Friday, March 20, 2015

Mass appeal: Chapter 1

Guaraldi fans know that this year marks the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, first broadcast December 9, 1965: the show that introduced most of the world to "Linus and Lucy" and the other catchy themes that Dr. Funk wrote and performed for that television special. No doubt this occasion will be marked by plenty of publicity, and likely a special event or two; I'll certainly try to keep up with them in this blog.

The hoopla surrounding that first Peanuts TV special, however, threatens to overshadow another Guaraldi milestone also celebrating its golden anniversary this year: the Jazz Mass that he wrote and debuted at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, on May 21, 1965.

Although Guaraldi's score for A Charlie Brown Christmas (and subsequent Peanuts TV specials) had a massive impact on the American public's music taste — unquestionably turning more people onto jazz than any other single artist — his Grace Cathedral Mass is more significant historically, for a variety of reasons.

As I explain in my Guaraldi bio, in part:

The entire concept was completely radical. No American church had ever employed jazz in such a setting [during an actual worship service]. The Rev. Charles Gompertz [who "hired" Guaraldi for this assignment] knew of only one earlier precedent. Geoffrey Beaumont, a London priest, had composed a Jazz Mass in 1956: a work scored for a cantor and a jazz quartet. Beaumont and his composition made the news in 1957, but the vicar's performance of this work always took place after his regular services at St. George's, in Camberwell.

Guaraldi's Mass was an impressive success, and not just in San Francisco.

The subsequent publicity wasn't merely a localized wave; it was a tsunami that swept across the entire country. The Grace Cathedral Mass was granted a page-length article in Time magazine; the single accompanying photo showed Guaraldi and his trio members, Tom Beeson and Lee Charlton, above a caption that read "Praising the Lord with blues and bossa nova."

The Grace Cathedral staff couldn't move quickly enough, in an attempt to replicate the event. No less a jazz icon than Duke Ellington was hired to perform in the cathedral later that same summer, on Sept. 16.

But Guaraldi got there first. He even beat Ellington.

That's huge.

I'm therefore excited to report that Guaraldi's Jazz Mass will be revived later this year ... so mark your calendars and book your travel reservations.

Before I share further details, a quick sidebar:

My specific interest in Guaraldi notwithstanding, my general interest in jazz also prompts lengthy surveys, each December, of new holiday jazz releases; these have been published both in the local newspaper, and in the jazz-oriented blog that I share with my father. If you're curious, the 2014 installment can be found here; one of the albums discussed is Jazz Noel, a nifty CD/DVD package from Bill Carter and his Presbybop Christmas Eve Band. Aside from fronting this outfit, Carter also happens to be pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania.

Carter and I began a correspondence, during which I discovered his interest in Guaraldi, and his then-nascent desire to mount an anniversary presentation of the Grace Cathedral Mass.

Nascent, no longer. 

It's happening, folks: this coming September 6, at Clarks Summit's aforementioned First Presbyterian Church. My wife and I will be there, and I'm hoping to have a modest role in what I've no doubt will be a tremendously exciting day.

Given the magnitude of this upcoming event, it seems appropriate to let Bill discuss everything involved. The rest of this post will be given over to him, for the first installment in a continuing series of "Guaraldi Mass Progress Reports."

Take it away, Bill!


The idea for revisiting the Guaraldi Mass came on Christmas morning, actually. For a dozen or so years, we have done a late-night Christmas Eve jazz service. It's well attended in our mountain town in northeastern Pennsylvania, drawing a mixed crowd of the pious faithful and the religiously indifferent. We jazz up the carols and turn the drummer loose. 

This year, on the morning after, I reflected that it's time to freshen up the event — and recalled that 2015 would be the 50th anniversary of the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. It was a quick decision to say, "Let's do that music at next year's Christmas Eve." Just for fun!

The next thought: Well, 1965 was a big Guaraldi year. Since we also do a big wing-ding on  Labor Day weekend, what if we did the Guaraldi Mass for that event? We've had an annual jazz communion that weekend since 1992, often drawing a theme from the work of various composers. We used Guaraldi's work in 1999, shortly before Sparky's Schulz's death the following year. I transcribed lead sheets for "Theme for Grace" and "Holy Communion Blues," and the music was a favorite of many.

In the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, I began to inquire about the availability of the Jazz Mass scores. People were pleasantly helpful, but no one could put hands on the music. Chuck Gompertz wrote a lovely note to provide the back-story for the mass, much of which I knew. The music director at Grace Cathedral expressed immediate interest in the project, but assured me there were no scraps of original manuscript in the church's choral library.  

Andrew Thomas shared his work on the Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi documentary, a remarkable film that deserves to be seen widely! And then Andrew wrote back with the e-mail address for Malcolm Boyd, the notable theologian who preached at the 1965 mass. Regrettably, I did not have time to write Malcolm before his recent passing. But I have received a recording of Malcolm's sermon from the Mass (thanks to you, Derrick).

Clockwise, from top left: Tony Marino, bass; Bill Carter, piano and leader; David Liebman,
guest soloist; Ron Vincent, drums; Jeff Stockham, trumpet and French horn; Mike Carbone,
sax; and Al Hamme, sax.

Since then, I've been clearing the deck of other projects, including a new recording with my sextet and guest soloist David Liebman. That CD is called Jazz for the Earth, and we're moving toward an April 22 release through CD Baby, our online distributor. The picture above is from the recording session.

Next up is the work of transcription, which will involve sitting with the Guaraldi Mass and writing down what I hear. I found an old red Episcopalian hymnal on eBay, and located much of the liturgical melodies. A few still are missing — so here's my request for anybody who already has transcribed parts of the Mass to get in touch with me, at

I'd love to hear any stories about the original event!


Coming soon: Chapter 2 in the ongoing adventures of Bill Carter, Presbybop and the Battle for Transcription Fidelity!

1 comment:

Doug said...

Woot! (as the kids would say these days) I was glad to find a number of YouTube videos featuring Bill and Presbybop, indicating that the project is in capable hands. One of my favorites is their take on "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming":

In terms of Guaraldi transcription prowess, I don't know whether he's ever tackled any of the Jazz Mass, but it might be worth trying to get in touch with Jesse Nolan (, an accomplished musician who has arranged other Vince tunes for small and large groups.