Revisiting Grace Cathedral’s Jazz Mass

guaraldiFor SF WEEKLY: It’s impossible today to think of the animated Peanuts television shows without also thinking of the music of Vince Guaraldi: his pensive but accessible bossa nova-inspired piano playing provides an appropriately melancholy but sweet backdrop for Charlie Brown, a child protagonist with adult-sized portions of self-doubt.

By the mid-’60s, Guaraldi’s signature, laid-back musical style – combined with thick-framed glasses and a predominant mustache – had earned him a near cult-of-personality status, according to biographer Derrick Bang. A San Francisco native and active member of the Bay Area jazz scene who was a sideman for Cal Tjader, he earned a Grammy in 1963 for his song “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” which was ubiquitous on American radio that year. At gigs around that time, his record label handed out fake cardboard mustaches to people in the audience, who were all too eager to wear them. He was known as “Dr. Funk” and “the Italian Leprechaun.”

“His hands were too small to span an entire octave on the piano, so he couldn’t play certain chords,” Bang told SF Weekly. “His sound is so uniquely him. You hear a few bars and you know it’s him playing.”

When it came time to officially unveil San Francisco’s newly completed Grace Cathedral, it was decided that there was to be a “jazz mass” performed, and Guaraldi, now a Grammy-winning local hero, was tapped for the job. He spent 18 months working with a choir in San Rafael every Saturday to create a groundbreaking piece of work that remains largely overlooked by fans of Guaraldi, who died at age 47 in 1976. He performed his jazz mass on May 21, 1965 at Grace Cathedral, which is considered the first time mainstream jazz was heard during an American church service.

In an effort to remind fans of this piece of jazz history, Sacramento-based pianist Jim Martinez and his quartet will lead a 50th anniversary concert presentation of Guaraldi’s Jazz Mass at 2 p.m. Aug. 15 at Grace Cathedral. The Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church Choir, directed by John McDaniel, and several members of the original St. Paul’s Church Choir who performed alongside Guaraldi and his trio in 1965, will perform alongside Martinez.

Guaraldi’s journey to writing jazz music for a church service can be traced back to music composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa for the sountrack to Black Orpheus, a 1959 film by French director Marcel Camus set in a favela in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval. Guaraldi loved the music, and recorded his own arrangements of that album’s main themes in 1962, right when “Girl From Ipanema” and other bossa nova music was getting big in the U.S., according to Bangs.

“Guaraldi was smooth, easy, and infectious,” Bang says. “Guaraldi had the gift of knocking off an infectious little melody, you would swear you knew it hearing the first time. And he wouldn’t do anything the same way twice, because he didn’t write or read music. He practiced his ass off and learned some basics, but by and large, he picked up his parts by feeling them or getting assistance from others.”

Pianist Jim Martinez will perform a 50th anniversary concert presentation of Vince Guaraldi’s Jazz Mass at 2 p.m. August 15 at Grace Cathedral with the Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church Choir.

Leave a Reply