Nov 20, 1921: “There Is Nothing Irreligious in Rhythm”
Among the more notable characters on the Boston jazz scene at mid-century was Father Norman J. O’Connor, the “Jazz Priest,” who doubled as a Catholic priest and a nationally recognized authority on jazz. He saw no contradiction between the two, and people generally agreed with him. “Most people accept you in the role you’re doing: as a speaker on a subject they’re interested in,” he told Down Beat, who put him on the cover of the November 14, 1957 issue.
Norman James O’Connor was born in Detroit on November 20, 1921. His mother insisted he study either piano or violin, and Norman took up the piano, which he regretfully gave up when he had no time to practice in college. O’Connor could not remember a time when he wasn’t listening to and studying jazz.
O’Connor was ordained a priest in the Paulist order in 1948 and arrived in Boston in 1951. He served for ten years as chaplain of the Newman Club at Boston University, where he also taught history and philosophy. (“Students are a delightful, wonderful group of people,” he later told the New York Sunday News. “They have enthusiasm and they are willing to fight for the future.”) His days were busy, but he made time to indulge his passion for jazz at Storyville.
O’Connor was involved in the jazz community on multiple fronts. He hosted two weekly radio programs on WBUR-FM, wrote a biweekly column in the Boston Sunday Globe, contributed articles to the national jazz press, and penned numerous LP liner notes. He was in demand as an emcee and panelist. In 1957, he broke new ground with his weekly jazz program on WGBH-TV.
With his deep knowledge of jazz, and a warm personality that put people at ease, O’Connor became the musicians’ friend and confidant. He counseled many in the jazz world, and discretely helped them solve their financial, medical and legal problems.
Finally, O’Connor was a respected spokesman for jazz. He became a member of the Newport Jazz Festival’s board of directors in 1954, and often represented it in public. It was still a time when some considered jazz to be the devil’s music, and O’Connor, with his collar and his calm manner, always brought dignity to any proceedings.
In 1962, O’Connor was transferred to a position in New York City. Boston sorely missed his energy, commitment, and stature.
O’Connor remained active in New York, first with Two Worlds of Jazz, a program on WINS-AM with Reverend John Gensel, and then with a syndicated program on WRVR-FM (WCRB carried it in Boston). He also hosted Dial M for Music, a weekly show on WCBS-TV. He was a strong advocate for expanding jazz’s role in the church.
Father O’Connor’s jazz activity diminished in later decades, and he retired from church administration in 2002. He died of a heart attack the following year.
Incidentally, the title of this post is drawn from a July 15, 1967 article in Saturday Review by Helen Dance, “Has Jazz a Place in the Church.” The O’Connor quote is a response to the old notion that enjoying music in church is somehow incompatible with worship. O’Connor only had to point to the black churches for examples of rhythm serving “to good purpose.”