The Troy Street Observer

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.

Nov 14 1957 Down Beat cover
Father O’Connor on the cover of Down Beat, Nov 14, 1957. Copyright Maher Publications.

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.
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June 9, 1954: Jazz Night Born at the Boston Arts Festival

Cover of Storyville LP 311
Jazz at the Boston Arts Festival, STLP 311, 1954. Cover by Burt Goldblatt.

Jazz Night was first included as part of the program during the Third Boston Arts Festival, in 1954. Jazz happily took its place on the festival stage in the Public Garden on the festival’s third night, following Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and preceding Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness.

Jazz Night came about though the lobbying efforts of Father Norman O’Connor, the Jazz Priest from Boston University, George Wein of Storyville, and John McLellan of WHDH radio. They, and their allies, convinced the Brahmin-heavy Board of Trustees to try jazz for one night to see how it went.

They started the night with an erudite panel discussing some flavor or other of “is jazz serious music.” Panelists included O’Connor, McLellan, and Wein, as well as Rod Nordell from the Christian Science Monitor and Prof. Klaus Liepmann, head of the Music Department at MIT. The panel asserted that jazz could indeed be taken seriously.
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June 13, 1955: “How Cool Can You Get?”

The first Jazz Night at the Boston Arts Festival took place in 1954, and it was quite popular. Apparently the citizens of the town had no problem accepting jazz among the lively arts, so the festival promoters came back in 1955 with another Jazz Night triple feature. A panel discussion started the evening, with Father Norman O’Connor, George Wein, Metronome editor Bill Coss, and Brandeis music professor Harold Shepiro participating. Then came the music, supplied by Ruby Braff’s Quintet (with Wein, Sam Margolis, Stan Wheeler, and Marquis Foster) and Serge Chaloff’s Sextet (the Boston Blow-Up! band with Dick Twardzik finally aboard as pianist).

Robert Taylor was the Boston Herald’s man on the scene, and his review showed he enjoyed himself. He preferred Chaloff’s group over Braff’s. “The ingenuity of Chaloff as a soloist is enormous,” Taylor wrote. He concluded: “As a whole the harmonies of the group are tense and the melodies resourceful and they play with a kind of controlled abandon.”

The Boston Globe covered Jazz Night, too. They sent their reporter, Paul Benzaquin, a future AM radio talk show host whose attempt at humor, a review titled “How Cool Can You Get,” failed badly.

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