They found themselves be-bopping, dancing down the aisle. Wait, what was this? “We Three Kings” was the perfect postlude hymn for the Epiphany “Gifts of the Wise Men” Sunday church service. But the familiar carol was suddenly morphing at the piano into a catchy rhythm with syncopated beats and improvised trills and cadences. The congregation at Patagonia Community United Methodist Church (PCUMC) found themselves laughing with “the beat in their feet” as they left church.
This was one of the delightful musical surprises the churchgoers have been finding sprinkled into the Sunday worship since their new keyboardist, Scott Ramsey, came on board this new year.
When you hear his story, it’s no wonder that church music gets a new flavor with Ramsey. Jazz, blues, country and western, swing, musical theater – he’s performed and directed them all in bands or performing groups.
A new resident of Patagonia with wife Christie Pennington, Ramsey saw an ad in the PRT seeking a pianist for PCUMC and got hired as the successor to the much beloved Bernice Pomeroy, who was the organist/pianist for over 35 years until her passing at age 98. Ramsey has jumped with spirit into this new gig. His lively approach might catch some in the pews off-guard with a little unexpected introit or riff, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so much.
“My concept of the 21st century version of church music is blending in the American music history of rock, blues, jazz, country, and swing,” said Ramsey. “Take that baseline and lace it with the liturgy for a coming together of modern sounds and incorporating the word of God. We’re not trying to change the message, just the presentation. I want to keep the congregation awake thinking of why they’re there. My music is there to support Pastor Patty in opening them up and thinking about the worship.
“A little jazz-rock angle can bring a higher level of energy to music. People respond to it,” he said. “Not too much [of it], don’t go overboard. Make it so people can feel it. It’s interactive. I’m there depending on what the moment needs. It’s relatable, not too hard, not too classical. Someone who doesn’t like rock and roll can enjoy it when it’s in my hands.”
As a child in Illinois, Ramsey took pipe organ lessons from three different teachers per week, practicing five hours a day. His young repertoire ranged from Latin beats, hustle and swing for roller skating, and musical theater organ masters to liturgical Bach fugues for Sister Raphael.
After moving to Florida, he was hired, at age 14, as a full-time organist for a Lutheran church. At the same time, he played for local musical theater productions. Then came rock organ for bar bands and a pattern over decades of playing jazz and blues and acting as music director “for any scenario I’ve been in, whether rock band, musical theater, or churches.”
And, along the way, he has been a piano technician and mover for 30 years, first in Flagstaff and then in Tucson.
Ramsey will be working with PCUMC Music Director Anne Quirin and Pastor Patty Frick on Patty’s vision of creating a series of Jazz Worship Services. He also has his eyes set on bringing in guest musicians for Sunday services and helping re-open the church’s massive Thurber Hall and its stage as a venue for community music events. On a personal level, he has started playing music at local restaurants and wants to create a jazz trio.
One day he was curious about Chopin’s chord changes. After analyzing them, he said, “I realized Chopin was jamming. I guarantee that every time Chopin was playing, he was jamming. I bet he – and Bach – were jamming. The classical world hangs on the one performance; I’m sure he played differently every time. Rock music is not frozen to what was performed in studio. Music is not static.”
Improvisation is a key element of jazz – or as Ramsey suggests, in some classical music also. And who would have expected a PCUMC Sunday church service to be the place to experience it? It’s a lively way to start a year of celebrations for the local church’s Centennial year.
As Ramsey promises, “Be in the moment. We don’t know what to expect. But it’s always fun.”