Jazz Institute of Chicago

Father Norman J. O'Connor, the "Jazz Priest"

In the past month we lost a Father and a King.

The material below is drawn from the websites of The Boston Globe (BG), The LA Times (LA), and the Associated Press (AP), enhanced by my own fond memories of this most talented and human scholar-father during occasions in Storyville in Boston, Newport, and elsewhere in New England.-Susan Markle

In New England in the '50s and New York in the '60s, a familiar figure on the scene, on the airwaves, in the jazz press, and at jazz events was Father Norman J. O'Connor, the "jazz priest," who died June 29, 2003.

Born in 1921 and educated in Detroit, where he played piano with local jazz bands, he had abandoned music as a career by the time he enrolled at Catholic University but wrote his doctoral thesis on the aesthetics of popular music.(AP)

As a Paulist priest since 1948, his pulpit in the '50s was at St. Ann's Church in Boston's Back Bay and as chaplain at Boston University. He moved to New York as director of radio and television for New York's Paulist Fathers.(LA)

In the mid-'60s he became director of a church training center in New Jersey, and in 1980 executive director of Straight and Narrow, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Paterson, N.J., from which he retired last year.(AP, BG)

Throughout that professional career he carried on his "jazz priesthood," his other profession. In Boston he wrote a weekly jazz column for the Boston Sunday Globe and articles for Down Beat and Metronome. He had jazz radio shows on two radio stations beamed to a New England regional network and a TV show, "Father O'Connor's Jazz" on WGBH (NPR in Boston).

He was elected to the Board of the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1964 and served for years as their master of ceremonies for the concerts and moderator for the many panel discussions.(BG) When he moved to New York, he hosted a local television show called "Dial M for Music" and a syndicated radio show. Above all, he was a priest to the "underworld of jazz."

George Wein, a founder of the Newport Festivals, proprietor of the famous Boston jazz club Storyville, and piano player, provided insights in the Boston Globe: "In Catholic Boston at that time, 'jazz' was a dirty word. If you were a jazz musician, you didn't have any respect. Father O'Connor never hesitated to lend his prestige, his collar, to help us. . . . They weren't necessarily Catholic," Wein said of the musicians. "It made no difference to Father O'Connor, it made no difference to them."

Father O'Connor found no contradiction in his promotion of jazz. "Jazz has no morality," he once said. "As far as I am concerned, jazz is healthy, good, and beautiful."(BG) Being a jazz advocate meant changing mindsets, not just a person's listening habits. He was a friend to the musicians (and to their faithful flock of addicts) whatever their religion (or lack thereof). Said Wein, "The scope of the man and his appeal was grander than being a priest; he transcended the church. They loved him as a human being."(BG)

Wein noted: "His influence extended well beyond New England and New York. With Cardinal Cushing, Father O'Connor helped persuade the Archbiship of Paris to open the doors of the hallowed L'Eglise St. Sulpice for Duke Ellington to give one of his Sacred Concerts, Duke's fusion of jazz and Christian devotion."(BG) "He was a friend," Duke said (Music Is My Mistress).

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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