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Ahead of two Jazz Masses Sunday in Detroit, an explainer on America's most unique Catholic liturgical form

Nate Tinner-Williams dives into the history of Jazz Mass in the Church, a phenomenon dating back to the 1950s and the beginnings of bona-fide Black Catholic liturgy.

Mary Lou Williams at St Patrick's Cathedral in New York City in 1975, holding the Agnus Dei from her "Mary Lou's Mass" composition. (Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

Sunday, September 3 in Detroit will bring not one, but two iterations of perhaps the most interesting form of American liturgy in existence. In back-to-back events, the Motor City will host a Jazz Mass for the faithful and funky alike.

The twin offerings coincide with the Detroit Jazz Festival, an annual event bringing world-renowned artists to southeast Michigan during Labor Day weekend (and then some) for a celebration of one of the nation’s best-known Black art forms.

While not an official part of the festival proceedings, the two Masses—the first at Ss Peter and Paul Jesuit Church near the official stages downtown at 11am ET, followed by an archdiocese-sponsored liturgy at the Church of St Moses the Black at 2pm—will tap into the city’s own history with the genre, which includes such jazz greats as Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Donald Byrd, Sonny Stitt, Alice Coltrane, and Kenny Garrett.

Also channeled will be the Church’s own storied (and complicated) history in relation to many of its Black artists and their commitment, dating back decades, to jazz liturgy. This deserves an explainer all its own, and today’s your day.

Though likely familiar to the nation’s Black Catholics, especially those in cities associated with jazz, the phenomena of Jazz Mass remains something of a question mark to many others, with some going so far as to question the appropriateness of such an endeavor. Even so, the genre’s historical association with Catholic liturgy can be no surprise, given that one of the aforementioned cities is none other than New Orleans, where Catholicism has reigned supreme since the eras of French and Spanish colonialism.

Indeed, an alleged founder of the genre—the Crescent City's own Ferdinand Jelly Roll Morton—was a devout Catholic, as evidenced by his musically muted gravesite. Many of his fellow Louisiana jazz pioneers were also members of the Roman faith, though the genre itself was likely too “hot” for the halls of the Church at the time.

Jelly Roll Morton's grave at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Los Angeles. (Brian Goggin)

By the time of Morton’s death in 1941, the genre had spread far and wide, perhaps especially to the North, where Black artists had more social freedom, far from the strictures of Jim Crow. Outside the Deep South, the genre’s own creative space increased as well, even beyond its original libertine flair.

In 1954, a certain Mary Lou Williams, a New Yorker who had by then made a name in the genre, converted to Catholicism around the same time that she decided—temporarily, anyway—to leave music behind entirely, devoting herself to the faith and to works of mercy. A rather persistent pair of priest friends, however, persuaded her to reconsider the abandonment of her life’s passion, and she eventually acquiesced.

(It should be noted here, too, the importance of Catholic priests in the peculiar development of jazz. One particularly notable example was the Paulist pianist and promoter Fr Norman O’Connor, whose voice can be heard on any number of jazz festival recordings between 1954 and 1971. He also loved a good jazz liturgy.)

The question of when the first Jazz Mass emerged in the Catholic Church is a matter of debate, though the two front-runners in the matter of composition seem to be Williams and her lesser-known confrère Eddie Bonnemère, a native of the Big Apple whose work in jazz had included an extended stay in—where else?—Detroit.

Williams composed “Black Christ of the Andes” during her three-year hiatus, debuting the piece in 1962 with a performance at St Francis Xavier Church in Manhattan. Whether it is to be considered a Mass as such is perhaps questionable, though it did include a hymn to St Martin de Porres and a number of other Church-influenced cuts.

Bonnemère, on the other hand, premiered a bona fide Jazz Mass, his “Missa Hodierna”, on Mother’s Day 1966 at St Charles Borromeo Church, a Black parish in Harlem. The liturgy was written a year before, inspired by both Williams and Fr Clarence Rivers, a Black priest in Cincinnati known for innovating the fusion of Catholic liturgy with Black sacred song. Bonnemère is said to have also composed a Jazz Mass in 1958, and Rivers himself is perhaps best known for his 1964 “American Mass Program,” which he also claims was a Jazz Mass.

Williams and Bonnemère alike would compose several Jazz Masses thereafter, with Williams taking her show to Pittsburgh some years after releasing “Black Christ,” where she performed a heavily protested jazz liturgy in 1967 with the permission of her friend, Bishop John Wright. Bonnemère’s “Missa Laetare” came in 1969, and the “Mass for Every Season” was recorded with voices from Manhattan’s now-closed Church of St Thomas the Apostle soon thereafter. (That parish had performed a different Jazz Mass with Williams in 1968.)

Eddie Bonnemère playing the piano during a jazz liturgy celebrated in 1971 at St Peter's Lutheran Church in Manhattan. (Lutheran Standard)

On paper, mind you, the Church had all but banned the greater Black musical idiom by proxy in 1903, with its blanket prohibition of most percussive instruments that year by Pope St Pius X. The Second Vatican Council opened doors some six decades later, but the same year Williams had performed under duress in Pennsylvania, the New York Times reported on a joint statement from the pope and two Vatican offices banning Jazz Masses specifically (then noted as a mostly European phenomenon).

Further, a 1969 meeting between Williams and Pope Paul VI—after whom the Novus Ordo is named—failed to result in final permissions for a Jazz Mass to be performed in Rome, instead canceled at the last minute and replaced with a post-Mass concert.

Even so, the newfound Jazz Mass concept reached an early pinnacle several years later, when Williams, thwarted by the Bishop of Rome, instead turned to the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Terrence Cooke, who greenlighted a performance of her “Mary Lou’s Mass” in 1975 at St Patrick’s Cathedral. It was attended by thousands, and the album itself remains one of her most well-known.

Today, the Jazz Mass writ large remains somewhat unofficial, yet common all the same. Multiple Catholic parishes in New Orleans celebrate a “Gospel Jazz Mass” weekly, complete with horn-heavy lineups and the attendant/discordant harmonies native to the oeuvre and to the city itself. New York, too, maintains its connections to Black liturgical yesteryear, with at least one parish hosting a Jazz Mass every Sunday as well.

Ever a Catholic tourist haunt, New Orleans also hosts seasonal Jazz Masses during Jazz Fest and SatchmoFest, the latter an event in honor of the Catholic-baptized Louis Armstrong, a Crescent City native who later left the swamp for good due to anti-Black racism. (Naturally, he landed in New York.) Another Gulf Coast city, Long Beach in Mississippi, celebrated Mardi Gras with a set of Jazz Masses earlier this year.

California's Diocese of San Jose also celebrates a Jazz Mass during the city’s annual jazz festival, and the nearby Archdiocese of San Francisco—the site of my own conversion to the faith—is known to celebrate a Gospel Jazz Mass every fall in the cathedral. I was even once told that Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, a favorite of liturgical conservatives, has been known to celebrate the Mass personally alongside choirs from around the diocese—including one from my former parish, St Paul of the Shipwreck, which celebrates a Gospel Jazz Mass every Sunday.

Other Catholic communities also take part in local jazz festivals with a Mass, including in Vacaville (another Bay Area city) and the Diocese of Corpus Christi in Texas. South Carolina's Diocese of Charleston, now headed by a Black bishop for the first time in its history, celebrated a Jazz Mass for its bicentennial celebration in 2020.

Suffice it to say, then, that Jazz Mass isn’t going away in the Catholic Church anytime soon. What was once considered profane, lacking the apparent “decorum” necessary for true and reverent worship, has quietly become a staple of liturgical culture in pockets throughout the United States—not least because of the sheer force of will from African-American Catholics who didn't wait for permission and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

As such, tomorrow’s happenings in Detroit should surprise no one. Those still offended by the idea ought likewise to be in scarce company. Instead of putting one’s foot down, a better response, I say, might be a hearty tapping of the same.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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