The 50-Year Echo: Grace Cathedral Celebrates Vince Guaraldi’s “Masterwork”

Vince Guaraldi, on piano, rehearsing with the choir conducted by Barry Mineah and bass player Tom Beeson. Photo courtesy of Rev. Charles Gompertz; photographer unknown

Vince Guaraldi, on piano, rehearsing with the choir conducted by Barry Mineah and bass player Tom Beeson. Photo courtesy of Rev. Charles Gompertz; photographer unknown

In May 1965, pianist Vince Guaraldi dragged his “saloon music” up from North Beach to the top of Nob Hill, and laid it bare before the altar of the newly-completed Grace Cathedral. He had a well-oiled rhythm section backing him, and a corps of 60 voices.

James Easton and S.S. Weiss from Fantasy Records only had a couple hours to set up their whole portable tape rig (couldn’t disturb the other services), but they were used to strange setups; they once recorded Guaraldi at the crowded Nighthawk from the comfort of the men’s room (no other space to set up). While the public clamored to get into the sanctuary, the dissenters were likely there, too, gathering fuel for their next death threat against the event’s mastermind, Reverend Charles Gompertz. Critic Ralph Gleason was in the audience, too, and that night, perhaps while smoking a pipe of his custom Dunhill blend, #965, he would ink a fresh and enthusiastic review.

As tape unspooled by the yard, the musicians stood on the edge of history–no jazz mass had been performed on American shores, and certainly not one underpinned by bossa nova rhythms–but as the music poured over the cliff, there was a god-sized echo whipping it back at the performers:

“We got warned ahead of time about starting at a tempo and just keeping it,” remembers Dennie Mehocich, one of the youth choristers. “Because of a six-second time lag in the cathedral.”

“All those echoes muffled any mistakes I made,” remembers Nancy Goodrich, another chorister.

“I think they’re being a little conservative,” notes Grace Cathedral Cultural Program Manager Rebecca Nestle. “I would say it’s more like seven seconds.”

“The situation there in the cathedral, I think there was about a 10 second delay, you know.” That’s how Lee Charlton, the drummer and the only surving member of the that night’s trio, remembers it. “It was a bit of a challenge when we first went in there.”

Vince Guaraldi’s mass has been reverberating for 50 years now, rattling around in the grey matter filing cabinets of the participants, and making minor waves on turntables whenever someone is lucky enough to stumble across the Fantasy Records recording. The noise has quieted to a hum now, only audible to a finely attuned human ear, but this week that could change.

The mass will be celebrated this Saturday with a 50th anniversary concert at Grace Cathedral. There, Jim Martinez, his trio, and a chorus made up of the Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church choir as well as some of the original concert’s choristers (then a beam of sopranos, now swarming in lower registers) will fill the sanctuary with the music once again. With a little help from the cathedral, the music will reverberate a while longer.

This is the story of Vince Guaraldi’s mass, as told by participants of both the 1965 and 2015 performances.

The Music

Dennie Mehocich, chorister: Vince was the Mozart of jazz piano–clean, bright, yet soft, phrasing that imitates a singer. Same stuff as Mozart, but within a jazz idiom.

Candy Shively, chorister: It is hard for me to remember life without [his music]. I always loved “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” and the way all the Guaraldi melodies are simultaneously singable/memorable and spontaneous as if they just happened.

Dan Bernhard, chorister: You know instantly when you hear a few bars that it’s Vince. Such a distinctive sound.

Jim Martinez: [Vince] did a lot of these standard jazz progressions, but when you add it on top of a chant, it gives it that much more effect, because you don’t expect to hear it. It’s like ear candy. [In addition to performing the Guaraldi works at this concert, Martinez also recently released his second Guaraldi tribute, “Good Grief! It’s Still Jim Martinez.”]

Rev. Charles “Chuck” Gompertz, mastermind behind the original mass: [In 1963] there was an article in the Chronicle with Bishop James Pike, [who] decided that with the completion of Grace Cathedral he would have a year of celebrations, and his idea for the youth of the diocese was to have what he described as a “holy hootenanny.” I thought that was ridiculous [laughs]. I called him on a Saturday morning, and said, “Bishop, do you think that a hootenanny is consistent with the great things you’re trying to do? Don’t you think there might be some other things?” He said, “Well, like what?” And I said, “Well, I’m not sure yet.” And he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what, your date is going gonna be in May of 1965 and, uh, I want you to fill the cathedral, holds about 2000 people, fill it up, and that will be a wonderful event. I’ll talk to you later. Bye!” I am going nuts [laughs]. What have I done? I just sat there in my living room, and my wife had turned on the radio. I thought, Gee that’s a nice piece of music. Then at the end they said who it was, [Vince Guaraldi], and the name, “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” and I thought “Boy, That’s Me. That’s what I just did.”

I didn’t know Vince but having grown up in the Bay Area, you’re always a couple phone calls from anybody. So I started calling my friends and one of ’em said, “I have a cousin that works at a record store in Chico.” So I called the cousin, and he says, “I can look on a record and see who Vince’s recording company is.” It’s Fantasy Records. “And I have a Berkeley telephone number for ’em.” So I call–saturday morning now–Fantasy, and who picks up the phone but Max Weiss, one of the co-owners. I told him, I think [Vince would] be a fabulous guy to do something special at the cathedral. Max said, “Well, um, Vince might be interested in that.” He gave me Vince’s private number. So I called–still Saturday morning–and Shirley, his wife, picks up. I said, “I had a thought for a mass at Grace Cathedral and Vince would be the perfect guy to do it.” And she said, “Well I’ll go talk to him about it. Just hold on.” She was gone about 15 minutes. [I’m] standing in my kitchen, the whole thing was overwhelming. She finally came back and said “Well, doing a mass is pretty good.” I said, “It’s good enough for Handel, Bach, and Brahms, all those guys. He’s running with a select group.” She said, “He pointed that out!”

Rehearsals

Marcia Goodrich, chorister: We were already familiar with most of the music, since it was drawn from the Episcopal hymnal. And we were disciplined. Our group was sort of a Marine boot camp of children’s choirs.

Candy Shively, chorister: Our choir director, Barry Mineah, was a stickler, and he had prepared us well for staying in rhythm even as the jazz was flowing all around us. He had practiced a lot with us before we got together with the trio, so we knew our parts.

N. Goodrich, chorister: Singing in Barry’s choir was probably the first time I happily cooperated with an authority figure besides my parents. He held both the adults and the kids to high standards, and we did our best to deliver (sometimes falling woefully short).

Debbie Nelson, chorister: As a child it was very exciting to have someone famous come to our church and work with us “kids‚” as though we were just as important as he was!

Barry Mineah, choir director: We need to build a group that’s got people from little kids all the way up to older people, and we’ll blend all their voices and it will be fabulous. [As quoted by Rev. Gompertz]

Gompertz: The back of our Episcopal hymnal has four different musical settings for the communion service, and one of them, the oldest one, is the Merbecke service and that’s all plain chant. I thought, you know, the biggest problem we’re gonna face with the Episcopal church is jazz in church sounding strange to them. We need to figure out a way to put them absolutely at ease.

Charlton: [Vince] would sketch out certain things and we’d talk over them and probably rehearse them over at his house in Mill Valley. We’d sort of get a formulation of what was going on, and when we got over to the church in San Rafael we would get with a choir and go from there.

M. Goodrich: [Vince] was quite exotic, with that dark hair and mustache, sunglasses. We thought he was very hip.

David Willat, chorister: It was cool because we were kind of sheltered Marin County kids, and here’s this hip, irreverent jazz musician. The hardest thing for us was to just sing the music as written, because he was improvising and going all over the place. I’d find myself stopping all the time just to listen to him.

Mehocich: Vince just played. He was all business and very unassuming. If he said anything, it was just to Barry, and Barry relayed it to us.

Shively: Vince was very respectful and let Barry give us most direction. He respected Barry’s ability to get the sound from us that they wanted.

Vince Guaraldi, pianist: Oh, we are in luck, we are in luck! Chuck Gompertz is here and he and I are going to play a duet right now, and this is a treat for all of us. Chuck, come on down here. Come on down here and sit on the piano bench with me! [Gompertz had gone to meet Guaraldi after his a late set at El Matador in North Beach, but when Guaraldi spotted the Reverend in his collar, he teased him up onto stage for a faux duet.] Okay, look, I’m gonna point to a key and you just press it. And I’ll take it from there.

Gompertz: It looked like we knew what we were doing.

Tom Beeson on bass; Lee Charlton on drums in tux. Photograph courtesy of Rev. Charles Gomperts; photographer unknown.

Tom Beeson on bass; Lee Charlton on drums in tux. Photograph courtesy of Rev. Charles Gomperts; photographer unknown.

Charlton: Tom Beeson, the bass player, got me involved with the group. Tommy and I were dear, dear friends. There was a vacancy that came up and I stayed with Vince for a year and a half or so. It was off and on ’cause I was also doing commercial work, and back then I was very fortunate to fall into a situation where I was working quite a bit. You know if I didn’t have 20 gigs a month, man, I’d go into cardiac arrest. The stint with Vince really was some fun cause Vince was really a good player. There was a lot of rehearsing [for the Grace Cathedral mass]. A lot of rehearsing for that. I have some pictures that were taken back then, and I noticed a couple of ’em I looked like I was in my tuxedo ready to go to another gig.

Bernhard: I was really interested in the drummer. I watched him like a hawk through the rehearsals and performance. I’d never seen a real drummer performing for a recording. He used mallets on a few pieces. Mostly brushes on the others. I was most struck by his cymbal work, not something I was too sensitive about at that stage.

Mehocich: At the time there was a “sidewalk surfing” craze, and at one rehearsal, on a day of somewhat hazy sunshine, Bruce Duncan brought along his skateboard. When Vince saw it, he asked if he could try it. Bruce, of course, said, “Sure,” so up Vince went on the skateboard and down the walkway he rolled, keeping his balance, with then-Rector John Riley, arms waving in the air, chasing after Vince all the way and shouting for him to stop, because we just couldn’t take any chance on Vince breaking an arm or a wrist or anything else, before that concert!

Willat: He interacted with the kids a lot. He was really good with the kids. He didn’t interact a lot with the adults. He was pretty quiet. He’d be off on the side chain-smoking or he’d be playing with the kids. The youth group had gotten a pool table so he was teaching me some stuff. Guaraldi was just kind of a big kid.

Guaraldi: It’s a beautiful sound. They don’t question [jazz] and they enjoy it. They have the tiny voices, you get enough of them together and it gets a different timbre than you’re used to hearing in jazz. And it’s fun to work with the kids. [Guaraldi was specifically referring to another children’s choir, the San Francisco Boys Chorus, in an interview with KPIX Eyewtiness News, July 21st 1967.]

The Mass

Gompertz: One of the things we decided early on was not to do it as a concert, but to do it as a real communion service, you know, bread, wine, the whole trip. Every place we did it, the Stanford Chapel, a couple other college campuses, it was always standing room only. And this was a time when college kids weren’t particularly big on going to church.

Shively: I believe my dad sang at the Jazz Mass, but not my mom. My mom was busy being “choir mother” the day of the mass, herding 60 kids and keeping us out of trouble!

M. Goodrich: [I remember] the honor and the terror. I so did not want to blow it for Barry.

Charlton: It was an innovation and doing it at Grace Cathedral was quite a feat.

Nelson: The Cathedral is a magnificent place and performing there was simply amazing.

Willat: After rehearsing with Vince for a year and a half and seeing him nothing but a t-shirt and jeans, [we saw him] come out in a jet black suit.

Vince Guaraldi at Grace Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Rev. Charles Gompertz; photographer unknown

Vince Guaraldi at Grace Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Rev. Charles Gompertz; photographer unknown

Shively: I remember staying glued on our director despite reverb/delay and jazz going all over the place. The feeling of “performance,” and even jitters as we got ready, was much stronger for this service. We were a well-trained group, but those of us who were middle school-aged realized this was a big deal.

Gompertz: While people are doing things, like the communion, the offertory, getting things ready at the altar, and all of that, Vince would play. And that’s where [we got] the things like “Theme To Grace.”

Rev. Bill Carter, pianist: There is one piece called “Holy Communion Blues.” It’s an F-blues in a 24-bar form. I believe [Vince] improvised for almost 20 minutes on it, and then they edited it down to 11 minutes on the recording. [Carter transcribed the music for the concert, and will be performing a Guaraldi mass in September with his “Presbybop” band at the First Presbyterian Church of Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania.]

Willat: I remember watching Vince play for what seemed like a half hour, and I didn’t understand jazz at the time [but] he didn’t even have a piece of music in front of him. He’s just kinda noodling away [laughs] it was just beautiful.

Charlton: Being jazz musicians, that’s our nature, to improvise. I don’t think we gave it much of a second thought. Once we actually had the music under our belt, it was fairly common and easy for us to proceed ahead.

Derrick Bang, author of Vince Guaraldi At The Piano: [The music] had never been written down. Guaraldi did not write or read music to any degree at all. He just kinda improvised each of the few times the mass was presented.

Willat: I remember being very concerned because Fantasy Records said, “Instead of recording this in the studio, let’s record this live,” and Bishop Pike saying, at the beginning when he was welcoming the congregation, that Guaraldi and the choir were not there to entertain, that the congregation was expected to participate in the service. And we all went, Oh My God, If they do that it’ll ruin [the recording]. But nobody did.

Bernhard: Vince and his guys were crowded in. There was sound and recording equipment all over. In the pre-digital era, lots of cables, etc. To this day I don’t think the recording they got was especially good. A cathedral presents lots of challenges of course in acoustics etc.

Gompertz: [Fantasy Records] called me and said, “Okay, we got all this stuff, how do we turn it into a record?” So I spent a lot of evenings down there, on Treat Street in San Francisco, and back in their warehouse they had an editing booth and sound room. I did most of that by myself with Fantasy people. [Vince] approved the final cut but he wasn’t there, he was off playing gigs.

Echoes

Gompertz: There are still people walking around who are mad at me for doing this. [The California Minutemen] were all over my case. They were putting out little threats. They were gonna kill my daughter or kill me. Whatever. I was sort of on their hit list anyway. But thank goodness they were pretty inept and didn’t do anything about it. I’d call the FBI and let them know every time I got one of their letters, “My pen pals have written me again.” They said, “Chuck you gotta take this seriously.”

Nestle: It seems like it was an incredibly huge deal back in 1965, which is kind of funny to think about now, because at this point we have all different kinds of music in the cathedral. Most of them are concerts, but even in the services themselves–we did a Eucharist using the music of U2 for instance, called the U2 Eucharist. People don’t have those same kinds of concerns. It’s hard to imagine people sending death threats over what I would consider, really, almost classical music at this point.

Gompertz: We were the first. People point at Duke Ellington and Count Basie, all those people came to the Cathedral. Yes, later. Later. The ground had already been plowed. [Duke] wouldn’t have come if Vince hadn’t been there first.

Bang: By the end of 1965 you’re seeing a much broader loosening of what did and did not constitute appropriate music for a liturgical setting. That’s down to this feisty little jazz pianist who lived in North Beach. He deserves credit for that. More than he generally gets.

Carter: I can understand in some ways why [the Guaraldi mass] has not ever caught on, and I can understand too [that] it’s really a masterwork. If I could contrast it to the oratorios and the mass of Dave Brubeck, Dave liked to have everything written down, sometimes elaborately so. He was looking for some legitimacy and he wanted the work to stand regardless of whether there were jazz musicians involved. Vince, by contrast, is really integrating the traditional chant of the mass with a bossa nova trio. There was a lot that was left to chance.

Shively: I remember Barry asking at a Saturday morning rehearsal for some “volunteers to help the choir with something.” I raised my hand. We talked with Barry after rehearsal, and he told us about the [Peanuts] show. It was very low key because nobody even knew what an animated Christmas special was, and Barry seemed to think it was only a “maybe” whether it would ever air.

M. Goodrich: We recorded in this dark basement studio that was very cool and spooky. When it was over, I was totally thrilled to get my gift bag and five dollars, which was our payment for singing.

Shively: I remember Lee Mendelson giving Barry what seemed to me a large amount of money at the end of the evening to take us all out for ice cream (not much was open though!). No one at school believed me that I was going to be on TV. The fact that our choir and Barry got no credit made it hard to convince people, but I had the check stub.

Martinez: About 15 years ago I sat down one night and played “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” with Bill Evans-type chords. I didn’t premeditate it, it just kinda happened. I know there are a lot of other musicians who have done something very similar to what I did, but I took it a step further, and instead of just doing sacred concerts I arranged all these hymns. I brought in jazz legends to give it credibility that people didn’t want to give it, like radio stations. And they saw Lionel Hampton, and Stan Kenton Band, and Christian McBride and musicians like that and thought, “We gotta play this.” Music is music. Good music’s good music. Yes it’s sacred, but it’s still music.

Bang: From the middle 60s it wasn’t at all unusual for clubs to feature [for example] Miles Davis and Jefferson Airplane on the same bill. Rock-and-roll was definitely here to stay and some of the jazz musicians couldn’t adapt. Guaraldi was one of the ones who tried to adapt, and went through his acid phase. He was sharing the bill with Jerry Garcia every monday night at [The Matrix].

Charlton: I’ve been pretty blessed to have played with Vince and other people since I’ve been out here. I never would have dreamed that I would have had the opportunity, but I guess I was a decent player, and still play and practice and love my craft.

Willat: I have a lifelong love of [Vince’s] music. I drive my family crazy. I play it all the time in the car.

Golden Anniversary

Gompertz: It happened yesterday [laughs]. What do you mean 50 years?

Nestle: Jim Martinez cold emailed me. We’re having a lot of 50th anniversaries right now [and] we’re really interested in honoring that history. Jim seemed like a great match given it’s a specialty of his, and we went on from there. I love the mashup of jazz and hymns, it’s exciting. I’m really looking forward to this concert.

Martinez: I’ve been playing the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack in concerts for at least 20 years. The whole trick about trying to play in someone else’s style is getting the gist of what they were trying to convey musically. Hopefully it’s kind of a hodgepodge of both of our styles.

Carter: One of the things we do here [at my church] is we have a Christmas Eve jazz service at 11 o’clock. The traditional stuff is earlier in the evening, then I bring in the quartet and they defrost the icicles off the place. I realized Charlie Brown Christmas [was turning 50, so] how ’bout we do some of that. Then I thought, Why don’t we do the mass. No one has ever really done that. I think [mine] was actually on the books before Jim scored the date at Grace Cathedral. I got in touch with Jim back in March and said, “Hey how ’bout we try and cook this up.” He said, “I’ll do you one better. Why don’t you come out to San Francisco and help me out.” That’s what we’re gonna do. Jim’s is going to be more of a concert setting. [In Pennsylvania,] we’re actually gonna do a communion service with the mass music, [like] the original.

John McDaniel, choir director for the anniversary: [Chant] music is not really part of the church culture anymore. It’s a lost art. I haven’t done it in a long time, so I’m out of my comfort zone, but I think by the time we get there we’ll be fine. Musically it’s been interesting to see how the Guaraldi’s been challenging; because on paper it doesn’t look challenging, but we’re singing chords that [the choir is] not used to singing.

N. Goodrich: It’s awesome to sing this program again, and I appreciate the music much more as an adult than I did as a kid. The hymns and chants are very traditional, almost rigid in their simplicity. Somehow, Guaraldi’s piano score winds through it all and creates something beautiful and new. And practicing with Jim Martinez is a treat, like singing with Guaraldi himself.

M. Goodrich: I’m flying in from Michigan for [the concert]. When I hear the beginning of some of the songs, they just arise out of my memory, word by word, note by note. It’s all still there, waiting to be sung again.

***

Grace Cathedral presents the 50th Anniversary Of Vince Guaraldi’s Sacred Music Concert this Saturday, Aug. 15th at 2pm. For tickets and more information, visit gracecathedral.org/events.

Special thanks: Lynn Aylward, Derrick Bang, Dan Bernhard, Rev. Bill Carter, Lee Charlton, Bill Easton, Rev. Charles “Chuck” Gompertz, Marcia Goodrich, Nancy Goodrich, Michael Lampen, John McDaniel, Dennie Mehocich, Jim Martinez, Debbie Nelson, Rebecca Nestle, Nick Phillips, Candy (Hackett) Shively, David Willat, Jeffrey Wood.

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davidmacfaddenelliott

David is Wingtip's storyteller. In addition to editing the Modern Gentleman's Blog, he has written for Wax Poetics, The Source, SF Weekly, and the East Bay Express, and others. His inspirations include Rumble Fish, Paul's Boutique, and Balzac. He studied English at the City University of New York at Hunter College and journalism at the University of Southern California. He lives in Berzerkeley with his wife and daughter.

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