DER Documentary

The Shepherd of the Night Flock

The Shepherd of the Night Flock

Duke Ellington at the piano with Father John Garcia Gensel. photo by Chris Stam

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by George C. Stoney, James Brown, Paul Barnes
black & white, 56 min, 1975

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The Shepherd of the Night Flock is a documentary about a jazz ministry at St. Peter's Lutheran Church at 54th and Lexington in Manhattan which was led by Father John Garcia Gensel.

Gensel had started the Jazz Vespers for those musicians of his growing night ministry who couldn't make it to Sunday morning service after playing late Saturday night gigs. It became the church home for many musicians including Zoot Sims, Billy Strayhorn and Billy Taylor, and the legendary jazz great Duke Ellington, who was a frequent worshiper. He called Pastor Gensel "the shepherd who watches over the night flock" and wrote a song with that title, which is how the film was named. In the film Father Gensel delivers a moving eulogy for Ellington at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

The need for a film began because the church was being relocated by a skyscraper construction project - its first edit, People on the Move, was used by churches across the country which were facing a similar problem - but the film began to evolve as needs became clear. One special use was to introduce different parts of the congregation to each other. There was a morning service run by old Germans who thought that the Jazz Vespers was just for people of color and others who did not really fit into what their idea of a congregation would be. Stoney says, "And so we started making stuff about the Jazz Vespers. And then combining 10 minutes of the morning service and 10 minutes of the Jazz Vespers. And we found that the morning people didn't realize that the Jazz Vespers was actually a religious experience. And the Jazz Vespers people saw that the morning service people really cared about the traditions of the church. And it began to pull the congregation together."

Over time the film developed into a nuanced biographical portrait of John Gensel.

This DVD is part of the George C. Stoney Collection

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Article: "The Shepherd of the Night Flock" by Nat Hentoff, JazzTimes, February 1999

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Related Links
Article on Rev. Gensel in the New York Daily News.

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