Deanna Witkowski is, in the words of an enraptured audience member at one of her shows, "the coolest Christian singing the hottest jazz." Not that you'd necessarily know Witkowski was a Christian if you slipped into one of her many late-night gigs in New York restaurants and clubs.

She does not thank Jesus when she acknowledges the audience's applause or say, as some Christian musicians have, that the next number is dedicated to a very special carpenter she knows. Nor does her self-financed debut CD, Having to Ask, betray her Christian commitment. But spend a few minutes talking to this 28-year-old Wheaton (Ill.) College graduate and you'll recognize a person whose faith flows as deep as the complex melodies and rhythms she bangs out on her piano.

"I don't really witness directly when I'm performing," says Witkowski. "What I find satisfying on a gig is when someone connects with the music on an emotional level. If people respect you for what you're doing artistically or professionally, then they'll build a relationship with you." Witkowski—young, white, and female—in no way looks the part of the proverbial New York jazz musician. Her lanky frame, frizzy red hair, and pale, freckled skin suggest a cross between a field hockey player and a grown-up Strawberry Shortcake doll. But hearing her play her instrument quickly quashes any doubts about her presence in the jazz world.

Her songs reveal an affinity for Cuban and Brazilian rhythms—a reflection of her studies under famed pianists Chucho Valdez and Hilario Duran—blended with traditional jazz and classical styles. The resulting sound is surprisingly mature, savvy, and confident. Indeed, she has been hailed by jazz critics as the real deal: "A major talent," declared Jazz Improv magazine.

Witkowski knew she would pursue a career in music ever since she was 10, when her parents scraped together $50 to buy her an old upright piano. She arrived at Wheaton intending to study classical piano but found herself drawn to jazz after a friend inspired her to take up saxophone on the side. Soon Witkowski began fooling around with jazz piano, trying to teach herself tunes she remembered from old movies. During the summer she returned home to Rochester, New York, and took classes at the prestigious Eastman School of Music. Then she concocted a scheme to keep studying jazz at Wheaton. "There was no jazz pianist on the Wheaton faculty, so I asked if I could take private lessons for credit," she recalls. The college agreed. After spending her college years in Chicago, where she honed her chops at downtown clubs and in the renowned Chicago Jazz Ensemble, Deanna moved to New York to further develop her career. "What I like about jazz is that you get to play with other people," she says. "Jazz is more of a communal thing. When you play classical piano, there are lots of solo opportunities. But with jazz, there is more opportunity for interaction.

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"This passion for community is what drew Witkowski to All Angels' Episcopal Church, the large evangelical congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where she served as director of music for nearly three years. On Sunday mornings, she was responsible for planning a worship service rich with classic hymns. On Sunday evenings, when the church serves a dinner to homeless people in the area, she directed a gospel choir and put together a program filled with soulful worship. In April, she left her staff position to focus on her jazz aspirations, though she still plays at churches on Sundays.

In her time at All Angels', she wrote two jazz settings of the liturgy, composed scads of new tunes for familiar hymns, and created musical meditations, such as "Water from the Clouds," which she wrote from the perspective of a desiccated tree to accompany a reading from Jeremiah 17. Though Having to Ask doesn't include any of her "sacred" compositions, she says her next album will feature those pieces.

Witkowski says her faith and musical life often come together in remarkable ways. "At All Angels', I sometimes had to hire musicians from outside the congregation for our evening service. A friend of mine who plays bass was raised Episcopalian. I didn't know that until I invited her to play at All Angels' and learned that not only had she been raised Episcopalian but that she had been wanting to come back to church." And then there's the sax player—not a Christian—who told Witkowski: "Music is the only thing I feel I can give to God."

"Some people might see my church work as being about God, and the rest of my music as just being for me," says Witkowski. "But I don't separate music in the church and music outside the church. I play music because I love to play music, whether in the church or in a club. I want all of it to glorify God, whether there are words that talk about God or not."

Photography by Nelson Kwok

Related Elsewhere

Deanna Witkowski plays at the Kennedy Center tonight through Monday. The performances will be cybercast live at information about the artist and her recordings, sample tracks in RealAudio format, and Witkowski's itinerary are available at

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Witkowski wrote about her music for All About Jazz. Her debut album, "Having to Ask," is available from and other music retailers.Several years ago, Christianity Today profiled Latin American jazz musicians Justo Almario and Abraham Laboriel. Books & Culture, our sister publication, has published articles about the spiritual sides of Charlie Parker [Nov/Dec 1997, print only] and John Coltrane.

Last year, World magazine reported on the witness of Christian jazz musicians, including jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut.Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, which is located in San Francisco, features the music of Coltrane and other jazz greats in its worship services. has an in-depth article about jazz music that highlights a number of the various schools.Christianity Online's Music & Media Channel features news and reviews about a wide variety of Christian music.

Previous music articles in CT include: Whoa, Susannah! (October 4, 1999) Music: Where's the Gospel? (December 8, 1997) Highlights: The Changing Sound of Music (October 6, 1997).

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