The Rev. Julie Wakelee-Lynch isn’t going to be running the show when the basement of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church bustles with musicians rehearsing, teaching and studying, but on a recent walk through the warren of unfinished rooms she practically glowed with pride.
After a decade at the Albany congregation, Wakelee-Lynch is moving on in January, leaving behind an institution that’s become a thriving community resource and a vital cultural hub presenting concerts series, art exhibitions, and regular literary events, like last summer’s premiere of playwright David Schweidel’s Biblical divorce musical comedy Eve v. Adam: Who Gets the Garden?
With the recent acquisition of a Baldwin baby grand piano for the sanctuary and a Steinway baby grand on in the Parish Hall on longterm loan from a parishioner, St. Alban’s boasts two well-equipped rooms with excellent acoustics, venues that are attracting widespread attention on the musicians’ grapevine. On Saturday, Jon Hatamiya, a rising jazz trombonist and composer from Los Angeles, performs with his trio featuring bassist Emma Dayhuff and guitarist Arlyn Anderson.
“There’s always been a great love of music here, and some community music groups were using the hall when I arrived here,” said Wakelee-Lynch. “But there wasn’t concert series. That took some time to build.”
Berkeley flutist Jane Lenoir launched St. Alban’s highest profile musical endeavor three years ago with the Third Sunday Concert Series, which kicks off the 2020 season with a Jan. 19 performance by Beth Custer’s Clarinet Thing. The quartet, which explores tunes by Ellington, Monk, Carla Bley, Herbie Nichols and original pieces, features fellow reed experts Ben Goldberg and Harvey Wainapel, both Berkeley residents, and Oakland’s Sheldon Brown, who coaches Berkeley High jazz saxophonists.
Lenoir had been renting the St. Alban’s sanctuary for performances by the Berkeley Choro Ensemble and the Berkeley Choro Festival for several years when she approached Wakelee-Lynch with the idea of the church hosting an ongoing concert series. She’d watched Kit Eakle build a solid following for his jazz violin series at Point Richmond’s First United Methodist Church and thought “we should be able to do this in Albany and North Berkeley.”
“Julie and I talked about it and she just lit up,” said Lenoir, who notes that the St. Alban’s concerts all pay a guaranteed minimum, much like the fees advocated by Jazz In the Neighborhood. “She was an equal partner in this. She insisted we have wine and snacks to create a welcoming environment. It’s really her legacy, bringing music into this great space for chamber music and plucked instruments and unamplified instruments. And this neighborhood is full of great musicians with nowhere to play.”
Wakelee-Lynch had long been making space for neighborhood musicians before Lenoir approached her about a series presenting world-class artists. Eight years ago she offered Pegasus Books space in the church for readings. Pegasus’s Joe Christiano quickly approached Wakelee-Lynch about creating the monthly musical gathering HOOT!, thematic concerts for which community members can sign up to sing. The December show featured Clubfoot Orchestra pianist Joshua Raoul Brody and his Beatles-steeped band accompanying singers performing The Beatles (The White Album). HOOT! returns on Jan. 12 for a session devoted to “Old Favorites: Songs About Aging.”
Possessing a gift for team-building, Wakelee-Lynch has marshaled a dynamic team for St. Alban’s latest venture, Calliope, a new arts organization that’s on the cusp of attaining 501(c)(3)nonprofit status. The reverend recruited Christine Staples as the director after meeting her through Staples’ fundraising efforts for the Berkeley High Band and Orchestra (in which Wakelee-Lynch’s daughter played clarinet before she graduated).
Claire Burns (née Duplantier), who co-founded and ran the Subterranean Arthouse in downtown Berkeley for nearly a decade, lives around the block from St. Alban’s, and she signed on as Calliope’s president. “We’re still forming our board, but there are already a lot of awesome people in place, like Claire and Mary Lee Cole, who founded WriterCoach Connection,” Staples said. “We’re planning a series of fundraising events, and as soon as we get 501(c)(3) we’ll start writing grants. The idea is this place will be hopping from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. with lessons and practice and rehearsals.”
In many ways Wakelee-Lynch has been in the vanguard addressing dilemmas shared by most mainline Protestant churches, namely aging congregations, diminishing membership, and the millennial generation’s indifference to organized religion. Music and the arts already serve as spiritual manifestations for many people. Wakelee-Lynch wants the community around St. Alban’s, which encompasses congregants and the whole neighborhood, to provide similar sustenance.
“I have to really give it up to her, she’s a visionary,” Staples said. “This is a national dialogue that’s happening. Churches are having to look at their spaces and think about ‘Who are we and how to do approach our community?’ Daycare and pre-schools are common, what else can we do? She’s been engaging in deep conversations with people in the congregation about where the church is going.”
Sadly, Wakelee-Lynch is moving on. Like so many others she’s been priced out of the area, and is still taking stock to figure out her next move (after a nice long vacation). The reverend can move on knowing that she’s left a sturdy foundation for St. Alban’s to continue expanding as a cultural resource. She’s already seen the power of the arts to draw in new congregants, though her goals always expanded beyond the church.
“Building community and advancing social justice through the arts, it just seems like a total no-brainer,” she said. In fact, it’s the mission statement for Calliope and an integral part of the church’s vision. “We’ve got a historic 100-year-old organ that’s been cared for well, and great spaces for people to gather. I believe in the most traditional sense of the parish, not just people who come together on Sunday. The whole area should be served. I feel fortunate having spent a decade helping them be more fully who they already were.”