September 16, 2015


Jazz's long road to religious respectability (H.G. AND ERASMUS, 9/16/15, The Economist)

For people who yearn to combine riffs, religion and respectability, there was a breakthrough just over 50 years ago when a "Jazz Mass" was celebrated at Grace Cathedral in San Franscisco, a newly completed Episcopal place of worship. The work by Vince Guaraldi (who was then little known but would later become famous for composing music for the animated Peanuts) has been performed at least twice in the past few weeks to mark the happy anniversary.

Both renderings were organised by Bill Carter, a jazz pianist who ministers to a Presbyterian church in northeastern Pennsylvania and is also the founder of a group called the the Presbybop Quartet.  After laboriously transcribing the music, he helped to bring the Jazz Mass back to its Californian starting point for an annivesary concert last month; then he thumped it out in his home church in Clarks Summit, whose annual calendar includes jazz services around America's Labour Day, which falls on the first Monday of September, and on Christmas Eve.

And there is a church on the southwestern side of Washington, DC, where jazz sessions are an even more regular fixture. At Westminster Presbyterian church, Every Friday is jazz night, while on Mondays, there are sessions of blues. There is no explicitly religious element in these performances, but nor is there anything about them that conflicts with the Presbyterian creed, whose democratic governance has led the denomination and its individual communities to metamorphose in all manner of unexpected ways.

"There is nothing in our creeds and confessions as Presbyterians about doing jazz," notes Brian Hamilton, who co-pastors the church with his wife Ruth. But he adds that in his vision of things, following Jesus Christ involves trying to "restore people" on all levels, physically, spiritually and emotionally.

Vince Guaraldi's Jazz Mass Re-Created for Grace Cathedral  (Gary Moskowitz on Fri, Aug 7, 2015, SF Weekly)

"His hands were too small to span an entire octave on the piano, so he couldn't play certain chords," Bang told SF Weekly. "His sound is so uniquely him. You hear a few bars and you know it's him playing."

When it came time to officially unveil San Francisco's newly completed Grace Cathedral, it was decided that there was to be a "jazz mass" performed, and Guaraldi, now a Grammy-winning local hero, was tapped for the job. He spent 18 months working with a choir in San Rafael every Saturday to create a groundbreaking piece of work that remains largely overlooked by fans of Guaraldi, who died at age 47 in 1976. He performed his jazz mass on May 21, 1965 at Grace Cathedral, which is considered the first time mainstream jazz was heard during an American church service.

In an effort to remind fans of this piece of jazz history, Sacramento-based pianist Jim Martinez and his quartet will lead a 50th anniversary concert presentation of Guaraldi's Jazz Mass at 2 p.m. Aug. 15 at Grace Cathedral. The Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church Choir, directed by John McDaniel, and several members of the original St. Paul's Church Choir who performed alongside Guaraldi and his trio in 1965, will perform alongside Martinez.

Guaraldi's journey to writing jazz music for a church service can be traced back to music composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa for the sountrack to Black Orpheus, a 1959 film by French director Marcel Camus set in a favela in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval. Guaraldi loved the music, and recorded his own arrangements of that album's main themes in 1962, right when "Girl From Ipanema" and other bossa nova music was getting big in the U.S., according to Bangs.

Posted by at September 16, 2015 1:18 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus