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Lutheran Pastor John Gensel Likes to Mix Jesus and Jazz

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Eleven in the morning is a very unholy hour for night people like jazz artists,” says the Rev. John Garcia Gensel. “Even services at 2 would be too early.” As a result, Gensel, a jazz buff who has attracted large numbers of musicians to his congregation, tailors Sunday worship at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in midtown Manhattan to a more relaxed rhythm. Among those who attend his jazz vespers on Sundays at 5 p.m. are trumpeters Howard McGhee and Joe Newman, pianist Billy Taylor and singer Estelle Williams.

In all, some 300 jazz greats, including the late Duke Ellington, have played for services at St. Peter’s. The congregation is soon to move into a new church as daring architecturally as it is liturgically: Situated on a shopping mall, St. Peter’s three-story vault will nose up into a 59-story skyscraper of offices and apartments.

Born Juan Garcia Velez in Manati, Puerto Rico, Gensel, 59, took his last name from an uncle in Catawissa, Pa. who reared him from the age of 6. “I was always off-center,” says Gensel. “I was baptized a Roman Catholic and became a Lutheran pastor. And I was a Puerto Rican growing up in Pennsylvania Dutch country.”

Gensel received his bachelor of divinity degree from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in 1943, the same year he married his wife, Audrey, who now teaches kindergarten in Harlem. (The Gensels have two sons, one daughter and three grandchildren.) After two years as a Navy chaplain, Gensel did graduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He then served a trailer court in Piketon, Ohio, where he was dubbed “the atomic pastor” because the town had a nuclear facility.

In New York in 1957, his love of jazz—first sparked by a Duke Ellington concert he heard at the age of 15 in tiny Berwick, Pa.—led him to take a course in the subject at the New School. He began making field trips to the clubs. “I realized musicians needed someone to talk to,” he says. “Being away from home a great deal leads some to loneliness, girls, all kinds of things.”

Gensel visits clubs a couple of nights a week, sometimes nursing a ginger ale or two until dawn. “For me the music is therapeutic,” he says. “I get high as a kite on it.”

“He’s just like a father to us,” says tenorman Buddy Tate, who played with Count Basie. “Reverend Gensel never lets us down. When we die, we get put away nice because of him—and that’s real nice.”