NEW YORK (RNS)--It is a "Homecoming on Earth"--a way for jazz musicians and fans alike to congregate and enjoy what one singer calls the closest thing to prayer known in music.

"This is our little spiritual home for the jazz community," said singer Nancie Banks during the recent celebration marking the 30th anniversary of the annual "All Nite Soul Jazzfest" at Saint Peter's Lutheran Church on Manhattan's East Side.

The site of weekly "jazz vespers" since 1965 and renowned for its ministry to New York's large jazz community, Saint Peter's is something of a Manhattan institution--but an entirely informal and inviting one.

During the Oct. 8 anniversary celebration, which kicked off at 5 p.m. and finally wound down at 4 a.m. the next day, the mood was relaxed and quietly joyful, like a reunion of old friends.

The musicians held to a loose schedule but always left room for a guest or two. Jazz fans and longtime supporters of Saint Peter's came and went as they liked, enjoying barbecued chicken and cornbread dinners in a small dining area outside the brightly lit, modernistic sanctuary.

Proceeds from the $20 admission--a bargain compared to some of Manhattan's renowned jazz clubs--went to support the jazz ministry and the church's weekly breakfast program for the homeless.

The acts were impressive. Younger artists, such as the Oak Park Middle School Knights of Jazz from Leesburg, Fla., enjoyed the spotlight, as did veteran artists like pianist Billy Taylor. There was also a nice blending of old and new: the venerable Cab Calloway Orchestra was led by Calloway's grandson, Chris Calloway Brooks.

When not introducing the artists and serving as co-host of the event, the Rev. Dale Lind shared a word with old musicians, offering encouragement, pastoral support and, in some cases, a few dollars to tide them over for a few days.

Lind, an easygoing, bearded bear of a man, took it all in stride.

Lind has been at Saint Peter's "off and on" since 1964. He worked as a bartender and cafe manager to support himself through seminary and his initial years as the church's young adult minister.

He took over the jazz ministry in 1994 upon the retirement of the Rev. John Garcia Gensel, whose spirit still infuses the church's weekly jazz services, annual commemorations, and frequent funerals and memorial services for jazz musicians. Gensel originated the weekly jazz vespers and the church's jazz ministry, which Saint Peter's proudly declares "seeks to blend the riches" of jazz "with the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Gensel, who died in 1998, was something of a legend in musicians' circles.

Known as New York's "jazz pastor," he once told a reporter that a jazz musician "can be a lonely guy at four in the morning." In one of his more famous acts of pastoral care, Gensel took Thelonious Monk to the hospital when the famed pianist injured himself in a tumble from the stage.

With his clerical collar and quiet manner, Gensel was, said biographer Brian Kates, "one unlikely hipster." But Gensel followed his call: he was, Kates said, put on Earth "to minister to fallen musicians."

Pianist Frank Owens recalls feeling so happy after performing at Saint Peter's that he suggested to Gensel that he might even join the church. "He said, `Well, why don't you?"' Owens said, laughing at the memory. "He called my bluff."

Banks, a Buddhist, had a similar experience with Gensel, who once kidded her that she appeared at Saint Peter's only when she had a gig. "It didn't matter," she said. "He realized that jazz was the highest form of prayer in music."

Following on the path set by Gensel, Lind has provided a "safe space," a place where musicians can joyfully come together and commune with God through their music.

Does Lind think the musicians play in a special way at Saint Peter's, which, with its spacious and bright sanctuary, is in stark contrast to a dark and crowded Manhattan jazz club, like the famed Blue Note?

"You can't say," Lind said. "But they do feel they are offering their talent here. It's a worshipful setting, so their head is in a different space here than it is at the Blue Note."

"I can say that the music comes from their heart and soul." Banks concurs. "Every time we sing, or pick up a horn or strike a drum," she said, "it is like we are saying a prayer."

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