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Union Congregational Church
UCC music director Eric Olsen on piano, Rob Middleton on saxophone, Ratzo Harris on bass and Tim Horner on drums. COURTESY ERIC OLSEN

By DEBORAH ANN TRIPOLDI
tripoldi@montclairlocal.news

The “Houses of Worship” series spotlights local religious organizations. General information about the church is below. If you have religion news you think we should spotlight, please send to religion@montclairlocal.news and culture@montclairlocal.news.

A jazz concert and a church service all before noon sounds almost impossible and more than a full Sunday morning. However, Union Congregational Church does just that once a month.

It has its own quartet, a four-member band of professionals that perform jazz for the congregation once a month on Sunday mornings during the worship service. 

Union Congregational Church
Eric Olsen

The idea started five years ago when congregant David Jovard asked the church to do a jazz service after seeing Montclair’s Jazz Festival, said UCC music director Eric Olsen. Olsen said Jorvard enjoyed it so much he felt it fitting for the congregation.

The Rev. David Shaw joined UCC as senior minister in 2015, so the jazz services preceded him. “The jazz services add energy, a different energy; vibrancy to the service,” he said. “It’s uplifting and high energy. People look forward to those services.”

The quartet is composed of Eric Olsen on piano, Rob Middleton on saxophone, Ratzo Harris on bass and Tim Horner on drums.

Olsen said the church tried to do jazz services about 10 years ago but the timing wasn’t right. Jazz was at every service and it didn’t resonate with the congregation; members told him they wanted the traditional music. Now, holding the services once a month seems to please all. The congregation participates in the music on Sundays. “Some want to hear the traditional music. […] Some people come just because of the jazz service,” Olsen said.

Olsen and Middleton write or create the arrangements of the music, giving it a jazz spin. “We are very lucky to have a great group working here. If someone wants to hear a hymn in a jazz style we will do it. Jazz services are a lot of fun for everybody, and the musicians included,” said Olsen.

One song for example the band performed with a jazz beat is the popular hymnal “Morning has Broken.” According to Olsen, Shaw collaborates with the band on music ideas, but Shaw said, “I let Eric handle all that.”

Songs are usually based on the Sunday’s theme. For example, the church’s theme for this year is being neighborly, and they have been performing Fred Rogers’ song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”

Shaw said the music sometimes takes a different spin when the band improvises. “Because of improvisation of the music, some pieces can last a little longer for contemplation. It serves as a reminder that jazz music can take different turns, just like life’s unpredictability.

“Things can take a left turn and they can be beautiful and jazz is kind of like that,” he said.

The church also has an orchestra, Ensemble Union Orchestral, with members of the jazz band, Middleton and Olsen, and members of the congregation, including some as young as the fourth grade.

“Jazz is impromptu perception, the place where the spirit goes into you as you are doing improvisation,” Olsen said.

Union Congregational Church
Union Congregational Church

UCC Jazz services

Sundays at 10 a.m.
Union Congregational Church
176 Cooper Ave.
Unioncong.org
973-744-7424

Oct. 27; Nov. 17; Dec. 22; Jan. 19; Feb. 23; March 29; April 26; May 24
June 21 — Music Sunday, corresponds with Montclair Makes Music.

Saturday, Feb. 29 at 7:30 p.m.: Union Jazz Band Concert with Eric Olsen, Rob Middleton, Ratzo Harris, and Tim Horner.