07 July 2021, The Tablet

The jazz priest

The jazz priest

Class act: Duke Ellington enthrals students at Boston University in 1957 at the invitation of Fr Norman O’Connor, left
Photo: Shutterstock/AP, J. Walter Green


Fr Norman O’Connor, who was born 100 years ago, helped set up one of the world’s most influential music festivals and knew everyone on the twentieth-century jazz scene

 Right at the start of New Thing at Newport, the 1965 live album (inset, above right) recorded at the Rhode Island jazz festival that year, a nasal voice, slightly Ned Flanders-like, introduces the set. Having tried to warm up a still ­unconvinced crowd – “A good hand for a good audience. Hurrah!” – he mentions each band member by name, ending with its leader, the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane.

The Newport Jazz Festival is one of the big dates in international music, but this slightly desperate-sounding introduction has the air about it of a minister trying to stir up enthusiasm for a church social. And if so, its owner certainly had plenty of experience of that: because the voice belongs to Fr Norman O’Connor, a Catholic priest who for nearly 30 years was a linchpin of the US East Coast modern jazz scene.

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