Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Looking back Grace-fully

Rough drafts — whether of music, artworks or written material — generally deserve to be seen only by their creators. After all, the artist in question wishes to put the best foot forward, and it’s hardly fair to view warts-and-all preliminary efforts.

(Which is why, just in passing, I had absolutely no interest in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, when released in July 2015. Ample evidence existed, prior to publication, that it was an early draft of what eventually blossomed into To Kill a Mockingbird ... despite the efforts of opportunists who insisted, quite falsely, that it was a wholly different “lost novel.”)

All this notwithstanding, exceptions crop up every once in awhile; what follows is one of them.

Way back in the day, John Leydecker was one of many youthful members of the St. Paul’s Church choir, which rehearsed extensively with Guaraldi and later performed the debut of his Jazz Mass at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, on May 21, 1965. John’s mother Mary was a part-time journalist; several months after that event, she wrote an informative article about Guaraldi, the choir and the evolution and presentation of the Mass. Her article — and numerous photos — were submitted to both The Episcopalian (a monthly church journal published between April 1960 and March 1990) and the Marin Daily Independent Journal. If the piece appeared in the former, I’ve not yet been able to track it down; it did, however, get published in the latter on October 23, 1965.

What appeared in the Journal, however, is significantly different than Mary Leydecker’s original draft: something I’m able to state with certainty, since John kindly provided a copy of the original typewritten manuscript. It’s much more laid-back and conversational than the Journal version, and opens a charming window into those historic events.

Mary Leydecker’s version appears here, for the first time ever; it’s followed by PDFs of the quite opulent Journal spread (with lots and lots of photos ... a generous use of space that we simply don’t see in newspapers any more).

John also shared some additional photos that you’ll find below, all published for the first time.



By Mary Leydecker

The little jazz musician peered over the grand piano through a haze of smoke. He was dressed in an old sweater, jeans and tennis shoes. His mustache and sideburns almost covered the part of his face not hidden by immense dark glasses. Nearby a bass player leaned on his instrument, and a drummer grinned as there was a pause in the rehearsal.

However, these three were not in their native habitat of nightclubs or recording studios, but in a large wood-paneled music room of a suburban Episcopal church; sharing the room with them were rows and rows of bright-faced children, who followed intently the instructions of their choir director, a young man in a sweat shirt with a whistle hanging from his neck.

This scene was repeated many times this year, as this group of people of many backgrounds gathered to prepare a “new setting for the Holy Communion.” The product of their labors has been recorded and is now a nationwide success under the label Vince Guaraldi at Grace Cathedral.

The story of how this unusual musical undertaking came into being goes back many months. As Grace Cathedral in San Francisco was nearing completion of its building program, a committee was appointed to mark the occasion with a series of special events. The Rev. Charles Gompertz, a young priest who was at that time curate of a suburban parish, was one of the members. When another committee member suggested a “holy hootenanny” for the young people of the diocese, Father Gompertz presented a different idea.

“Why not use this occasion for the church to say something really meaningful in a modern idiom?” he said. He went on to describe his idea not for a Jazz Mass, but a new accompaniment to the traditional musical form.

Given free rein to work on the project, he decided to interest Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist and composer whose work he had long admired. Guaraldi is a resident of the San Francisco area, and achieved his first success there, but became known nationally for such hits as “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”

Through friends in the radio business, Father Gompertz was able to meet Guaraldi, who was immediately interested in the idea, although he was totally unfamiliar with any kind of church music. The two men began a series of meetings, which went on for months.

“Actually, we talked for a number of sessions about what Vince would try to say in the music,” the young priest says. “We always met over lunch or dinner at a local restaurant, and our conversations lasted for hours. We started off with ‘Who is God?,’ ‘Who is Christ?’ and ‘What is the Eucharist?’ ”

After the two men decided that Guaraldi would use traditional music for the choir, and then improvise jazz accompaniment, the selection of the choir and choir director were made. “There are many great choirs and musicians in the Diocese of California,” Father Gompertz explains, “but we chose the choir from St. Paul’s San Rafael, because it has a freshness and vitality. I also thought Vince would enjoy working with Barry Mineah, who is young and enthusiastic.”

Mineah, an accomplished musician who looks more like a football coach, teaches in a private elementary school and directs the choirs — and plays the organ — at St. Paul’s on strictly a part-time basis. The children of the choir are definitely amateurs; no tryouts are held, and any youngster 8 years old who can read a hymnal is accepted. On the occasion of the Guaraldi record, they were augmented by about a dozen adults from the parish, so that there would be men’s voices in the choir.

In the words of Barry Mineah, “the long and short hair really hit it off.” (Actually, the description is purely a musical simile, because Guaraldi has very long hair, and Mineah, very short.)

As the time grew nearer to the date for the service at Grace Cathedral, Mineah suggested that the choir’s part of the music should be a choral communion service from the Episcopal hymnal: one familiar to most Episcopalians. The other hymns selected for the occasion also are traditional: “Come with Us, O Blessed Jesus” is a Bach setting.

Guaraldi’s jazz accompaniment, which seems to flow around the choir voices, was mostly improvised and worked out during rehearsals. “Some parts came instantly, and some we worked and worked on,” Mineah says. Guaraldi, completely unfamiliar with the church, was directed through the prayer book by Mineah, but he soon made up his own system for keeping his place. “Sing the ‘Holy, Holy’ one again, kids,” he would say, and the choir understood his instructions.

Friendships formed, during the time the group worked together, have endured. The St. Paul’s children are, of course, devoted Guaraldi fans. “I plan to use those kids again on another record,” Guaraldi says. “Their type of music is what keeps jazz the people’s music,” he adds, and describes their voices as “fresh” and “homey.”

In fact, Guaraldi enjoyed the children so much that during the rehearsal period, he started coming a little early to St. Paul’s so that he could skateboard in the courtyard with the choir children. The sight of the little musician flying down the sidewalk, followed by a crew of whooping children, will long be remembered in the parish.

At the actual service in Grace Cathedral, of course, the children — and Guaraldi — were in a more serious mood.

Through the great, gold Ghiberti doors of the towering cathedral streamed dozens of children: solemn, shiny-faced boys in starchy white and black, and wide-eyed girls in bright blue. Behind them were a multitude of acolytes and clergymen, including the bishop in cope and mitre; and, finally, the three jazz musicians, looking like jazz musicians.

It was a stirring sight. But still more moving was the music, which flowed through the Gothic building as the hundreds of young people went forward to receive Communion.

The great Eucharistic candles flickered as the piano played, and young and old alike sensed that new meaning had been added to ancient spiritual truths, with none of the reverence subtracted.

In keeping with the youthful theme of the occasion, two of the church’s outstanding young priests officiated. The Rev. Malcolm Boyd, sometimes known as the “beatnik priest” because of his appeal to young people, gave the sermon; the Rev. David Crump, who possesses a full, rich voice, was the celebrant.

A great deal of the service is included on the album, and a printed copy of the sermon has been inserted. The success of the record has been amazing, even to the people involved in the venture. Officials of Fantasy Records, which released it — they recently sold the rights to London Records, for British release — were skeptical about this type of religious record making money, but from the first week of sales, demand has been so great that all employees of the company have been furiously stuffing records into jackets.

Excerpts from the album have been played widely by all types of disc jockeys, ranging from those on classical FM stations to the teenage rock and roll variety.

The music also is being used regularly at St. Paul’s: played, of course, on an organ and not by a jazz trio. It has received such acceptance by lay people, that it may become “too traditional” in time.

“We set out to try to say something musically,” Father Gompertz says, “and I think we succeeded, not in shocking people, but in proving that fresh music can help us all take a fresh look at the Eucharist.”


The Journal version concludes with a reference to the upcoming reprise of the Grace Cathedral Mass, presented on January 23, 1966, at the Church in Ignacio; and also a “promised second record” that didn’t quite emerge as planned. The eventual album, Vince Guaraldi with the San Francisco Boys Chorus, didn’t appear until December 1967 ... and involved an entirely different children’s chorus.

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