an album by Keith Jarrett gifted to me many years ago. That is the extent of my engagement with jazz.
Nevertheless, my Jazz Vespers experiences have been satisfying. Even one as untutored as I can appreciate the art of improvisation and the seamless interplay of piano, bass, sax and drums. Plus, the variety of music has its own appeal.
Keen says that he varied the sound and musical concept from week to week by rotating musicians. “If you didn’t care for the music one week, you could be sure that the following week would be nothing like it.”
“Magical” is a term Goldsmith uses often when recalling 25 years of Jazz Vespers. Magical performances have been commonplace over the years, thanks to the imprimatur of the three pianists—Vince Frates, Keen and Courtney Smith—who have successively anchored Jazz Vespers. Goldsmith estimates that since its earliest days, when the only other jazz venue in Salt Lake City was D.B. Cooper’s, 50 musicians have performed at one time or another at Jazz Vespers.
One of them, David Halliday, has been playing his sax for 13 years. Others, like vocalist Kelly Eisenhour, who now lives out of state, are returning for a special 25th-anniversary concert at the Rose Wagner Center on Feb. 9 at 7:30 p.m. KUER radio’s jazz director, Steve “Daddy-O” Williams, will emcee a program described by Goldsmith as a not-to-be-missed “mixture of history, sentiment and joy.” Songs by Glenn Miller, Junior Wells and Bono are among those on the celebratory program.
The concert is free and open to the public. “It would be an insult to charge for tickets,” Goldsmith says.