Formerly known as the Norwegian Seamen’s Church, The Scandinavian Jazz Church continues its monthly jazz service which has been held since 1905.
The reason is probably that Scandinavians are serious music fans, especially fans of jazz and New Orleans.
For hundreds of years, Scandinavians were seafarers, especially Norwegians, and that country established missionary-style churches to cater to Norwegian seamen all over the world in port cities in 1864, to provide a taste of home, comfort and spiritual counseling, and a place for respite from the ships they lived on and the hardships of living at sea.
The New Orleans Norwegian Seamen’s Church was established in 1906, and at one point in time was one of 30 US churches. That number has dwindled now to only six, and recently the Norwegian Seamen’s Church New Orleans (NSCNO) was closed by its Bergen, Norway-based home church.
The NSCNO also became known for the jazz that was played there regularly. At least once a month (usually the first Sunday at 11 a.m.) there’s a service that features local jazz musicians. And there are many events at the church that feature local musicians too. It became known as jazzkirken (the jazz church).
Church historians say that Narvin Kimball, the church’s letter carrier by day and jazz banjoist at Preservation Hall by night, was among the first invited to play in the church. By the late 1970s, the church began hosting jazz concerts in the dining room and by the swimming pool and conducting a jazz service the first Sunday of each month. Renowned New Orleans jazz musicians, including musician and singer Uncle Lionel Batiste, trumpeter Gregg Stafford, guitarist-banjoist Seva Venet, banjoist-raconteur Danny Barker, pianist Sadie Goodson, bassists Chester Zardis and Roland Guerin, trumpeter Leon Brown, and clarinetist, bandleader, composer, and jazz historian Dr. Michael White, made the Jazz Church one of New Orleans’ little known but greatest jazz venues.
When the local community found out that the NSCNO was closing, a group put together a committee to try to find a way to keep the church open, and through a lot of hard work over at least a year, the group has managed to buy the church from Norway, and it’s now been re-christened the Scandinavian Jazz Church and Cultural Center.
If you’ve never been there, you should go to enjoy the jazz services, to say nothing of the phenomenal Norwegian and Scandinavian coffee and pastries after the Sunday services.
Father Winston Rice, head of the new operators, says, “Of course, music will continue to occupy an important place in our worship as we continue the practice of a jazz service on the first Sunday of each month. In due course, we hope to expand our schedule of jazz services and further enrich our regular worship liturgy by incorporating into it more music, especially jazz. We also aspire to become a center for the celebration of Scandinavian history and culture and are planning exhibits and events to accomplish that goal.”
“We have high hopes for the Jazz Church,” continues Rev. Rice. “We have a hardworking board of directors, advisory council, and the Nordic consular corps is on board. We are aiming to become a Nordic cultural center and a ‘home away from home’ for visitors. We expect to celebrate Syttende Mai, hold a large Scandinavian festival in November, perform Santa Lucia in December, and offer numerous cultural events throughout the year. Plus, we plan to join in with local culture by serving a crawfish boil in April and participating in the French Quarter Festival, Jazz Fest, and Mardi Gras. We have a significant long-term relationship with the community at large for the efforts we have undertaken. Additionally, we hope to stimulate more Scandinavian travel to our part of the world. It’s a challenge. It’s as if we’re standing on top of a big oil field—just have to figure out how to drill the well.”
The transition to a local governing group doesn’t come without a price. The Jazz Church has approximately 16 months to raise $700,000 to purchase the building. If funds are not secured, the NCA will take back the building, release the Jazz Church from its commitment, and offer it for sale.
The editor would like to thank Cecila Kjellgren from New Orleans for sharing the information on the Scandinavian Jazz Church in New Orleans with us.
Part of this information has previously been published in Offbeat Magazine.