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Medford church to host jazz performances

The First Presbyterian Church of Medford is launching a jazz series and hopes to draw in people who aren't traditional churchgoers.

"A lot of people would describe themselves as spiritual but not religious," says Pastor Murray Richmond. "A traditional worship service doesn't work for them."

The Jazz Vespers series premieres at 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 10, at the church, 85 S. Holly St., in downtown Medford. The series will continue every second Sunday of the month.

Richmond says people are used to hymns and contemporary pop-style music being performed at church, but jazz is more unusual.

"Jazz has an inherently spiritual quality to it," says Richmond, who worked as a DJ for a radio jazz program in Alaska before he relocated to the Rogue Valley to head the flock at the First Presbyterian Church of Medford. "The whole style of improvisation mirrors our lives with God. We follow a theme but improvise the whole way as we go."

The Jazz Vespers series will include time for meditation, reflection and prayer, but the centerpiece of each service will be the creativity of the musicians, organizers say.

Pianist Laszlo Cser from the Los Angeles area and Ashland bassist Joe Cohoon will be the first performers for the series.

A native of Hungary, Cser grew up under a communist regime. While sitting in a classroom at school, he was singled out by high-ranking Russian officers to play piano solos and to provide accompaniment for Moscow opera singers who were entertaining at the largest Russian military camp in Hungary.

Cser and his family were frightened by the request, but his successful performances led to increased recognition. He gradually developed into a professional pianist and became fascinated with the emerging sound of American jazz.

With communist restrictions easing in the 1960s, Cser and his musician wife began touring western Europe and emigrated to the United States in 1970. They settled in Los Angeles and Cser performed in venues that included the Beverly Hills Hotel, the legendary Biltmore Hotel and the Los Angeles Opera Placido Domingo Award Dinners.

A few of his well-known clients and fans included Tony Curtis, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Dick Van Dyke. His love of jazz can be heard in his unique and individualistic arrangements of music by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin and others, organizers say.

Rogue Valley resident Robin Blomquist is helping to organize the Jazz Vespers series in Medford. He previously lived in Los Angeles and helped start a jazz series at a church there.

"Laszlo Cser was my first musician to perform down there," Blomquist says. "He helped it get started. He was such a good luck charm, the series is still going."

Cohoon was raised in Portland and saw The Beatles perform on television in 1964. The band ignited a lifelong passion for music within him.

He regularly performs with groups that include the Ed Dunsavage Trio, Grooveyard Trio, Duke Street and Nowhere Men, a Beatles cover band.

The Jazz Vespers series will showcase a mix of local and national talent, organizers say.

"I'll probably have a few musicians coming up from Los Angeles, but the Rogue Valley is loaded with good musicians," Blomquist says.

The First Presbyterian Church of Medford is incorporating other artists into the mix.

The evening of Jan. 10 will include an art exhibit by local textile artist Cathy Ulrich.

Richmond says contributions from visual artists could include everything from exhibiting their work to speaking about the painting process to creating a painting in response to the musicians' performances.

"We want to use as many local artists as we can," he says.

With its great acoustics and large-scale, historic stained glass windows, the church is the ideal venue for a series that celebrates the spiritual side of creativity, organizers say.

"This is a service for people who don't think they like church," Richmond says.