Thursday, September 10, 2015

East Coast Grace

September 6 dawned sunny and bright in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, with an early warmth that anticipated the day’s eventual climb to a humid 88 degrees. The sticky Sunday morning surroundings notwithstanding, things were cool and inviting in the city’s First Presbyterian Church — “The Church on the Hill” — when we entered at 8:30 a.m.

Indeed, as cool and inviting as Rev. Bill Carter’s welcoming smile.

We were an hour early for the morning’s events, knowing that some prep time was necessary. I was accompanied by what came to be known as my entourage: Constant Companion Gayna, our Boston-based friend Scott, and our D.C.-based friend Doug. The four of us unpacked the enlarged photos, facsimile 1965 Grace Cathedral programs and other vintage materials — recently used for Jim Martinez’s tribute concert (see previous post) — that I had shipped to Carter’s office. 

Armed with easels and other display materials, we set up a tableau in the church foyer, designed to give parishioners a sense of what it had been like for Guaraldi and his band, half a century ago.

This actually was my second visit to the church, following a brief appearance the previous morning, during a final rehearsal involving Carter (on piano), Al Hamme (sax and flute), Tyler Dempsey (drums), cantors Susan Kelly and Alan Baker, and members of the First Presbyterian Church choir. I hovered for roughly an hour, mostly checking sound levels and balance by sitting in different parts of the worship hall. The trio initially overwhelmed the choir a bit, so I encouraged Bill to enhance the gain on their microphones (which earned an appreciative smile from the singers). Jon Tichenor, affiliated with the local NPR station WVIA, spent that same time setting up recording microphones in front of all instrumentalists and vocalists.

No, we didn't plan it: Bill and I were amused to discover, at the Saturday morning rehearsal,
that we had worn the same Peanuts shirt: Schroeder at the piano, sporting dark specs,
beneath the phrase "It's okay, I'm with the band!"
(My understanding is that, at some point, portions of the Sunday morning service will be broadcast on WVIA as part of a new “Music from First Presbyterian” radio series; details will follow, as they’re verified.)

During my casual sound check, the band and choir ran through a couple of the hymns that Guaraldi had arranged for his Jazz Mass — “Come With Us, O Blessed Jesus” and the “Nicene Creed” — along with his original composition, “Theme to Grace.” Everything sounded excellent, reflecting the dedicated practice that had taken place during numerous earlier rehearsal sessions. Individual singers queried a couple of fine points, but otherwise Carter seemed quite pleased by the results, as well he should have been. I certainly was.

But back to Sunday morning:

At about 9:15, my little group took their appointed seats in the second row, while I followed Carter into the “ready room” behind the worship hall. We were joined by Hamme, Dempsey and bassist Tony Marino, the latter sharing the eye-watering details of some particularly volcanic salsa/marinara sauce that he had concocted, with hot peppers from his own garden. Carter smiled at the shared memory; I simply shuddered.

A few minutes before 9:30, Carter beckoned me to follow, and we strolled back into the worship hall. During our brief absence, some 200 parishioners had pretty much filled the pews; roughly 50 more people continued to arrive, and were seated in folding chairs.

I know what it looks like, but no; I'm not reading from the Bible!
(It was just there, and I didn't dare move it!)
I was impressed and, frankly, overwhelmed. The service wouldn’t begin until 10 a.m.; I was merely the opening act ... and yet a sizable percentage of Carter’s congregation had arrived early, in order to hear my introductory historical overview of Guaraldi’s emerging career, and the events that led to his commission to compose and perform his Grace Cathedral Jazz Mass. I found it far easier to talk in Carter’s church, than had been the case three weeks earlier at Grace Cathedral, due to that venue’s intimidating “lag time.” Without the echo effect produced by my words landing atop each other, I was able to “work the room” in a more relaxed manner, and the congregation was generous enough to chuckle in all the appropriate spots.

The one mildly intimidating detail: I couldn’t move about with a portable microphone, as I’d been told to deliver my talk from Carter’s raised lectern. (I resisted the temptation to begin by asking the congregation to come to order.)

Carter had requested that I talk for 20 minutes; I ran about two minutes long, which seemed acceptable. (If you’re curious, my entire opening commentary is available via YouTube.) Brief hustle and bustle followed, as I quietly claimed my seat in the second row; Carter’s Presbybop Quartet and the choir members took their places, and then the combo opened the service with a performance of Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” To say that it perfectly set the mood would be an understatement; this familiar tune amply showcased the tight-tight-tight bond shared by the band members, with Carter, Marino and Hamme trading solos and comping inventively behind one another.

The Clarks Summit Presbyterian Church Choir, with cantors Alan Baker and Susan Kelly
at the far left.
Demonstrating a gift for oratory every bit the equal of his ferocious piano chops, Carter then welcomed the congregation and led everybody in the Call to Worship. This was followed by the choir’s first number: Guaraldi’s gentle jazz waltz handling of “Come With Us, O Blessed Jesus,” with the quartet playing an interlude between each of the hymn’s three verses. The congregation joined enthusiastically, their combined voices guided by the choir and — most particularly — Kelly’s very welcome, conductor-style gestures.

I was impressed by the way Carter and his band “helped” everybody remain at tempo. You’ll generally notice, under similar circumstances and with less accomplished instrumentalists, that a full congregation concludes a hymn at a tempo that’s significantly slower than when it begins. Not the case here: Presbybop took no prisoners — in the gentlest way possible — and the result sounded terrific.

During the months that Guaraldi’s original compositions and arrangements were meticulously transcribed, Carter took pains to put the Mass’ various components back into their proper order (one not reflected by the 1965 Fantasy album, which played fast and loose with sequence). Thus, this opening hymn was followed by the “Kyrie Eleison” and “Veni Spiritu,” at which point the Rev. Susan Wonderland (liturgist) led a Prayer for Illumination, and then presented the First Lesson (Acts 10:34-48).

Carter then broke briefly from the formal service, in order to spend a thoroughly charming few minutes with the congregation’s youngest members, during a “Time with Children.”

“How,” he asked the half-dozen kids who filed nervously to the front of the worship hall, “do you know when you’re happy?”

Shyness precluded any meaningful response, so Carter took the lead, gradually revealing the motivation behind his query. Music is happiness: an encouraging suggestion to let loose, and yield to any impulse to sing or dance, and a joyous reflection of God’s love. So never be afraid, he concluded while directly addressing his young listeners, to join in by clapping hands or making your own noise ... “even if the adults frown.”

It was an impressive interlude, all the more because Carter maintained such assured control. Working with little children is a tight-wire act requiring delicate balance and a gift for split-second recovery, as can be attested by those who recall the “Kids Say the Darndest Things” segments of Art Linkletter’s House Party TV show.

(I also found it delightful, after the children returned to their seats, that the little girl at the opposite end of our pew duly clapped her hands — rarely in time, but who cares? — during all subsequent musical segments.)

Carter returned to the piano for the band’s lovely, lyrical reading of “Theme to Grace,” with the choir adding exquisite vocal shading. He then took the lectern to deliver the Gospel Lesson (John 3:16-21) and an absorbing sermon, titled “A Risky and Worthy Venture,” which charted the inception of Guaraldi’s Mass, and the impact it had back then, and continues to have to this day.

“It was a fresh marriage of jazz and liturgy,” as he acknowledged in a recent interview.

I’ve long known why Guaraldi’s Jazz Mass is so historically significant; it’s refreshing to find somebody who regards it with similar respect. (Which is undoubtedly why Bill and I get along so well!)

Once the sermon concluded, the band and choir led the congregation in the festive, waltz-time arrangement of “Come Holy Ghost,” followed by the challenging “Nicene Creed.” Despite the latter’s unusual cadence and single-note melody, the congregation rose to the challenge: Carter had wondered, during rehearsal, if only “a few brave souls” would attempt the Creed, but most everybody I saw tackled it with gusto.

One might say they were determined to do God — and Guaraldi — proud.

Carter then delivered a poignant solo piano reading of Guaraldi’s “In Remembrance of Me,” which led into the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. Kelly and Baker soloed on Guaraldi’s arrangement of “Sanctus” and “Agnus Dei,” followed by a reading of The Lord’s Prayer.

The Presbybop Quartet, performing Guaraldi's "Holy Communion Blues": from left,
Tony Marino on bass; Bill Carter on piano; Al Hamme on sax and flute; and Tyler Dempsey
on drums.
Then it was time to break bread and pour from the cup, with the entire congregation taking communion while accompanied by Presbybop’s (mostly) tranquil handling of Guaraldi’s “Holy Communion Blues.” I say “mostly” because Carter and Marino couldn’t entirely control themselves, occasionally adding some salsa-hued spice to the proceedings via briefly energetic solos.

The congregation then rose for the final hymn: Guaraldi’s lively arrangement of “Humbly I Adore Thee,” with Presbybop lending some tasty, triumphant spirit. I noticed, during this closing song, that a press photographer had begun to circle the room, to take some candid photos. (He had been requested to wait until then, in order not to disturb the service.)

Carter retrieved the microphone one last time, to give the closing Benediction.

Then Presbybop really cut loose, with a welcome pair of Guaraldi standards presented as Postlude Music: an energetic cover of “Linus and Lucy,” with Carter roaring through his keyboard solo; and an equally animated reading of “Pebble Beach” (“a tune you’ll recognize,” Carter promised the congregation, “even if you don’t know its title!”).

And then, with me feeling a mixture of joy and regret — that it was over, so quickly, after so much preparation — the service concluded, a reverential and yet whirlwind 80 minutes after it had begun.

Congratulations were exchanged all around, during the subsequent reception in the church’s downstairs banquet room.

I remain humbled by the entire event: touched by the meticulous passion with which Carter had approached the initial transcription work; delighted by the way in which the Presbybop instrumentalists grooved to the music, and gave their all to the performance; impressed by how enthusiastically the choir and congregation had participated.

At one point during the service, Carter read from a letter than he had received from David Willat, who as a child had been a member of the St. Paul’s Church Choir that accompanied Guaraldi during the initial Grace Cathedral Mass presentation. After acknowledging that this had been one of the most significant events of his life, Willat concluded by saying (as Carter read his words to us), “Bless you for keeping it alive.”


In the words of Charles Dickens’ Tiny Tim, God bless us, ev’ry one. For we have done San Francisco’s feisty little jazz pianist a Great Deed, by honoring his spirit — and his music — in so magnificent a fashion.

And who knows what the future might hold? As Carter admitted, with a twinkle in his eye, maybe it’s time to take this Mass on the road...

Sounds like a marvelous idea. And, to further encourage such a notion, I left all of the aforementioned photo enlargements and Grace Cathedral memorabilia with him.

Just some additional incentive, y’know.


The Church on the Hill’s grand tribute to Guaraldi garnered quite a lot of press, which you can enjoy here:

The Times-Tribune, in nearby Scranton, also ran a nifty article in its September 7 issue, but (alas!) that doesn’t seem to be available online.


Doug said...

As someone fortunate enough to have attended, I want to second the plaudits for this performance of Guaraldi's half-century old works. To my ears, this was as good a performance of these works as I can imagine, short of Vince being there to play, himself (and Bill Carter would give him a run for his money!). The combo members were each masterful instrumentalists, and the sound quality was far better than the acoustics in Grace Cathedral would allow (whether in 1965 or 2015). The choice to use professional cantors (rather than a full choir) for some of the liturgical chant portions was particularly inspired -- it removed some of the tentative muddiness that (to my ears) dulled the original performance.

Even as a YOOGE Guaraldi fan (as the Donald might say), I used to rate his Jazz Mass toward the bottom of his body of work. Based on the Fantasy LP, his attempts to merge plainchant and bossa nova never quite jelled for me ("peanut butter and pickles" as someone once commented -- I like them both, but not together). But I have to say that the tight, swinging combo, well-practiced choir, and reordered presentation (back into proper liturgical order, in a worship setting) made Guaraldi's work cohere and shine in new and more credible ways for me. Bill Carter and his combo did Guaraldi proud.

presbybop said...

Thanks, Doug. It was a wonderful day, and we are grateful that Vince created this work. Glad you were there!

Unknown said...

Did local radio ever carry any of this wonderful performance? I was just thinking fondly again about that event (which sounds *wonderful* in my memory!).

Derrick Bang said...

Sadly, no. It was amazing, and it's a shame that the service won't be granted wider exposure.