SUBSCRIBER EXCLUSIVE: Canadian priest who befriended Duke Ellington dies at age 92
By Alan Hustak |Catholic News Service
MONTREAL -- Father Gerald Pocock, who died Sept. 4 in Ottawa at age 92, was a gregarious Roman Catholic chaplain at Montreal's St. Mary's Hospital in 1969 when he befriended American jazz legend Duke Ellington.
Ellington was playing at the Esquire Show, a popular Montreal club. Father Pocock, whose record collection was legendary, was a huge jazz fan. After the show, two men were introduced and began what became a deep friendship
For the next five years, until Ellington's death of lymphatic cancer, Father Pocock traveled with and counseled the Duke, and even wrote some of the lyrics to Ellington's Third Sacred Concert, which premiered at Westminster Abbey in London in 1973.
Ellington was not a religious man but, according to Father Pocock, he was deeply spiritual.
"He made friends easily, and among his friends were priests, ministers and rabbis. He often composed in the hours before dawn and called to ask questions about whatever was on his mind," Father Pocock once said.
"Our relationship involved religion, but I am not comfortable saying that I ministered to him. Often what we talked about was confidential, but it is fair to say we discussed scripture and common beliefs."
Gerald Pocock, one of five children, was born Oct. 28, 1924, in Toronto, and even as a boy, he was hooked on jazz the way some boys are hooked on hockey or baseball. He joined the Royal Canadian Navy in 1943 and, while at sea on North Atlantic patrol, managed to persuade the ship's wireless operator to let him listen to jazz broadcasts from New York.
After the war, he followed his older brother, Hubert, into the priesthood. Ordained a Montfort Father in 1957, he studied canon law at the University of Ottawa. Father Pocock began his pastoral work visiting missions and preaching retreats in the United States and took a sabbatical in New York's Harlem neighborhood before moving to Montreal to become chaplain at St. Mary's Hospital.
Father Pocock never abandoned his love of jazz, and along the way befriended many musicians, including jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and vocalist Sarah Vaughan.
The night Ellington played at the Esquire Show, Father Pocock arrived early to get the best seat in the house. The owner, Norm Silver, introduced him to Ellington, who was with his son, Mercer, and grandson, Eddy. After the show, they went to the famous Montreal deli, Ben's, and over smoked-meat sandwiches, talked until dawn. Before leaving, the two men exchanged phone numbers and continued to see each other on a regular basis.
'The best thing in the world was to ride in the back of a cab with Duke Ellington in New York City and watch him give directions," Father Pocock told a reporter after Ellington died. 'It was his town -- he knew all the alleys, all the back streets, where everyone played and everyone lived.'
One night while visiting Ellington at his suite in a Montreal hotel, Father Pocock scribbled some poetry on hotel stationery. The Duke incorporated the effort, "Is God a three-letter word for love," into his Third Sacred Concert.
Father Pocock was with Ellington the night he died in 1974. It was, he recalled, "the only time he ever said goodbye to me."
Father Pocock also was one of four co-celebrants in 1974 at Ellington's funeral, attended by thousands of luminaries and fans, held at New York's Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Father Pocock left Montreal for Ottawa in 1987 to become pastor at St. Maurice Parish, then at Holy Cross Parish.
"He brought theology down to earth in a way that everyone could understand," his cousin, Sheila Pocock, told The Catholic Register. "He was a big, gentle man, and he was lots of fun."
Hustak writes from Montreal for The Catholic Register, Toronto.[[In-content Ad]]