Jazz Vespers features renowned artist Deanna Witkowski

Andrew Cummings | multimedia editor. Deanna Witkowski (piano) played meditative jazz music as Jonah Hanlon (vocals), Alex Weibel (upright bass), Lea Fanizzi (vocals) and Soon Jin Park (percussion) performed alongside her.

by Andrew Cummings | multimedia editor

Feb. 24, 2022

The smell of incense permeated the chapel as an offering made its way to the front of the room. It was presented in front of the cross, while Deanna Witkowski played contemplative jazz chords on the piano. The crowd was laid-back, but attentive to her renditions of biblical canticles.

Duquesne students gathered in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit on Wednesday to participate in a Jazz Vespers service that featured Witkowski, a nationally-renowned jazz artist.

“I thought it was really nice, it was a break from studying. And it was really nice to just be able to praise and worship and to have that nice guest who was really good at singing and the piano,” said Grace Reitz, one of the student attendees of the Vespers.

“It was really interesting to hear jazz music in prayer,” said Gina Sabol, another attendee.

Performing alongside Witkowski were four students from Duquesne’s Chapel Choir, including Lea Fanizzi and Jonah Hanlon on vocals, Alex Weibel on bass and Soo Jin Park on percussion.

“As a music student myself, it’s very nice to be able to work with someone outside of who I normally get to work with. Especially someone of such a high caliber of musicianship,” said Hanlon.

Witkowski could be seen cracking a grin as she played intently, exchanging looks and smiles with the other musicians.

“Witkowski has worked as a guest music leader in over 100 churches across the United States. She has presented at the Kennedy Center, Duke University, Fordham University, St. Olaf College and perform as a featured guest with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra,” according to promotional material for the event.

Witkowski is a second-year doctoral student in jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She moved to Pittsburgh from New York City while researching one of her musical influences, jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams.

“With her rich knowledge and experience, I thought that this would be a grand opportunity for students to be exposed to other forms of a prayer that we do here at The Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Duquesne,” said Eugene Forish, the director of music and liturgy for Duquesne Spiritan Campus Ministry.

Witkowski began writing music for church congregations when she worked as a church music director. After she left that job, she realized that she had a lot of music that other churches could also use.

“When I started touring with my trio, we would play at a jazz venue or a jazz club, and then I would contact churches and see if we could do a concert or play in a service,” Witkowski said.

Soon after, Witkowski began to sell sheet music of her compositions to churches.

“I started writing out full piano scores for all my sheet music. So now I sell sheet music on my website and I have a couple of recordings where the recordings go with a companion sheet music book. So there’s a lot of churches where I haven’t played but where they use my music now too,” Witkowski said.

Witkowski released a new recording in January of 2022, titled “Force of Nature.” It serves as a companion piece to her biography of Mary Lou Williams that was published in September of 2021.

The prayer at the event is known as Vespers, which is a special form of evening prayer.

“There are different periods of the day where the church offers specific prayers so that we are always engaged in our prayer life with God. The most common ones are morning prayer, evening prayer called Vespers and night prayer called Compline…Vespers occurs at sunset,” Forish said. “It’s a way of giving thanks for the day and to prepare us for rest and the evening, so that we can again glorify the Lord the next morning.”

During Vespers, participants sing and pray using songs and canticles. The event on Wednesday notably incorporated jazz, which created a meditative atmosphere.

“I think it’s a very peaceful way to close the day, but also to bring people together that aren’t necessarily just Catholic or just one denomination,” Witkowski said.

Forish noted how jazz works well with Vespers.

“Jazz is an art form that involves improvisation. It involves the heart, it involves the soul and so it lends itself well through these experiences,” Forish said.

He encourages people to try Vespers.

“I want people to be able to come with an open heart and open mind and a curiosity about the profound, about our celebration of life and prayer through music,” Forish said.