I was surprised and delighted when I recently received a letter from John Garcia Gensel, the world-famous pastor to the jazz community who, before going to New York in 1956, lived and preached and Mansfield, Ohio for nine years. Pastor Gensel thanked me for sending him a copy of my Cleveland Jazz History book, which he graciously described as "delightful and informative."
He went on to tell me that even in retirement, he has been extremely busy. He wrote that he has been lecturing at Amherst College on Duke Ellingtonís Sacred Concerts.
In his letter, Pastor Gensel also said he had received a tribute in Los Angeles, attended a jazz festival in Tampa, Florida, and spoke at the memorial services for Gerry Mulligan and Mercer Ellington.
When we last saw Pastor Gensel, he was just beginning his retirement from his unique jazz ministry in New York City. He had moved to rural Muncy, Pennsylvania, not far from where he had grown up.
He recalled that within a year of going to New York, he came up with the idea of creating a special ministry to the jazz world. One of the jazz musicians Pastor Gensel got to know in New York was drummer Max Roach.
"He made a very significant statement," said Gensel. "He said to me once, `John, you know many of my friends believe but they donít belong.í He was talking about the fact that his black jazz friends believed in God, but they didnít belong to the segregated church. We have been very close friends for many years."
In 1960, his church fathers permitted Pastor Gensel to spend half of his time ministering to jazz musicians. He counseled them. He helped them move to better neighborhoods. He helped them get loans. He baptized their children. He married them. And he organized and conducted memorial services for jazz musicians who died.
One of the first funeral services for a jazz musician conducted by Rev. Gensel was for native Cleveland bop pioneer Tadd Dameron who died in 1965 at the age of 48. "Tadd was in Roosevelt Hospital in New York City," recalled Rev. Gensel, "and I used to visit him. He lived not too far away from where I lived on the West Side of Manhattan. I would visit him at his home and weíd talk. What an incredible musician!"
Pastor Gensel decided that because jazz was Tadd Dameronís life, his music should be part of his funeral. The pastor organized a quintet which included saxophonist Benny Golson, trumpeter Johnnie Collins, pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Mel Lewis to play at the memorial service. They played Dameron compositions. Gensel said very little at that service; he said Dameronís music spoke for him. Among the 150 people in the Advent Lutheran Church at 93rd and Broadway in New York City for the service were pianist Billy Taylor, Yusef Lateef, Danny Quebec, Randy Weston, Roy Haynes, Ray Bryant, Barry Harris and fellow Clevelander Bill Hardman, along with members of Taddís family from Cleveland -- his mother Ruth, his widow Mia and his brother Caesar -- all honoring the Clevelander that Dizzy Gillespie called "one of the most influential of all the arrangers and composers of the bebop movement."
When Rev. Gensel became the fulltime pastor to the jazz community, he organized regular Sunday afternoon jazz vesper services and conducted funeral services for most of the jazz greats. One was for Billy Strayhorn who left his personal piano to Rev. Genselís church. "He said, `John, I want to give this to you for the jazz vespers. When I tell a musician, who doesnít happen to know that that piano is Billy Strayhornís private piano, they just are transfixed."
This simple, unassuming, jazz-loving man of God also conducted funeral services for Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and dozens of others who made significant contributions to the art form.
In December of 1993, at the age of 76, Rev. Gensel, whose three children were born in Mansfield, Ohio, retired as pastor to the jazz community. But, even living quietly in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania, Rev. John Gensel is still very active in the jazz community -- lecturing at colleges, attending jazz festivals, conducting memorial services, and being honored by the many who respect his unique jazz ministry.
CLICK HERE for last week's "Jazzed in Cleveland"
Copyright 1996 Joe Mosbrook
You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries, and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-397-9900).