By David A. King, Ph.D., Commentary | Published July 21, 2021
Robert Frost wrote, “My object in living is to unite/My avocation and my vocation/As my two eyes make one in sight.”
Though few people are ever able to achieve such an ideal, Frost certainly did, as did another adopted New England cultural fixture, the Paulist priest Father Norman James O’Connor, who was nicknamed and beloved as “The Jazz Priest.”
Father O’Connor was a member of the board of directors at the famous Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island, and from the festival’s debut in 1954, for years he remained a fixture at the event. He hosted jazz radio shows on public radio in Boston and New York City, and he was a frequent contributor to the thriving jazz press of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet at the same time, he was a campus minister to the Newman Club at Boston University, a seminary teacher and a compassionate advocate for drug and alcohol addicts. By the end of his life in 2003, he had served for 55 years as a priest, 22 of them as director of the Straight and Narrow treatment center in Paterson, New Jersey.
The Newport Jazz Festival this year is in just a few weeks, from July 30—Aug. 1, and it is impossible for me not to remember Father O’Connor’s critical role at the festival. In addition to hosting the first academic forum on Jazz and American Culture at Newport in 1954, he is forever linked with some of the festival’s most notable moments, particularly the triumphant return to relevance of Duke Ellington in 1956, the set by John Coltrane in 1965, and the performance of Dave Brubeck in 1971.
Father O’Connor was born in Detroit in 1921, but he spent most of his life in New England and New York. Though he played piano as a child and as a student, he realized that his true talents were for ministry and media. At Catholic University, he wrote a graduate thesis on popular music, and he was ordained a priest in 1948. At no time in his ministry did he see an inconsistency between his work as a priest and media figure, or a disconnect between his public persona and the music and musicians he loved.
Like Bishop Fulton Sheen, Father O’Connor was careful to wear a Roman collar in public; he wanted to be seen as a priest. While his friends in the media and jazz musicians respected his religion, they also had fun with him. A common nickname musicians had for him was a hipster play on Father O’Connor, “Daddy-O.” Yet the jazz world loved him. Musicians frequently greeted him with hugs rather than handshakes, and the affection given him by the jazz scene extended to the gratitude with which he was received at the addiction treatment center he established.
Father O’Connor also reconciled Jazz with religion by asserting that “there is nothing irreligious about rhythm,” and he claimed that because “Jazz has no morality,” the enjoyment of the music could never be considered immoral. Father O’Connor’s good friend George Wein, who promoted the first Newport Festival and who ran the famous Storyville club in Boston, wrote in his memoir “Myself Among Others” that “In those days it wasn’t common for a Catholic priest to walk into a jazz club; in fact it sounded like the beginning of a bad joke.”
We don’t often associate Jazz with Catholicism, and that’s a mistake. Granted, Jazz is uniquely American; it has often been argued that America’s only two original art forms are Jazz and the Western film. Catholicism is of course global, and the history of Catholicism in this country is forever connected to reconciliation with American ideals of individualism and self-reliance. Jazz depends upon improvisation, which is not at all typical of Roman Catholic liturgy and ritual.
Yet factually, there are quite a few Catholic jazz musicians, and they comprise an impressive list. Louis Armstrong was baptized Catholic. Billie Holiday was raised in a Catholic home for girls and remained devout until her early death; Father O’Connor was the celebrant for her requiem high Mass. Mary Lou Williams, Holiday’s friend, was born in Atlanta, became a Catholic, and composed for both church and secular settings. Dave Brubeck also became a Catholic, and like Williams, he wrote jazz pieces for church settings as well, including a Mass.
A communion in music
To me, however, it is more compelling to understand the relationship between Jazz and Catholicism by considering Wein’s book title “Myself Among Others,” for that phrase perfectly captures the ideal of a jazz group and an ideal for Catholic communion.
Jazz depends upon unity in diversity as well as individual improvisation. A quartet, for example—imagine a saxophone, a piano, a bass, and drums—has to function as a total unit. Yet within that singular sound, each musician has a particularly unique voice of his own to share. Each “authentic self,” as Walker Percy would say, complements the collective purpose of the group. Even within a big band orchestral setting, room is always made for soloists to improvise upon the larger theme, what Thomas Merton thought of as “the general dance.”
Further, because Jazz explores the depth of community and communion in music, a universal art form that transcends language, it is also linked to the church’s own traditions of music, prayer, and even silence. Some of the most beautiful Jazz a listener will ever hear is essentially silent. The quiet interludes of a brush on a snare drum or a meditative solo bass line are much like the cadence and near silence of a Psalm in Gregorian Chant. I think that is why I like a piano trio best of all jazz settings.
Father O’Connor loved it all, and he embraced it all. He never failed to find pleasure in the new even as he valued the old, and this extended beyond music to his relationships with people. He found joy not in playing the music, but in teaching it and sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge with others. And he did all of this in love, nurturing his friends in and out of the jazz world with patience, understanding, and compassion in good times and bad. He once told Billie Holiday that she could have a good time and still be a good Catholic.
If you want to know more about the priest, many of his radio shows are archived online. I would also recommend that you listen to the excellent complete reissues of many famous Newport dates, particularly the 1956 Ellington at Newport; Father O’Connor serves as emcee for this legendary concert. To get a sense of Newport, and why Father O’Connor loved it so, I also recommend Bert Stern’s gorgeous documentary from 1958, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day.”
Finally, a wonderful New Yorker piece by Lillian Ross gives an inside look at the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and features some witty commentary by Father O’Connor, who as a young, hip priest advises the academic forum presenters to wrap up their presentations in five minutes. “We don’t want to sound like a bunch of long-hairs,” said the Jazz Priest. “Why, a couple of musicians came up to greet me this morning and said, ‘Hi, Dad!’”
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.