Father Norman O’Connor — the “Jazz Priest” who sometimes included jazz music in his services — appeared on the cover of the November 14, 1957 Down Beat. Among his many connections to jazz music was his weekly column on jazz for the Boston Globe, as well as being an original member of the Board of the Newport Jazz Festival
In the April 30, 1957 New York Times article headlined “Vatican is Asked to Rule on Jazz,” Paul Hoffman reports on the attack on jazz music made by Catholic leaders who felt that it was “music of materialistic and Dionysiac orientation,” and how this view might result in a curtailment of radio time devoted to serious jazz music. This was of particular interest as jazz music was beginning to infiltrate the services of the 1950’s, which was, unsurprisingly, fraught with controversy.
Hoffman’s entire piece follows…
Italian “cats” are seeking a Vatican ruling on the moral aspects of jazz. They contend that the “lift” they get out of jam sessions is a valuable spiritual experience. They warn that the recent invasion of juke boxes and rock ‘n’ roll should not be used as an argument for indicting “pure” jazz.
A public appeal to the highest Roman Catholic authority was made today to counter criticism of all jazz music voiced recently in church quarters. The latest and harshest attack came from Catholic Action, a militant lay organization that has about 4,000,000 members in Italy. Noi Uomini, the newspaper of the men’s branch of the Italian Catholic Action, described jazz as “Music of materialistic and Dionysiac orientation.” The reference to Dionysus, Greek god of wine and ecstasy, evidently was meant to suggest that jazz was pagan and orgiastic. “From the Christian viewpoint the judgment on jazz music can and must be severe,” wrote Noi Uomini, branding it as a “triumph of sensuality.”
The Italian Jazz Federation, which says it speaks for “several thousand” persons, today issued a statement to rebut these accusations. It sad a great many young Roman Catholics “who listen and play jazz with passion and with absolutely pure intent” were distressed at such condemnations as pronounced in Noi Uomini. Jazz enjoys “enormous popularity” among young Catholics throughout the world, the statement asserted. It explained that jazz derived from Negro spirituals, “which even today move us with their profound religious feeling.”
Fear was expressed that the attack by Catholic Action might result in further curtailment of radio time devoted to “serious” jazz. The Italian State Broadcasting System is the most powerful institution here in the field of contemporary music and jazz lovers complain that it is neglecting them. No immediate reaction to the request of the Jazz Federation for an authoritative Roman Catholic pronouncement could be elicited in the Vatican or from Catholic Action today.
An organized jazz movement started in Italy twenty years ago with the foundation in Milan of a “hot jazz club.” It went underground when the Fascists declared jazz “degenerate.” Since then Italian jazz tastes have gone from “hot” to “cool.” United States soldiers who occupied Italy in the last stages of World War II propagandized jazz. Louis Armstrong’s first tour here in 1949 marked the peak of the music’s popularity. In the last few years jazz has again become a matter for dedicated enthusiasts. The number of Italians who take an interest not only in dancing to syncopated rhythms but in “pure” jazz is placed at 50,000, not impressive for a nation approaching 50,000,000.
Duke Ellington (with Lena Horne) perform Concert of Sacred Music at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, Dec. 27, 1965