Guest commentary by Teri Lyon
The recent Labor Day Weekend Jazz Communion service at First Presbyterian Church in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, was reminiscent of Charlie Brown and the gang.
Bill Carter, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, and his Presbybop Quartet played the groundbreaking Guaraldi Jazz Mass on Sept. 6 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Jazz Mass presented during a U.S. worship service. Little-known composer and pianist Vince Guaraldi wrote the music for the milestone Mass that debuted in the newly completed Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California, on May 21, 1965. Later that year Guaraldi received notoriety by composing and performing the music for “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
On Aug. 15, music of the Guaraldi Mass filled Grace Cathedral again in a 50th anniversary concert. This time, Carter was an integral part, playing piano and speaking.
Describing the event in San Francisco as “way cool,” Carter said he was “deeply honored” to be part of a jazz worship service “in the space where it first happened.”
Music for the San Francisco celebration was a collaboration by Carter and Sacramento, California, pianist Jim Martinez, who has recorded tribute albums of Guaraldi’s music. Carter said that, while Guaraldi’s Mass was recorded, the composer “never wrote anything down and never played anything the same way twice.” Consequently, the Pennsylvania pastor spent about four months transcribing about 90 percent of Guaraldi’s Jazz Mass for the anniversary celebration in San Francisco and for the worship service in his own church.
Guaraldi’s biographer, Derrick Bang of Davis, California, emceed the San Francisco event and introduced the special celebration in Clarks Summit with a pre-service historical overview. According to Bang, jazz had been considered “devil’s music” by conservatives before it debuted as a Mass in Grace Cathedral.
“The entire concept [of a Jazz Mass] was completely radical. No American church had ever employed jazz in such a setting, during an actual worship service,” Bang said.
In the Jazz Communion service following Bang’s talk, Carter played piano and led Presbybop Quartet members Al Hamme on saxophone and flute, Tony Marino on bass and Tyler Dempsey on drums. Cantors were Susan Kelly, outgoing choral director at First Presbyterian Church, and Alan Baker, director of The Choral Society of Northeastern Pennsylvania. A small choir consisting of members of the First Presbyterian Church adult choir also participated.
Carter said the choir and soloists sang chant-like melodies over a bossa nova beat.
“It’s completely fresh, this marriage of jazz and liturgy,” the pastor said. “It’s not just a concert. It was designed for people to come and sing. That’s the beauty of it.”
The Guaraldi Mass marked the 24th annual Labor Day Weekend Jazz Communion at First Presbyterian Church in Clarks Summit.
“It is one of our most popular services,” said Carter, noting that attendees tend to include residents of central Pennsylvania, upstate New York and New Jersey in addition to members of the Clarks Summit congregation.
He said, “This is a vibrant and life-giving expression of faith.”
In addition to the annual Labor Day Weekend service,. Carter’s church features a Jazz Communion service annually on Christmas Eve. This year, Guaraldi’s music will once again be in the spotlight to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
Carter is a busy freelance pianist, recording artist and clinician in northeastern Pennsylvania, where he makes his home. He has been composing and arranging music for more than 30 years. Prior to transcribing the Guaraldi Mass, his most recent work was composing and performing on the original “Jazz for the Earth” eco-jazz CD, inspired by his trip to the Canadian Rockies.
TERI LYON is a freelance writer who resides in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania.