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Music, Mass and all that jazz

Anna Weaver

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About an hour from Northwestern, just a few blocks off the Lawrence El stop and tucked among a row of drab buildings, sits the infamous Green Mill Jazz Club. It was the hangout of Al Capone in his heyday and continues to be a hot spot for jazz lovers. Once inside, it’s easy to feel as if Al never left these creak confines.

On a night in November, the Green Mill’s smoky, low-ceilinged space echoes with the clink of martini glasses, low chatter and, from the front stage the sultry smooth sounds of jazz. The evening’s featured group, the Laurence Hobgood Quintet, is on its second set and in the middle of a number called “Journey After Hours.” All eyes follow the guest guitarist, John Moulder, as he and his electric guitar wail away during a two-minute solo.

With his head tilted back, his mouth open and his eyes scrunched together, Moulder is away in his own world. His guitar howls loudly and he howls right back. When someone in the audience yells out “John Moulder! Aww, aww!” his bandmates laugh and continue nodding to the guitar’s escalating harmony. They play off Moulder’s infectious energy.

Tomasz Tabako, a Communications doctoral candidate and rhetoric instructor at NU, was impressed when he first heard Moulder play nearly three years ago at the Green Mill.

“There was something special about him,” Tabako says. “His guitar sounded like nothing I’d heard before. It was antithetical — the melody line sweet and brutal, screaming and whispering, moralizing and apologizing at the same time.”

The song winds down and Tabako pauses to clap along with the rest of the audience before continuing. “I said to myself, ‘This music is kind of like preaching,'” Tabako adds. “I was so mesmerized by his performance that during the break, I approached him and said, ‘Your playing is magically rhetorical.’ And he replied, ‘After all, I am a priest.'”

CATHOLIC CONNECTION

Flash back a few days to a Sunday night at NU’s Sheil Catholic Center. Here Moulder, acclaimed jazz guitarist, fulfills his day job: A Catholic priest. He has been working as a guest priest at NU for two years.

At 41, Moulder’s face and voice still have a boyish quality to them. His dark brown hair tends to flop onto his forehead, while his welcoming smile and kind eyes draw in both parishioners and music fans alike, both of whom are in tonight’s audience.

Father John, as everyone calls him at Sheil, is wrapping up a talk with a group of graduate students and young adults on “Music and Spirituality,” a subject he is highly qualified to discuss.

“For me, if Jesus were any kind of musician he’d have to be a down cold jazz musician,”says Cathleen Martin, a teacher at Evanston Township High School. “You know, in a club getting down with the other musicians, rubbing elbows with people he’s not expected to rub elbows with.”

But applied math Asst. Prof. Stephen Watson disagrees — he is turned off by jazz and doesn’t understand it.

On special request from the group, Moulder gets out his acoustic guitar to play some songs. Everyone listens intently through the first piece called “Soulscape.” At the end, the man who has just said he didn’t enjoy jazz says in a tone of disbelief and happy astonishment, “That’s jazz?”

“Jazz is a language. I really believe that,” Moulder says. “It’s a way of expressing yourself.”

After a few more songs, someone reminds him that the 9 p.m. mass, at which he presides, is less than 10 minutes away. Moulder puts his guitar back into its case.

“Music has a power and that’s why we use it in the liturgy, because it’s a vehicle to spirituality,” he says before heading to the vestry to change into his alb, the linen vestment he wears for services.

“He’s so friendly and completely comfortable hanging out with the students,” says Meaghan Fothergill, an Education senior who lead the Children’s Liturgy of the Word program at Sheil with Father John. “I think it is awesome and pretty incredible he can pursue his vocation as a priest while at the same time being a jazz musician.”

MUSICAL ROOTS

Moulder has loved music for as long as he can recall.

“I remember at like age two once trying to take apart a record player. I really wanted to get inside the music,” he says. “My older brothers and sisters claim that even before I could talk, I’d recognize song titles and go bring 45s to them.”

The Illinois native started playing acoustic guitar at 10 and studying the instrument more seriously at 12. “I actually wanted to play the piano but the guitar was all I had access to,” he adds.

At 14 , Moulder says he fell in love with jazz and blues. While he started composing early and has written music in various genres, jazz remains his primary concentration.

“There’s a spirit of freedom in jazz because improvisation is at the core of it,” Moulder says. He could compose songs ahead of time but he loves the “spontaneous composition that arises from the improviser before the audiences very eyes.”

Moulder clearly remembers his first guitar teacher, Miss Lytis, a “wild, sweet lady with lots of makeup and big hair.” The first song he learned was “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”

“I took to it pretty well,” he adds, shrugging his shoulders with humility.

Guitar gigs helped him pay the bills at Southern Illinois University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He also studied philosophy at Loyola University Chicago and DePaul University.

“My interests in ministry and music have evolved from an internal prompting,” he said, both of which came early on in his life. “I have a strong resonance with both enterprises.”

Growing up as the youngest of six children in a large Catholic family, his inclinations toward religion surfaced early.

“At that time it was a common consideration for boys to at least briefly consider the priesthood,” he says.

He studied in the seminar at the University of St. Mary of the Lake and was ordained a priest in 1991. He went on to fulfill the requirements for a doctorate in Sacred Theology Licenseship, which allows to teach theology.

GOING PURPLE

Moulder’s schooling didn’t end there. He enrolled at NU in 1999 to receive his master of music in jazz studies and pedagogy while continuing his work as a full-time priest.

“That was a very full year,” he says. “I was at school about three to four times a week, sometimes five, and still going back to Ascension Church in Oak Park,Ill., to be an associate pastor.”

Moulder was willing to deal with the crazy hours and workload because he wanted to expand his knowledge of jazz arranging, conducting and improvisation, enhance his teaching skills, and research jazz history and development — particularly its changes in the sacred and secular dimensions. “I was able to work with faculty that I really respected and enjoyed,” Moulder said.

The faculty liked having Moulder at NU, says Don Owens, an associate professor of jazz studies, conducting and ensembles and the coordinator of the jazz studies and pedagogy program. Owens taught Moulder jazz composition.

“(John) is simply one of the finest musicians I have encountered. He’s a monster player. His facility over the guitar is unbelievable,” Owens says. “He writes great tunes, with very interesting harmonies and he was a great student, never flirting with anything except A-plus.”

“One thing about John really struck me. He is a real questioner,” Owen continues. “As the lessons got deeper into the time allotted, his questioning always became more and more profound.”

Owen says he found Moulder so accomplished and down to earth that the “Catholic priest” label never entered the picture.

“I will admit I tried to watch my language around John, which, I’m told, can get colorful at times,” he says. “He’s just a complete package, a real doer.” Moulder has the credentials to back up that praise. Besides his master’s degree, he has conducted classes at universities, high schools and jazz workshops across the nation a
nd performed at festivals from Chicago to Beijing.

Moulder has recorded two jazz CDs — Awakening, released in 1993, and Through the Open Door, released in 1999 — and is about to begin work on a third.

He has performed with jazz greats like Eddie Harris and Kurt Elling, and has been featured on Verve guitarist albums with B.B. King and John McLaughlin. Centerstage Chicago’s Web site has called him “one of Chicago’s better jazz guitarists.”

After receiving his master’s of music degree from NU, he was asked to return as the 2002 guest artist for the annual NU Jazz Festival held in May.

JUGGLING ACT

Throughout the last decade, Moulder has managed to balance two lives — one as a minister for the archdiocese of Chicago and the other as an active jazz musician. Currently he serves not only as a guest priest at Sheil but also as an associate pastor at St. Gregory the Great in Edgewater and as a part-time teacher at St. Benedictine University.

A typical day is hectic, often switching between pastoral work for St. Gregory and music-related tasks such as coordinating performances with his own jazz group, the John Moulder Quintet, and composing.

“Most of my life is a juggling act,” he says. It wasn’t until last year that he was able to easily handle the two roles. His love for music convinced Moulder that a link between arts and religion was necessary in the Catholic Church.

“I did a lot of soul searching about it and saw a need for this connection,” he says.

“What I like about Chicago in terms of the pastoral scene is that the diocese in the area tends to be pretty sensibly progressive and forward-thinking and vibrant, in terms of where Catholicism is at.”

That open-minded attitude resulted in Moulder getting approval from Archbishop Francis Cardinal George in 2001 to form an Arts Alliance.

The program launched officially in 2002 and Moulder now acts as its “liaison to the arts.” The idea is for a several-years-long exploratory program with the Church reaching out to the artistic world.

Under the Arts Alliance, Moulder began a poetry and music series at St. Gregory’s in January and is working on the installation of an Arts Academy at the St. Alphonsus Catholic School in Prospect Heights, Ill.

A long-term goal is to build a center where artists can come together to form artistic projects that will reach the church and the wider public.

Moulder says one of his dreams is to see a connection between the different art departments at NU — music, dance, drama, fine arts — and the Church.

Virginia McGhee, Speech ’96, a Loyola University Divinity student and an active member of the Sheil community, says, “By bringing together spirituality and the arts Father John is finding ways to help us express who we are as individuals and as a society.

“Father John is helping to bridge a void, connecting artistic expression and spirituality in Chicago,” she adds. “So much of what artists express is directly related to the spiritual energies that they are in touch with. By speaking in both the art and spirituality languages, Father John helps us to become aware of and even benefit from the deep well of artistic talent throughout the Chicago area.”

FREE TIME

Moulder’s church and musician work don’t leave him much time for composing, one of his passions. One of the projects he’s been working on for awhile now is a sacred concert, something he started while on sabbatical in 2001.

“The music means a lot to me,” he says. “In it, sacred themes and dynamics within the spiritual life are focused upon and given musical expression. I am seeking to express through music my theological vision of the world.”

The idea for a sacred concert came to him while he was in the Princeton area presiding over the marriage of friends. “They had sent a limo to the airport for me and as I was driving to the hotel and looking out at the scenery going by, it just came on me all at once, this theological idea of capturing Christ in music,” he says, smiling at the recollection.

“As soon as I got to the hotel, I ran up to my room and wrote it all down.”

While Moulder says he normally doesn’t work like that, the burst of inspiration sent him off on a long period of composition. So far he has composed seven of the nine or 10 compositions that will make up this “prophetic work” reflecting on Christ.

One night while working on the sacred concert, he sat down at 8 p.m. and, after what seemed like a short time, realized it was 1 a.m.

“Those are great composing moments,” Moulder says. “I experience a sense of transcendence, of dwelling in the depths and a creative aliveness and inspiration while engrossed in the artistic process.”

It’s in places like the Green Mill that Moulder sometimes feels he’s doing more of God’s work than in a church. Once people realize he is a priest, they occasionally approach him about religious topics.

“I think they get the sense that I’m on their turf,” he says. Long road trips with other musicians, casual talks in clubs with listeners, and other interactions beyond a church’s walls, he believes, allow him to sometimes connect better with people.

“I don’t know if some of the same conversations about God and faith would have happened when they were coming to a church.”

It’s also a breather to leave behind the white, starched collar when he’s in the music realm, he says. “It’s nice that people respect that I am a priest but treat me like an ordinary person. I’m just John as a musician then.”

JAZZ CHARMER

Back at the Green Mill, the second set is wrapping up and the audience is still grooving to the music. One man nearby is tapping his feet so loudly that they can be heard above the music.

The woman next to him sips her drink with eyes half open, a half-smile plastered on her face. Heads bob, bodies sway and the work week melts away.

“I just kind of lost myself in the music,” says Weinberg junior Karen Kushner. “He was just so into the moment, and you could tell by the expressions on his face he loved being up there and he loved making people feel like this. He just played with passion but it wasn’t like he was only in his own little world.

“He invites you along with him,” she says.

Tabako agrees with this assessment. “John’s music involves you in that sub-universe,” he says. “He’s a charmer, a persuader, a rhetorician. Personally, I don’t think of him as being Catholic. He could be Protestant, Jewish or Muslim. What matters is religion — religion as an insight into the ineffable that he offers through his magic sound.”

For Moulder, music — jazz in particular — is the perfect tie to his deep faith. The Green Mill audience before him is his congregation away from church, following his musical lead.

“Jazz is definitely a spiritual music,” Moulder says. “Jazz is the human spirit taking flight.”nyou

Medill sophomore Anna Weaver is an nyou writer. She can be reached at [email protected]

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