March 14, 2010
On Sunday morning, Father John Moulder slipped into his red and white vestments and sermonized to the congregants at St. Gregory the Great Church, on North Paulina Avenue.
On Monday evening, jazz musician John Moulder strapped on his electric guitar and unleashed torrents of sound at the Jazz Showcase, on South Plymouth Court.
At first glance, the two identities might seem opposed — a man of the cloth igniting some of the most incendiary jazz music to be heard on Chicago's stages. Aren't religious leaders supposed to be above this sort of thing?
Not really, according to Moulder, who believes his callings as priest and jazz musician originate from the same source. He has made this point eloquently in the last two decades, emerging as one of Chicago's most admired jazz artists, as well as a spiritual figure to uncounted parishioners.
Come Tuesday, Moulder will dramatically underscore his belief in the power of jazz to express the divine. For on that night he'll launch the first Chi-Town Jazz Festival, a geographically sprawling event he invented, persuading Chicago-area jazz musicians and club owners to donate their services to feed the hungry. Proceeds from the festival — which Moulder hopes will raise $15,000 to $20,000 — will go to Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Greater Chicago Food Depository and the Northern Illinois Food Banks, among others.
No one can remember another Chicago jazz event of this magnitude — featuring top-flight artists — fashioned not for fame or fortune or CD sales but, rather, for the greater good.
"The festival definitely is born out of my desire to help people and my love of jazz," says Moulder, speaking in the residential quarters adjoining St. Gregory the Great Church, his guitars and discs and scores stashed all over the place.
"It's also an expression of something that I seek to live by in my faith, which is really helping people in need and realizing the dramatic increase in need that has been out there. …
"Catholic Charities has said that requests for food have gone up … and I had this crazy idea that maybe I could put something together to help."
Moulder dared to dream big. Last year he began calling Chicago's top club owners, urging each to give him the run of the club for an evening, allowing him to book the musicians and keep the gate for charity. The venue owners, to Moulder's delight, embraced the idea, as did some of Chicago's best musicians.
When word got out about Moulder's venture, institutions as formidable as Symphony Center downtown and as grass-roots as the Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest asked in. Both already had ticketed jazz events lined up for the week of Moulder's festival, so they wondered if they might urge their audiences to contribute to Moulder's cause.
In effect, a flicker of an idea last fall rapidly has become a major Chicago cultural event, at least on paper. And only one person in Chicago would have had the jazz savvy, the noble intentions and the personal credibility among musicians and club owners to launch it.
Moreover, the same impulse stands at the heart of this festival and the core of Moulder's identity — an expression of faith through religion and jazz. Never mind that jazz long has been caricatured as the music of sin and vice. Moulder and his mentors know better.
"Father John Moulder has an extraordinary musical talent and, like all people so talented, he shares his gifts through teaching and performing," writes Cardinal Francis George, in an e-mail.
"Since who he is is a Catholic priest, and sharing his musical ability means sharing who he is, the gift of his priesthood is also shared in his performances."
Jazz and faith, in other words, are inextricably intertwined in Moulder's work, a fact that becomes apparent when you listen to him play. At his best, his solos surge from one soaring climax to another, his improvised melody lines sounding at once utterly spontaneous and thoroughly inevitable. You don't have to know he's a priest to sense the spiritual undertow of this music.
"You listen to his solos, and they were meant to be," says drummer Wertico, who has collaborated with Moulder in concert, on recordings and on tour since the early 1990s.
"As a guitar player, he's totally melodic, but he's also totally fiery. He's got passion in everything he plays. …
"I think one of the reasons he wanted to become a priest was to try to help people, and that's what his playing is about. … It's like he's on the planet just to do good."
Looking back, Moulder's arrival at this juncture may seem almost preordained. The youngest of six siblings growing up in the Lake Forest/Lake Bluff area, he was smitten with music before he could talk and soon wanted to play a piano, says his mother, Echo Moulder.
But with the boy's parents divorced, there wasn't enough money for a piano, so the nascent musician turned to guitar briefly at age 8, then again at 10. "He was always creating his own compositions, from I can't remember how young," says Echo Moulder.
By eighth grade, young Moulder fell in love with the blues and quickly progressed to jazz, lured by its harmonic challenges and technical demands.
At the same time, though, Moulder was drawn to religion, in Catholic school and in church.
"I remember reading scripture on my own when I was younger and thinking about those types of things," says Moulder, 48. "My father was very religious. … My grandmother was an important wisdom figure for me, in terms of my own unfolding spirituality.
"I have recollections of her being one of the first people to pray with me. I would be going to bed, and she would tuck me in, and we would pray for different people who were living. I have very fond memories of that."
All the while, Moulder's musical skills deepened — so much that he didn't really feel he needed to go to music school to continue studying the art: "I could get a lot of what I needed from playing or listening to records, transcribing," he says.
Instead he majored in psychology at Southern Illinois University, playing in Carbondale bars to sharpen his musical craft.
"At that point I had the idea of bringing a couple of these worlds together: music and some kind of helping profession, either counseling or going into pastoral work," recalls Moulder.
After a brief sojourn in 1984 to Boston, where he took private guitar lessons, he returned to Chicago and enrolled in Mundelein Seminary in 1986, meanwhile plunging into Chicago's robust jazz scene. Both arenas suited him well, he says, and his dual life "just kind of kept snowballing together."
Musically, Moulder made a striking impression with his debut CD, "Awakening" (Mo-Tonal Records, 1993) and with his most explicitly sacred work "Trinity" (Origin Records, 2006). His newest recording, the profound "Bifrost" (Origin Records), was one of the best of 2009, a sure indication that Moulder continues to mature as artist and man.
"I've always felt that you participate in the life of the spirit by using the gifts that God gave us," says Moulder. "I enjoy thinking of God as a creator, and that the artist participates in that creative enterprise in their own way, and that the spirit inspires that in us. … And when I say spirit, I mean God's spirit and the human spirit kind of joined."
By all appearances, Moulder is flourishing both as pastor and musician, his Chi-Town Jazz Festival just the latest manifestation of his impact on life and culture in Chicago.
"If he had to make a choice" between religion or jazz, says his mother, "if he had to leave one or the other, I'm not sure which he would choose. The combination seems to work for him."
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