Thursday, May 21, 2015

Golden memories of Grace

50 years ago today, Vince Guaraldi and his trio — bassist Tom Beeson, and drummer Lee Charlton — made history when they debuted America's first worship service jazz Mass at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral.

Nor was Guaraldi a mere performer; he also wrote the jazz portions of the Mass, weaving fresh themes around the chanted "Plain Song" setting of the Eucharist's Missa Marialis. This wasn't merely typical jazz improvisation; all involved with this ground-breaking project took the precaution of adapting the Fourth Communion Service setting as a means of blunting criticism from conservatives who worried about bringing "saloon music" — the Devil's music — from the cocktail lounge into the church.

Such fears notwithstanding — and more than a few nasty, even threatening letters were received, prior to May 21, 1965 — Guaraldi's completed Jazz Mass was a resounding success in every possible way.

Which goes to show that God clearly is a jazz fan.

Guaraldi's involvement with the Mass had begun roughly 18 months earlier, when he was approached by a young Reverend named Charles Gompertz. The latter had been charged by his "boss" — the Right Reverend James A. Pike, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California — to come up with a musical event that would suitably honor the then-under-construction Grace Cathedral during its inaugural "Year of Grace" celebrations. This was a very big deal, as Grace was soon to become the first major Anglican cathedral consecrated in the United States.

Gompertz had been drawn to Guaraldi the same way television director/producer Lee Mendelson had decided to select the jazz pianist for what eventually became the wildly successful Peanuts animated franchise: after hearing "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" on the radio. Gompertz and Guaraldi met at the Trident, the former outlining the project and all of its necessary parameters. None of this gave Guaraldi the slightest pause, who quite famously commented — as Gompertz vividly recalls, to this day — "Bach, Brahms and Beethoven all wrote masses ... so why not me?"

The next year and a half was to be quite busy, with Guaraldi rehearsing at least once each week with Barret (Barry) Mineah and his choir at St. Paul's Church in nearby San Rafael. When the big day finally came, the cathedral was filled to overflowing, people known to have driven from as far away as San Luis Obispo. The sermon was delivered by the quite radical Malcolm Boyd, the "coffeehouse priest" who — among his many other Civil Rights activities — had been one of 28 Episcopal priests present during 1961's Freedom Ride from New Orleans.

When it was all over — when Pike, Gompertz, Guaraldi and numerous other clergy members joined an impromptu reception in the vesting area — they began to realize, in Gompertz's words, that they had "done something bigger than all of us."


The resulting media explosion was huge, even by today's standards; Grace, Gompertz and Guaraldi remained in the news throughout the subsequent summer. The companion Fantasy LP was preceded by a 45 single, which undoubtedly raised eyebrows from casual listeners who never expected to hear "Adore Devote (Humbly I Adore Thee" or Guaraldi's "Theme to Grace" on pop and jazz radio stations. The Grace Cathedral staff, at best reluctant during the ramp-up to May 21, couldn't move quickly enough to take advantage of this unexpected success; Duke Ellington was hired to perform in the cathedral on Sept. 16.

Within just a few years, churches became quite popular settings for jazz celebrations, and of course we don't think twice about such things today.

This Golden Jubilee anniversary of Guaraldi's Jazz Mass hasn't gone unnoticed; I'm already reporting on the work being done by Bill Carter, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. He and his jazz combo and church choir will deliver an anniversary presentation of Guaraldi's Mass on September 6, as faithful readers of this blog already know.

What you don't know is that another endeavor has just been announced, here on the West Coast.

Northern California-based jazz pianist Jim Martinez is no stranger to Guaraldi's music; by total coincidence, he has a new album of Guaraldi covers and Guaraldi-esque originals coming out in just a few weeks (which I'll discuss at greater length in a future post, when the CD is available for purchase). Meanwhile, Martinez has just gone public with his own plan for a Guaraldi Jazz Mass tribute event.

This will be a concert, not a formal Mass. Thus far, Jim anticipates an opening jazz set by his combo, followed by a short intermission and then a lengthy second half featuring his home-base Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church Choir, with the combo, in a program of themes from Guaraldi's Jazz Mass. The performance also will include some Gospel choir songs and major anthem pieces.

Best of all, as you'll see from the announcement here, this event will take place at no less than Grace Cathedral itself.

And, as an added bonus, the Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church Choir will be joined by a number of folks — now adults — who, as children, were members of the St. Paul Church choir that sang in Grace Cathedral 50 years ago today.

How's that for big news?

Jim and Bill Carter are collaborating on the heavy lifting: the necessary transcription of Guaraldi's music from the Jazz Mass, none of which ever was written down. They're doing it the hard way, by listening to the Fantasy LP and a few other snippets of unreleased recordings. (The original Grace Cathedral Mass ran much, much longer than what we hear on the Fantasy LP; the full majesty of Guaraldi's "Holy Communion Blues" is known to have lasted more than half an hour ... because a lot of people received Communion that evening. Sadly, that full recording is believed lost.)

Additional details will follow, so watch this spot.

It's gonna be a busy summer!