Duke Ellington's Eulogist, Fr. Gerald Pocock, R.I.P., 1925-2017

Sep 21, 2017

“Is God a three-letter word for love?”

Reverend Gerald Pocock jotted that rhetorical question down on a piece of stationary when he was visiting Duke Ellington at a Montreal hotel in 1969, and Ellington incorporated it into his Third Sacred Concert with the elaboration, "Is love a four-letter word for God?" 

The Catholic Reporter's obit for Father Pocock, a Roman Catholic priest, reports that he died on September 4 in Ottawa at age 92.

He loved jazz and befriended some of its greatest figures, including Sarah Vaughan and Dizzy Gillespie.

He was at Duke's bedside when he died on May 24, 1974; three days later, the Toronto-born Pocock was one of four co-celebrants at Ellington's massive funeral at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York on May 27, 1974. The church was filled to overflowing with over 12,000 mourners.

Duke Ellington's funeral on May 27, 1974, with his sister Ruth, son Mercer, and grandson Edward visible in the front pew at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine
Credit Getty Images

Here's a performance of “Is God a Three Letter Word for Love” from a 2014 concert of Ellington’s Sacred Music by Laurent Mignard’s Orchestra in Paris. The vocalist is the New Jersey-born, Paris-based, Nicolle Rochelle.

While searching the Internet for additional material on Father Pocock, I discovered that his brief eulogy of Duke has been preserved on the Voice of America's broadcast of the Ellington funeral. Click here for funeral excerpts that include performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Taylor, and Ray Nance, and eulogies by Ellington’s chronicler Stanley Dance, and his spiritual counsel, Reverend John Gensel.

Pastor Gensel established the jazz ministry at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York, which remains the site of many jazz funerals and memorial services. Ellington dedicated a tonal portrait, “The Shepherd Who Watches Over the Night Flock,” to Fr. Gensel.

Duke was filmed playing “The Shepherd” on July 27, 1966, at Fondation Maeght in St.Paul de Vence, France. The great Spanish painter Joan Miro was artist-in-residence at the time, and he and Duke are seen conversing on the grounds of the museum.

Norman Granz, the jazz impresario and art collector, narrates the film and says "The Shepherd" was improvised in that setting and played later that night by the Ellington Orchestra. Duke also recorded “The Shepherd” on his 1966 trio album, The Pianist.  

Here’s an excerpt from the funeral interspersed with a later account by Marian Logan for the Ken Burns documentary, Jazz. Logan, who sang under the name Marian Bruce, was the wife of Dr. Arthur Logan, who was Ellington's and Billy Strayhorn's physician. Strayhorn's composition, "Upper Manhattan Medical Group," was named for Logan's practice. Marian was instrumental in arranging a meeting between Ellington and her friend Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963.

Ellington’s death was preceded by the passing of Paul Gonsalves, the tenor saxophonist who joined the Ellington Orchestra in 1950.

News of his death in London on May 12, 1974, at age 54 was kept from the ailing Ellington, who had a special affection for Gonsalves. The saxophonist was the star of Duke’s sensational, career-rebounding performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, and while a dependency on alcohol and drugs made him an often unreliable sideman, Ellington kept him on board for 24 years, and arrangements were made to have Gonsalves waked along with Duke over Memorial Day weekend 1974.

Several years ago, I heard on good authority that Ellington was so grateful to Gonsalves that he not only paid the saxophonist his salary, he had a duplicate amount sent to his family in the knowledge that they might not see a penny from their errant breadwinner.

Here in 1972, Duke and Paul play “Happy Reunion,” a longtime ballad feature for Gonsalves. Notwithstanding his personal challenges, the New Bedford, Mass. native has long been recognized as an unsung tenor great, and his rapport with Ellington is evident and quite touching here.

Ellington's memoir Music Is My Mistress, lacks an index, but by my reading, Gerald Pocock isn't mentioned in the text, which was published in 1973 before the Third Sacred Concert's premiere.

But in discussing his relationship with Rev. Gensel, it would seem that Father Pocock walked a similarly righteous path as a clergyman with a passion for jazz.

"I went to his church and found that music was not confined there to the more or less solemn kind usually heard in churches," he said. "Pastor Gensel had recitals and music that were, I sensed, much more appropriate to the jazz musicians with whom he was involved. This led to the observation I made in connection with the First Sacred Concert: that every man worships in his own language. And I know that there is no language God does not understand."