Father Norman J. O’Connor – in memory

From Don Hallock — 7/6/2003

Jazz pianist, George Shearing, with host, Father Norman J. O'Connor ("the jazz priest"). This picture was taken on the station's weekly jazz show Jazz with Father O'Connor, directed by Lew Barlow. Photo from Brooks Leffler.

The following New York Times piece — “Rev. Norman J. O’Connor, ‘Jazz Priest,’ Dies at 81” — reveals much about the life of Father O’Connor that we — who worked at WGBH during the years when he hosted his distinctive weekly music programs — never knew. Likewise, the small section following this article makes up a bit of his history with WGBH which did not find its way into the New York Times commemorative.

From The New York Times (excerpts) — 7/6/2003

The Rev. Norman J. O’Connor, a Roman Catholic priest who was also a well-known authority on jazz, died last Sunday in Wayne, N.J., where he lived. He was 81. …

Father O’Connor, whose name was seldom mentioned in print without the words “the jazz priest” attached, began making a name for himself in the jazz world not long after being ordained as a Paulist priest in 1948.

In 1954, three years after becoming the Catholic chaplain at Boston University, he was named to the board of the first Newport Jazz Festival. In the ensuing years he was a familiar presence there, clerical collar and all, as the master of ceremonies for concerts and the moderator of panel discussions.

During his decade at Boston University, Father O’Connor also became known as a jazz writer, contributing a weekly column to The Boston Globe and articles to Down Beat, Metronome, and other magazines. In the 1960’s, after moving to New York, he was the host of a local television show, “Dial M for Music,” and a syndicated radio show.

His association with the Newport Jazz Festival stemmed both from his lifelong love of jazz and from his friendship with the festival’s producer, George Wein. Father O’Connor was a frequent patron of Storyville, the Boston nightclub Mr. Wein operated.

“In those days,” Mr. Wein wrote in “Myself Among Others,” his autobiography, “it wasn’t common for a Catholic priest to walk into a jazz club; in fact, it sounded like the beginning of a bad joke.”

Norman James O’Connor was born in Detroit on Nov. 20, 1921. He became interested in jazz at an early age and began playing piano with local jazz bands while in high school. He continued to work occasionally as a musician into the 40’s, but had abandoned any thought of music as a career by the time he enrolled at Catholic University in Washington.

He nonetheless remained passionately interested in the subject, and wrote his doctoral thesis on the aesthetics of popular music.

In 1962, Father O’Connor was named director of radio and television for the Paulist Fathers in New York. He became a fixture on the New York jazz scene, and remained one even after being named director of the Mount Paul Novitiate, a church training center in Oak Ridge, N.J., four years later.

In 1980, Father O’Connor was hired as the executive director of Straight and Narrow, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Paterson, N.J. He retired last year.

His profile in the jazz world became lower in his later years. But he remained the jazz priest to the end, producing benefit concerts by Marian McPartland and other musicians for Straight and Narrow with the help of Mr. Wein.

He is survived by two brothers, Patrick O’Connor of Detroit and James O’Connor of Sebastopol, Calif.

Over the years Father O’Connor encountered some criticism for his involvement in the jazz world — although he said most of it came from lay Catholics who viewed the music as disreputable, rather than from members of the clergy.

“Jazz has no morality,” he said in 1962. “If a listener thinks jazz is immoral, it’s because he brings to it remembered associations, such as a pretty girl in a slinky gown, undulating dancers or people overindulging in Prohibition-era speakeasies.”

Father O’Connor also saw nothing wrong with using jazz in religious services. “I’m a 20th-century man,” he told The Daily News in 1969. “I’m accustomed to the modern sounds of the piano, the drum, the trumpet and the saxophone.”

4 thoughts on “Father Norman J. O’Connor – in memory

  1. If anyone on WGBH staff remembers Robert “Bob” Carey and would like to hear some adventures that he participated in once he moved to Franconia, NH and boght the Horse and Hound Inn there. Th “behind the scenes” adventures as Private Detective “Analysis Associates” and Boston mob chaser kept us both traveling across the country, even into Canada. Owning up to my promise to him, I spread his ashes in Franconia at his favorite nude stream under the Old Man of the Mountains.

  2. When I was a student at Boston English High School- 1952-1956 (a recent transfer from Boston Latin where I had failed to “make the grade”) I was mysteriously invited to attend monthly session of the Boston Teenage Jazz Club which Father OConnor was offering to young male students from Boston high schools. It never occurred to me to question how or why I was invited to attend.
    I was neither musically inclined (I did sing in a mixed race octet from EHS, and we attended Peace breakfasts around Boston typically on Sunday mornings.)
    Once a month The Boston TJC would gather at a downtown nightclub/venue where groups were appearing who would offer to meet with us in the afternoon to expose us to JAZZ, improvization, and some extraordinary names in Jazz. We heard MJC and several artists I can no longer remember. I now live in the White Mountains of NH.

  3. It was the fall of 1953 and I was attending Boston University. I was always fascinated by the medium of Radio and worked my way into being a part time engineer at WBUR. which then was located in the school of Public Relations and Communications on Exeter Street (Where the Finish line for the Marathon used to be!) I was working one afternoon in the control room running the station’s programming when in walked Father Norman O’Connor. Taken back by his Collared appearance and Silver Gray Hair, he introduced himself to me and asked me if I would “Run the Board” for him. Naturally I said yes. Being a wannabe Jazz Piano Player, I enjoyed the next hour of listening to his smooth delivery and classic collection of his Jazz favorites. He was indeed a “Cool Cat” (holic) Will never forget meeting him. I didn’t know he had passed to the Father’s Jazz ensemble until just recently. May God continue to love and care for him.

    Doug Berle Jacksonville Florida

  4. Missing from the above bio of “Daddy-O,” as he was affectionately (though clandestinely) known in the halls of 84 Mass. Ave. is the fact that he did radio jazz shows on WGBH-FM for many years previous to, and overlapping with, the advent of TV at WGBH, in 1955. Likely these radio offerings were produced by Tom Conley.

    When television started up, he continued in the new medium on “Jazz with Father O’Connor.” His guests included national jazz figures, the likes of Cannonball Adderly and George Shearing (pictured in a 1967 mini-series kinescoped for NET).

    Local Boston musicians like “Boots” Mussoulli and Herb Pomeroy and his Big Band also found exposure in O’Connor’s air time. The Father O’Connor television programming continued up to about 1961, the year of the fire.

    The shows were all ad-lib and great fun to do. The first years were directed by Lew Barlow. I happily took over after Lew left the station.

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