Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Number one no more

For more than half a century, it has been assumed true.

And — of course — we’ve wanted to continue believing it was true.


Alas … no.


When the Rev. Charles Gompertz contemplated the notion of a Jazz Mass to help celebrate the completion of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral — the first major Anglican cathedral to be consecrated in the United States — he knew this notion was radical. Indeed — as he told me more than once, during our numerous interviews — to his knowledge, no American church had ever employed jazz in a worship setting. Gompertz was aware of only one earlier near-miss. 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 performances of this work always took placed after his regular services at St. George’s, in Camberwell.


During preparation and the lengthy rehearsals that went into Vince Guaraldi’s Grace Cathedral Mass, and thereafter for the rest of his life, Gompertz firmly believed that it was the first Jazz Mass presented during an American church service of any kind. During the extensive research for my Guaraldi biography, back in 2010 and ’11, I found nothing to contradict this belief.


Ah, but my good friend Bill Carter — reverend of the First Presbyterian Church in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania — had “inside tipsters” and access to better resources: most crucially, Derick Cordoba’s 2017 doctoral dissertation, Liturgical Jazz: The Lineage of the Subgenre in the Music of Edgar E. Summerlin, presented at the Graduate College of the University of Illinois, at Urbana-Champaign. 


Bill, this blog’s readers will recall, officiated a 50th anniversary presentation of Guaraldi’s Mass at his Clarks Summit church on September 6, 2015; the jazz elements were performed by his Presbybop Quartet: Bill (piano), Al Hamme (sax and flute), Tony Marino (bass) and Tyler Dempsey (drums). In addition to the lengthy rehearsals preceding this presentation, Bill also had spent many months transcribing the Mass: something that hadn’t ever been done (and a process made even harder by the fact that Vince never played the Mass’ music the same way twice, as proven by the few recorded excerpts that exist in addition to Fantasy’s At Grace Cathedral album).


Bill has been spending his recent “down time” working on a book that explores the history of jazz in a worship setting, to be called Thriving on a Riff: Jazz and the Spiritual Life. During the course of his research, he discovered that the first individual to welcome jazz into a congregation’s worship service probably was Frank Tirro, who (much later) became Dean of the Yale School of Music. Tirro also wrote extensively about jazz; his published books include Jazz: A History (1977) and The Birth of the Cool of Miles Davis and his Associates (2009).


While a University of Nebraska student, Tirro — already a well regarded clarinetist, saxophonist, composer and choir director at Omaha’s Episcopalian Church — received a commission to compose a Jazz Mass. As Cordoba notes in his dissertation, Tirro’s American Jazz Mass — for jazz quintet and mixed choir — was adapted from a motif in Johannes Prioris’ Missa de Angelis


The American Jazz Mass debuted at the university Student Union on February 28, 1960 (not a church service, I agree, but hang on). Tirro’s work was re-premiered with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus on April 17, 1961; it subsequently was performed in multiple cities in a dozen states during the next several years … and, yes, many of those performances took place during church worship services. Additionally, it has been recorded and released on an LP at least once.

It’s interesting to note, however, that Tirro’s work lacked “space” for improvisational sections; all instrumental parts — aside from the drums — were notated precisely. Cordoba suggests this had much to do with the work’s popularity, since church musicians and choirs therefore wouldn’t feel intimidated, if they lacked jazz experience.


(But if there’s no improvisation, is it still jazz? There’s a debate topic!)


Mention also must be made of Edgar Summerlin, the subject of Cordoba’s dissertation. Summerlin’s Liturgical Jazz Service preceded Tirro’s work, but — important distinction — it wasn’t a High Church service: in other words, not a Mass.


While a graduate student at the University of North Texas College of Music, Summerlin and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, lost their 9-month-old daughter Mary Jo to a congenital heart defect; she died on January 27, 1959. The tragedy affected him deeply. Although not much of a churchgoer, Summerlin accepted counseling from a local pastor, who suggested that his grief be poured into music. The advice proved inspirational; Summerlin composed “Requiem for Mary Jo,” which he debuted on May 20, 1959, during a chapel service at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. That requiem subsequently became the centerpiece of Summerlin’s jazz setting of the United Methodist daily prayer service, which he titled Liturgical Jazz Service. It, too, subsequently was performed throughout the United States. 


The entire service was recorded and released on a 1959 Ecclesia Records album titled Liturgical Jazz: A Musical Setting for an Order of Morning Prayer. The featured musicians are Summerlin and Earle Dhus (tenor sax), Bob Thomas (alto sax), Morgan Powell (trombone), Bob Foutz (lead trumpet), Tom Wirtel (trumpet and flugelhorn), Gene Gandy (piano), Don Ratteree (bass) and Rich O’Donnell (drums). The service also received national television exposure on February 19, 1960, as a segment of NBC’s World Wide 60, hosted by Chet Huntley.

And, notably, Summerlin’s work did allow for improvisation.


So, even if Summerlin’s Liturgical Jazz Service doesn’t “count,” there’s no question that Tirro’s American Jazz Mass preceded Guaraldi’s Grace Cathedral Mass by at least four years. Vince therefore can’t take credit for “the first worship Jazz Mass” — and that’ll be a major revision to my Guaraldi bio, should a second edition ever appear — although it’s still correct to note that he wrote and performed “the first Jazz Mass presented as a cathedral worship service.”

But as Bill Carter sagely observes, this is ultimately an irrelevant quibble; it’s more important to talk about the candelabra, than focus on a singular flame. 

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