On a Monday night in October during midterms, the University of Portland came alive with the sound of jazz. Over 100 students, faculty, and staff gathered to and hear musicians perform their original compositions inspired by The Saint John’s Bible illuminations.
“I think a few people were kind of surprised we did that,” said Karen Eifler, Co-Director of the University’s Garaventa Center, of linking the illuminations to jazz and not the traditional classical music.
When the pandemic disrupted the University’s “Music at Midweek,” a required class for music majors to hear local musicians perform live, Karen was invited to speak to students (on Zoom) about The Saint John’s Bible. She included about twenty illuminations in her presentation as a gentle and inclusive way to get people who might be otherwise cautious of religion to explore the possibilities within the Bible.
Don Norton, Director of Jazz Studies, was enchanted with the art, especially The Vision of the Seven Churches and Road to Emmaus illuminations. “Don was really drawn to the meaning behind the illuminations,” recalled Karen. She connected the illuminations with the insight and emotion of these passages as conveyed through the artists’ use of imagery and color. “He had never actually read the story Emmaus in depth, so he read it and sat with it.”
This set into motion a much bigger project– the creation of original jazz compositions inspired by The Saint John’s Bible.
Don, a saxophonist, and his Facing West quartet soon began writing jazz compositions to share the story of Emmaus. The music depicts joy in the unexpected and finding the divine everywhere-just as the artists have done through their illuminations.
Jazz Creates the Unexpected
“To pair the illuminations with jazz was a leap of faith, said Karen. “But it wasn’t that I chose jazz for those illuminations; it was a jazz artist who chose those illuminations for his art.” The experimental quality of the genre may open new avenues for others who are seeking a spiritual journey to be inspired by The Saint John’s Bible.
The launch party was organized with the same intent as “Music at Midweek,” so people could hear the musicians play their compositions live and tell the stories behind the individual pieces.
During the performance, Karen could see a common reaction among the guests, “As the pieces ended and people had put the segments of the story of Emmaus together, hearing it unfold in jazz, they were inspired to just sit with the images and the text for themselves.”
The unexpected did not stop there. Three seniors who were introduced to The Saint John’s Bible as first-year students approached Karen after the concert, “When we were freshmen, you said we could spend time alone with the Bible. We want to do that.’” And so, they did.
“Facing West” CDs were sold during the launch party, and the links to the quartet’s Spotify, Apple Music, and Deezer were requested by nearly all in attendance.