A Rite for All Souls
Almost 50 years ago, on Halloween night in 1971, the Mark Harvey Group played at the Old West Church in Boston. The concert, in keeping with the day and the place, was called A Rite for All Souls. Band member Peter Bloom dubbed performances like Rite “aural theatre,” and they were an adventurous addition to the local arts scene.
This surprising—and timely—music is now available through Americas Musicworks (AM CD 1596; for reviews, go here and here). It’s good to have this document of the MHG’s early work available. Stalwarts of the local jazz scene, Harvey and Bloom are heard here at the beginning of their 50-year musical collaboration.
A gathering storm of time, place and people led to the creation of A Rite for All Souls. Start with the time, or more appropriately, the times. In October 1971, there was work to do in the city of Boston. Local grassroots activists organized around issues involving equal rights and the corrosive effects of urban renewal. They forced an unwilling city to confront the impact of racial inequality in employment, housing and public education. Rent control was a hot-button issue, and citizen action had finally shut down the land-grabbing Inner Belt and Southwest Expressway projects. But there was much more to do.
A Rite for All Souls came to life at the Old West Church, on Cambridge Street, on the edge of what remained of the West End, that once-bustling neighborhood leveled by urban renewal. Old West’s pastor, Reverend Bill Alberts, had worked steadily for six years to establish a center of community engagement. And did he ever!
Old West’s activities were many and varied. They ran programs for homeless teens, street people, community groups, kids needing tutors, seniors needing lunch. Alberts organized anti-war protests (he was once jailed for eight days for it), and marched for civil rights and prison reform. And he started an ambitious arts program, and among its residents were the Hub Theater Center, and the Mark Harvey jazz ensemble.
The Mark Harvey Group at Old West
That’s the when and where of A Rite for All Souls. The who is the Mark Harvey Group.
Mark Harvey came to Boston in 1968 for graduate study at Boston University’s School of Theology. Bill Alberts drew his interns from BU, and he offered one of those positions to Harvey, who shared Alberts’s views on social justice. It probably didn’t hurt that Harvey was a trumpeter and bandleader with eyes for the church’s arts program.
Harvey formed an ensemble for monthly concerts and other church events. And he was looking ahead. He was inspired by the jazz ministry of his mentor, Reverend John Gensel at Saint Peter’s Church in New York. Harvey envisioned something similar in Boston.
Harvey played most of his jazz outside the church, however. In 1969 he formed a jazz-rock octet, and asked Peter Bloom, whom he first met on a gig the year before, to join. Bloom, a bluesy saxophonist (he was a fan of Buddy Guy’s saxophonist, A.C. Reed) and flutist, was studying with tenor saxophonist Andy McGhee, while majoring in philosophy at Boston University. Bloom started playing with the Old West ensemble as well.
In summer 1970, the octet, then called the Mark Harvey Group, barnstormed the city for Summerthing, Boston’s neighborhood arts program. They played two or three concerts a day, from East Boston to Hyde Park to Brighton. Bloom and Harvey spent their summer playing hard bop tunes in Boston schoolyards, developing that telepathy that marks the better jazz musicians. From such things are 50-year collaborations formed.
After Summerthing, Harvey disbanded the octet. He and Bloom wanted to do something different, to play their own music. Both were keenly aware of the free sounds beckoning from beyond jazz-rock, and had played a bit of it as a duet the year before. That fall, they brought their new ideas to Old West.
In the Spirit of the Times
The Mark Harvey Group became a freewheeling quartet. Joining them was Craig Ellis, a drummer recently arrived from San Francisco, and a second percussionist, Michael Standish, a philosophy buddy of Bloom’s from BU. They soaked up influences far removed from hard bop. “We were listening to everything,” Bloom told me. “A lot of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but also Ornette’s trio, Coltrane’s Africa/Brass, Steve Reich’s early works, classical chamber music, avant-garde organ pieces, Albert Ayler, everything.”
The music was experimental, unwritten, and purely improvisational. What they were playing wasn’t being taught at Berklee. The Mark Harvey Group had moved outside the mainstream. It was free jazz.
The quartet matured quickly, even securing an invitation to play at Saint Peter’s in New York in September 1971. (That must have been a high note for Rev. Harvey.) Then came the Halloween performance. Said Bloom, “The concert coincided with All Souls Day, a day of remembrance on the Christian calendar, but our concerts encompassed more than Christian traditions. We drew widely from across theology and mythology. And we’d all been reading poetry—Gary Snyder, Jack Spicer, Charles Olson. Craig wrote poetry himself. So we included that. We blended all these different ideas, trying to bring everything together in a meaningful way. We called it “aural theatre.”
A Rite for All Souls was part music and part theater, appealing to the countercultural sensibilities of the time. An array of instruments and other noisemakers surrounded the musicians. The hall, lit only by a few candles, was almost in darkness, both to enhance the drama and focus the listeners on the music. At one point, the musicians donned monks’ robes borrowed from the Hub Theater Center and marched in procession. The music was all original, unwritten and improvised, incorporating many musical and cultural influences. The players recited poetry and a Sanskrit chant. The poetry served as a springboard, its messages urging the musicians to respond. Ellis recited his poem, Napalm: Rice Paper, and it provoked an expression of anger still apparent 50 years later.
A Message for Our Time?
What does A Rite for All Souls say about its time, and ours? The aural theatre’s players have said Rite’s message in 1971 was one of hope and healing. But as the saying goes, that was then, and this is now, and I can only tell you what I hear in it. Although the concert touches a range of moods and emotions, it is the somber and pensive passages that resonate with me. We live in somber and pensive times. Early in the concert, Ellis recites Gary Snyder’s poem, Spel Against Demons. It is an ultimatum: “Release of demonic energies in the name of the people must cease…The stifling self-indulgence in anger in the name of freedom must cease…This is death to clarity. This is death to compassion.” Does that sound like an indictment of the policies of anyone you know?
Peter Bloom tells me that yes, the music is just as relevant today, and people should hear it. “It was our musical response to the racial, social, political turbulence of 1971. But new lyrics can be set to an older musical score. So here we are again, in a time of American unrest; of racial, social and political turbulence. A Rite for All Souls is an apt musical soundscape for the ‘text’ of today.”
Well and good, but oh, to hear a reconvened Mark Harvey Group reviving the aural theatre, recasting A Rite for All Souls. Perhaps this Halloween, days before election day? Unlikely. But now, at least, we can relive this earlier rite.
After Rite, the Mark Harvey Group toured the eastern college circuit, playing at Georgetown, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere, and again at Saint Peter’s in New York. The group disbanded in 1973, but those were early days for Harvey and Bloom. Their musical collaboration continues today, in the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, Filmprov, and other settings. Craig Ellis continued his twin callings of poet and percussionist/performance artist, often working with Harvey and Bloom, until his death in 2006. Michael Standish, who left music for other artistic pursuits in the 1970s, died in 2014. And Old West’s Reverend Bill Alberts, the champion of social justice, finally went too far for the Methodist hierarchy in 1973. They removed him after he married two gay men at the church. Now 93, he recently published his autobiography, The Minister Who Could Not Be Preyed Away.