“Mum, no more churches.” My son’s words came back to me yesterday as I waited for Jazz Vespers to start in a church perched atop a hill, open to the trade winds – when there are any. It is the St Croix Reformed Church and, because of COVID, the monthly event has not taken place for a couple of years.
I am not a regular church goer but I love churches.
When living in Scotland and after long, dark and dank winters I craved sunshine, so Italy became our chosen summer escape. And, apart from mouth-watering food and the nectar of the gods, the architecture of Italian churches, not to mention the statuary and art work, is sublime. An education in itself. But there is a limit to how many times an eight-year-old can be hauled around churches in every town or village passed through. And for his mother. The glory, the candles and rites can become overwhelming.
That same child, let’s call him Edward, went to a nursery school in Singapore affiliated with St George’s Church, originally built for the British garrison in the 1860s. The current church, completed in 1910, has the ability to transform from day to night. By day bulbuls and golden orioles flit amongst hibiscus planted outside, or swoop in to sit upon the gables of the pitched roof. The sturdy brick, barn-like structure is open to the elements on both sides of the nave, which leads to a modest altar below three stained-glass windows. By night the jungle chorale of crickets and frogs join the congregation in song, and the church becomes a beacon in the dark.
It is the simplicity I have always loved. There is no pretension.
Going back even further in my memory is the chapel at my boarding school, NEGS, in Armidale, Australia. The Florence Green Memorial Chapel, named for the founder of the school, is also a simple design – cruciform – and built of Armidale ‘blue’ brick. One transept houses the organ and choir, the other, junior members of the school under the stern eye of the incumbent headmistress.
Despite despising the regulatory uniform of ‘sacks’ (the name given our white Sunday best) and stockings, even at the tender age of ten I could appreciate the calm beauty of the silky oak interior and pews. At morning services the sun would stream through the transept stained-glass window to cast a blue haze over girls in the front pews.
The chaplain I remember best was the Reverend Alan Gordon – a man intent on engaging a chapel full of reluctant girls by any means possible. It was he who implemented a student folk group – a Kumbaya-kind of service conducted by senior students as we sang songs like Blowing in the Wind or, even more radical for rural Australia, House of the Rising Sun, accompanied by guitars.
Majesty without pretension.
Last night, in the church on the hill the sound of Eddie Russell and his jazz musicians brought back memories of other churches that sang to me. So too the realization that it is not the scriptures but the spirituality of the building and the music that speaks to me.
Eddie, invariably wearing black, is a well-known musician on St Croix and is the band leader. He plays a mean keyboard and flugelhorn, and keeps tight control of the group even if sometimes there is confusion as to what is to be played next. I closed my eyes during his solo of Simba Negro, taken to Argentina on the notes from a flugelhorn.
Ronnie, his brother and one-time lawyer and senator, loses himself as he rocks to the sounds coming from his agile fingers running up and down the frets of his red guitar. The bass guitarist, Mario Thomas strums the rhythm whilst sitting on an amp – his chords reach the depth of my soul as he plays a solo in Chromosome. He’s a cool dude whose face every now and then breaks into a broad grin. The quartet is complete when Ken ‘Afra’ Dailey settles behind the drums, testing different sticks before hitting the cymbals and controlling the beat that send talismans swaying around his neck. He is a hat-maker by trade and last night he wore a kind of paperboy cap on top of his long greying dreads.
I thought of Edward, of churches around the world, as the jazz soul of the Caribbean, accompanied by cricket song, enveloped me in a church filled, not just with the devout, but with people like me, open to the architecture, to the music, to the harmony of life.