Tuesday, August 18, 2015

An afternoon of Grace

“Mother never said there might be a day like this.”

First words out of my mouth. Couldn’t help it.

I had just been introduced — and quite warmly — by Grace Cathedral’s Rev. Canon Elizabeth Grundy, and all I could do was look out across the assembled multitude (officially 611 patrons!), and then up-up-up at the way-high ceiling, almost out of view.

Apparently everybody understood, though, because my awe-struck remark drew plenty of sympathetic chuckles.

But I’m getting ahead of things. Let’s start at the beginning.

Constant Companion and I arrived at Grace at about 10:30 Saturday morning; we had left home quite early, not wanting to take any chances with the San Francisco area’s notorious traffic (which, yes, can be ghastly even on weekends). As a result, we were first to arrive, and so killed some time by browsing through the cathedral’s gift shop. I couldn’t help noticing a counter-top rack of CDs that included several copies of Duke Ellington’s Concert of Sacred Music at Grace, recorded live September 16, 1965 ... but no sign of Fantasy’s recording of Guaraldi’s Mass, which had preceded Ellington by four months.

So I wanna know: What’s up with that?


We soon were joined by Marcia and Nancy Goodrich, two of the long-ago St. Paul’s Church choir members who, as children, had rehearsed with Guaraldi for roughly 18 months, while his Jazz Mass came together. They were excited, to say the least: positively bubbling with anticipation.

In short order, our little group expanded to include Rev. Charles Gompertz, who had “hired” Guaraldi for this revolutionary commission, back in the day; David Willat, another former St. Paul’s Church choir member; and Rev. Bill Carter and his daughter, Katie. The latter two had flown in from Pennsylvania — at Jim's invitation — and this was Katie's first visit to California (which, later in the day, gave us a great excuse to share some “classic San Francisco culture” with them).

John McDaniel, standing, leads the Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church Choir through an
intense rehearsal, granting many of the singers their first exposure to Grace Cathedral's
rather intimidating acoustics.
Jovial greetings having been exchanged all around, we chatted until about 11:30, whence arrived the bus commandeered to transport the Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church Choir. We all trooped upstairs into the cathedral itself, discovering that Jim Martinez and his band already were setting up, checking sound levels and so forth. When the cathedral closed to the public 15 minutes later, Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church Director of Music John McDaniel ushered the choir members to their places, and spent a solid hour-plus running through the songs, paying special attention to some of the trickier choral passages.

I occupied that time in the foyer, just in front of the inner labyrinth — a replica of France’s Chartres Cathedral labyrinth, laid into the Grace floor — and listened while setting up an exhibit of archival photographs and newspaper articles. 

A forecourt display table included facsimile reproductions of the original 1965 Grace
Cathedral Jazz Mass programs and tickets, notebooks filled with archival letters and
newspaper articles from that same period, and even copies of the U.S. Library of Congress
copyright deposits that registered Guaraldi's ownership of "Theme to Grace" and the
other original compositions that became part of his Mass.

I had come prepared: All the photos were enlarged to 18-by-24 images and placed on easels. An adjacent table at one side was covered with replica tickets from the original Guaraldi Jazz Mass performance, along with other letters and written documentation assembled into notebooks, for easy perusal. On the other side of the labyrinth, Jim’s parents had set up a second table, where they prepared a sales display of his jazz CDs. They also graciously allowed me to include a small stack of my Guaraldi books, and promised to promote them just as enthusiastically.

Jim Martinez and his band members — Brian Clark, bass; and Tim Metz, drums — also
took advantage of the opportunity to get familiar with "the big room."
The cathedral interior had grown a bit balmy, thanks to the day’s unseasonable warmth, which would rise to a record-breaking 91 degrees, by late afternoon. (One of my mutant powers is the ability to trigger abnormally high temperatures, wherever I visit.) We certainly weren’t uncomfortable inside, but I’m sure the environment usually is much cooler.

The doors opened to the public at 1:30, and people began to file into the pews. Jim and I took that opportunity to retreat into one of the worship area’s adjacent changing rooms, where we upgraded our sartorial ensemble with colorful Snoopy ties. (Although mindful of the spiritual grandeur of our surroundings, one can’t get too serious.)

We took our places at 1:45, waiting and watching as the cathedral filled ... and filled ... and filled. Jim and I exchanged a delighted glance: Mission accomplished, and kudos to all the pre-publicity outlets that graciously listed our event. We were about to entertain an impressively full house.

At 2 p.m. promptly, McDaniel stepped to the organ keyboard and played a luxurious anthem (the first of several items that deviated from the program handed to folks as they entered). Rev. Canon Elizabeth Grundy was next, welcoming all visitors and citing the presence of several special guests: the four members of the original St. Paul’s Church choir; Rev. Gompertz; and Rev. David A. Crump, the latter also present back in 1965, when he was vicar of St. Jude the Apostle in Cupertino, California.

Then Rev. Canon Grundy smiled in my direction, and brought me to the stage as emcee.

I’ve already shared my first words. Aside from reflecting my feelings, that short sentence also gave ample indication of the echo challenge ahead. I’d heard, more than once, about Grace’s notoriously long “lag time”; I’d also been advised to speak slowly. The wisdom of that latter suggestion became obvious immediately, as every one of my words landed atop the previous word-minus-one. I was working off the cuff, and trying not to forget any of the last-minute notes supplied by Jim: a process made considerably more difficult by the running duel I had with my own words bouncing back at me.

That echo effect also made it impossible to “work the room” with my modest attempts at comic timing, so I quickly abandoned that effort.

But I’m told it sounded all right to the audience, even as I was awash in reverb: no doubt thanks to the expertise of the Grace Cathedral staffer who was operating a mixing board the size of a Buick. (I’ve seen professional music studios with smaller boards!)

I took about 10 minutes to briefly discuss Guaraldi’s career in the 1950s, a decade when he worked primarily as a sideman in various ensembles, most notably with Cal Tjader and Woody Herman. I touched on his first two albums, as leader, for Fantasy: LPs whose sales were so modest that his original three-record deal was terminated shortly after the second one was released. Things were looking grim for him, until the fortuitous Stateside arrival of Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) on December 21, 1959, with its rich bossa nova score by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes and Luiz Bonfá, which inspired Guaraldi to record his own arrangements of the film’s four primary themes. That led to a new contract with Fantasy — for only one album, and for which Guaraldi was forced to pay for his studio time — which begat Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, which in turn included the soon-to-be-hit single, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”

At which point I introduced Rev. Gompertz, since his chance hearing of that song, on a radio in late 1963, had led him to contact Guaraldi about the possibility of writing and performing a mass to help celebrate the “Year of Grace” that was honoring the new cathedral. Gompertz took up the story, sharing some anecdotes about what took place during the 18 months of rehearsal, leading up to the Mass’ unveiling on May 21, 1965. He also spoke passionately about this event’s historical significance, chiding those who, at the time, had quavered in their conservative shoes, awash with righteous indignation over the arrival of “saloon music” in God’s house.

At somewhere in the vicinity of 80 years young, Gompertz has lost none of his oratorical power: The man knows how to command a room. Even that enormous room.

(When I mentioned this to him later, Chuck smiled and insisted that he had held back a bit. “Oh?” I asked. “You bet,” he replied, “because nobody was shaking.”)

As Rev. Gompertz returned to his seat, I led the audience in a warm welcome for Jim Martinez, bassist Brian Clark and drummer Tim Metz. The subsequent “first act” was devoted to selections from Jim’s new album, Good Grief, It’s Still Jim Martinez, and the band opened with a lively handling of the CD’s first song, “Bang!” (Any relation between that song and ye humble blogger is no coincidence: an act of artistic generosity that I certainly never expected in my lifetime.) This was followed by two more of Jim’s originals — “Samba de Snoopy” and “Blues for Beagles” — and then a medley of Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” and “Linus and Lucy.”

Once the excitement was over, Rev. Carter graciously paused long
enough to share a Kodak moment with your humble blogger.
Jim then surrendered the piano to Rev. Bill Carter, as I returned to the microphone and explained that he had flown out from his own home church in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, to “check out” our efforts in anticipation of his own Guaraldi Jazz Mass tribute, which he’ll present as a church service on Sunday, September 6. As it happens, Jim and Bill have known each other for years, which I guess shouldn’t come as a surprise; the fraternity of jazz-worship pianists can’t be that large! Anyway, Bill roared through a ferocious cover of Guaraldi’s “Pebble Beach Theme,” which he introduced as “a Peanuts theme that everybody recognizes, but nobody knows the name of.”

With Jim back at the piano, the next song was Rod McKuen’s title theme to the 1969 big-screen Peanuts film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, with guest vocalist Margie Rebekah Ruiz delivering a soulfully sweet interpretation of the poet/songwriter’s poignant lyrics.

(“It makes me cry every time I sing it,” she confessed to me later. No surprise there; glancing throughout the hall, I could see several people equally moved by her handling of the tune.)

The trio concluded their set with a finger-snapping cover of Guaraldi’s “Surfin’ Snoopy,” after which I brought Rev. Carter to the microphone. As the 70-strong Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church choir filed into several rows behind him, Bill spoke with a passion even greater than Chuck had displayed, about the “rightness” of jazz’s place in the church, and the lamentable narrow-mindedness of anybody who would believe otherwise. (View the full text of his sermon here.)

Bill, too, can command a room.

Then he held us just as rapt with a deeply moving solo piano version of “Be Thou My Vision,” a traditional Irish hymn.

Which brought us to the main event: the “50th Anniversary Concert Choir” presentation of “Selections from Vince Guaraldi’s Jazz Mass,” accompanied by Jim’s trio. McDaniel took the podium and led the choir through lush performances of the jazz-inflected “Kyrie Eleison,” “Theme to Grace” (check out an excerpt here) and “Nicene Creed,” the lovely harmonies and powerful unison choruses reflecting the utter joy that all the singers brought to their performance. David Willat was all smiles, as had been the case during the rehearsals he attended in July and early August, making the long drive from Santa Rosa to Fair Oaks in order to be part of this momentous event.

Following the “Nicene Creed’s” concluding “Amen,” I briefly returned to the microphone for my favorite introduction of the afternoon:

“Ladies and gentlemen, making his return engagement at Grace Cathedral, please welcome former Vince Guaraldi Trio member ... Lee Charlton.”

Metz graciously surrendered the drum sticks to Charlton, the latter laying down the beat that introduced the instrumental “Holy Communion Blues.” But Lee wasn’t the sole surprise, as that jazzy number took off. Bill Carter impulsively rose from his seat in a front pew, smiling impishly, and gently shoved his way onto the piano bench alongside Jim. Suddenly, spontaneously — with no prior planning — Bill and Jim were jamming with four hands on the single keyboard. After a few minutes with Bill in the upper registers, Jim got up, walked around to the other side of the bench, and gently nudged Bill down to the lower registers. They never broke melodic stride as these trade-offs continued, the improvisational touches getting bolder and jazzier, Charlton and Clark grinning broadly and loving every minute, as was the audience. When the jam finally concluded, and as Bill returned to his pew, the crowd broke into furious applause and — the grandiose setting notwithstanding — loud cheers. (Catch a major portion of that action here.)

Even the choir applauded, before McDaniel fixed them with a commanding glance and led them into “Come Holy Ghost,” “Humbly I Adore Thee” (Bill replacing Jim on piano, for that one) and, finally, “Come With Us, O Blessed Jesus.”

Guaraldi fans couldn’t help being transfixed throughout; I certainly was. Although the Fantasy album, with its shortened excerpts from the original 1965 Mass, has kept that music alive for those who’ve long admired the reverential blending of jazz and venerable hymns, those themes haven’t been heard in their debut setting for half a century.

“It’s a miracle,” Gompertz insists, and he’s absolutely correct. That Guaraldi’s Jazz Mass ever happened in the first place was miracle enough; that we were privileged to hear it again, in Grace Cathedral, was miracle anew.

McDaniel announced that the choir would conclude with three additional selections — “Appropriate to the occasion,” as he put it — and the combined Fair Oaks/St. Paul’s Church singers rose to the occasion, delivering wondrous, worshipful renditions of “Come to the Music,” “Total Praise” and “Worthy To Be Praised.”

And then — two amazing hours passing, seemingly, in the blink of an eye — the performance was over. I returned to the microphone one last time, introducing all participants and then facing the audience for my own final words:

“History was made in this grand space, 50 years ago ... and, I believe, we made history again today. So ... the next time you attend a church service, and succumb to the desire to tap your toes, or snap your fingers, think back to the feisty little Italian pianist from North Beach who made jazz in the church cool.”

Farewells were lengthy, scores of patrons lingering to congratulate Jim and his trio members, and Bill Carter, Lee Charlton, John McDaniel and individual choir members; Charles Gompertz and David Crump also basked in their share of praise.

Rev. Carter and his daughter, Katie, enthusiastically shared a Lava Bowl at San Francisco's
thoroughly tiki-fied Tonga Room. Who says the clergy don't know how to have fun?
As for the rest of the day ... a small group of us joined Jim and his parents for a leisurely and conversation-laden dinner at Fior d’Italia, a nearby North Beach restaurant with delicious food (but no air conditioning, which quickly made the interior dining room far warmer than the cooler, late-afternoon air outside). With early evening upon us, and little groups parting in various directions, Constant Companion and I offered to introduce Bill Carter and daughter Katie to the kitsch tiki delights of San Francisco’s (in)famous Tonga Room, with its internal rainstorms and rum-laden libations. They needed no persuading.

Our spur-of-the-moment arrival proved even more delightful when we unexpectedly bumped into David Willat and his family and friends, who had chosen to dine there and had just reached the alcohol-fueled shank of their celebration. Amid far too many Mai Tais, Hurricanes and Lava Bowls, and despite the cacophonous presence of the world’s worst 1980s cover band, we all prolonged each other’s stay for several more hours, during which ... well, no, that would be telling.

But: Truly, a day to remember.

And one, I hope, that Vince himself would have appreciated.


For those interested in some of the pre-publicity we managed to drum up:

A nice piece by Gary Moskowitz in the August 7 issue of SF Weekly

A brief August 10 interview with Jim Martinez by Gary G. Vercelli, jazz music director at Sacramento’s Capital Public Radio

A slightly longer August 10 interview with Jim and Rev. Gompertz on Insight, one of Capital Public Radio’s public affairs shows

An impressively well-researched article by David MacFadden, published August 12 in the Wingtip Modern Gentleman’s Blog

A delightful two-minute spot assembled by reporter Irene Cruz, which ran twice on the morning of August 15, on Sacramento’s KXTV News10. (If you prefer a non-Facebook link, it's also available at the News10 website.)

And, best of all...

An enterprising fellow named Steve recorded the entire Grace Cathedral concert, and has posted his efforts. The concert is divided into two YouTube files — Part 1 and Part 2 — divided at the point Rev. Carter gives his short sermon. Unfortunately, a portion of his talk is missing (no doubt when Steve had to switch to a second memory card). The video is reasonably stable — very little shaking — and the audio quality is quite good, given the camera placement. For those unable to attend in person, this will give a solid sense of the event.

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