Before attending this concert, I had never been to Duke University Chapel. I had heard of its splendor, of the peace found within its walls, and of the reverence that its architectural design inspires. As I entered on Thursday evening for the Jazz Vespers service featuring the John Brown Big Band, I was looking for those elements – I found them. My eyes were immediately drawn upward, toward the carved domed ceiling; then I looked down to the wooden pews, already well-filled with folks speaking quietly or in prayer. Duke Chapel provided the perfect backdrop for a reverent event such as this. Here’s the thing about the word “reverent.” By definition, it means “feeling or showing deep and solemn respect.” One might think this definition would equate to being still or quiet. So after finding my seat and casually glancing over the program of the evening, the stillness of that moment was pleasantly disturbed as a drum began to beat rhythmically, followed by the John Brown Big Band processing up the center aisle playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” One by one, the group who were gathered in the pews began to clap, then stand, then bounce in rhythm to the music. I knew then that the description of tonight’s event, “Jazz Vespers: A Service of Celebration” was going to be heavy on the celebration aspect of worship.

A greeting and opening prayer by Rev. Bruce Puckett, the presiding minister of the night and assistant Dean at Duke University Chapel, set the intention for our evening. Yes, this would be a service of worship. But after reminding us that in faith, there is “joy for the journey,” I felt confident the service would focus on rejoicing.

The tone of the service was further cemented with a gospel number, “I Feel Like Praising Him” by Shirley Caesar, expertly rendered by an all-female gospel group comprised of six women, perfectly harmonizing with one another. When one singer was showcasing her talents of incredible range and vocal dexterity, the others were supporting the music with tight harmonies, allowing one singer at a time to shine. The band itself is directed by John Brown, Vice Provost for the Arts at Duke University. Individually, each member is an accomplished musician in his own right, but together their blend was a gift to those not just listening, but singing and tapping along.

Two poems were recited during the service. The first, “Invocation to Madam Jazz,” by Micheal O’Siadhail, implored “Madam Jazz” to show herself to us with words, tones, and hues – she sure did. Later in the service, “Song of the Soul,” a poem by St. John of the Cross, was shared. It spoke of a ruined kaleidoscope, reminding us that even ruined things can be salvaged, and colors are still colors, even in the dark.

A lively gospel number, “God Is” by Robert J. Fryson, sung by the gospel group and accompanied by the big band, filled the chapel with sound. With the space being so cavernous, I expected the combination of voices and instruments to become either lost in the rafters, or a hodgepodge of sound that might keep us from appreciating the blend and the lyrics. Somehow, the sound was well amplified, allowing the audience to get lost in the combination of both the sound and the words, and still hear individual parts of the music.

A scripture reading from John 7:33-44 was read, reminding us of Jesus’ words, “I will be with you a little while longer,” a nod to the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. The reading was followed by the gospel song “No Greater Love” by A. Jeffrey LaValley. In addition to a lovely alto solo, we were treated to instrumental solos as well, allowing the electric guitar, trombone, and dueling saxophones to shine.

“Fix It, Jesus” by The Canton Spirituals led by the gospel group and the band, took us to the prayerful part of the service. We were encouraged to find one of three prayer stations (or all three). The first was a space to write thanksgivings to God; the second, an opportunity to light a candle to accompany a private prayer; the third, a chance for healing prayer with anointing oil, with an assisting minister. As people lined up at the various stations, the gospel group and band set the mood with “Perfect Love Song” by Anita Wilson.

After joining together to recite The Lord’s Prayer, we were given a benediction that reminded us to go out into the world with a song in our hearts, and “Thank You and Amen” on our tongues. “Thank You, Lord (He Did It All)” by John P. Kee was the postlude that had us clapping, dancing, and yes, rejoicing, all the way out the doors, into the night, and mostly likely all the way home.