From the sublime atmosphere of the abbey, we descended into the earthy air of Chicago. While Father Kappas visited a clerical chum, Tom and I were hosted by an old friend of Tom’s father who had become a prosperous medical doctor and lived with his family in an upper-middle-class Black neighborhood. One evening, he took Tom and me to the elegant London House, one of the premier jazz clubs in North America. The maestros on stage that night were the Oscar Peterson Trio with Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums. The Trio were London House regulars. The doctor was a distinguished patron, and his esteem ushered his underage charges through the door without question. The doctor ordered drinks, and my lifelong love affair with dry martinis began.
The best table in the house was reserved for the doctor: right beside the piano on the low stage with an unimpeded view of Peterson’s face, hands, and keyboard. Ray Brown to the left, Thigpen and his drum kit behind. This was my first live concert other than the Seattle Symphony. When Peterson’s fingers began moving on the keys, articulating the melody, then launching into improvisation, with Brown and Thigpen laying down rhythms and beats and Brown also exploring the melody and chord progressions, I was transported into a newly discovered magical realm, by a wizardry I had barely, if ever, imagined. I was transfigured by that magic, especially by Peterson’s inspired melodic inventiveness, technical brilliance, emotional versatility and force, effervescent energy, intimate rapport with his audience, and upbeat sensibility even when his blues-based music invoked sadness rather than rejoicing.
I realized that evening, with crystal clarity and diamond certainty, that I wanted to be an artist too. The desire to be a priest vanished as if struck by a Flash Gordon blaster, leaving a small mound of dust. All those holy feelings I’d had in St. Clement’s Church, and the desire to merge those sacred sensations with God’s divinity and the blessed radiance of saints, suddenly transmuted into a luminous secular ecstasy: the rapture of artistic creation, of wondrous works of art, of artist and audience melding. I was transmuted from priest aspirant to wishful artist.