Fr. Gerald Pocock, left, with jazz great Duke Ellington. The two were great friends

Fr. Pocock struck right note with ‘Duke’

By  Alan Hustak, The Catholic Register
  • September 12, 2017

MONTREAL - Fr. 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. Fr. Pocock, whose record collection was legendary, was a huge jazz fan. After the show the two men were introduced and began what became a deep friendship. 

For the next five years, until Ellington’s death of lymphatic cancer, Fr. Pocock travelled with and counselled the Duke, and even wrote some of the lyrics to Ellington’s “Third Sacred Concert,” which premiered at Westminster Abbey in London, England, in 1973.

Ellington was not a religious man but, according to Fr. 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, Fr. 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. The son of an osteopath, 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 then studied canon law at the University of Ottawa. Fr. Pocock began his pastoral work visiting missions and preaching retreats in the United States and took a sabbatical in Harlem before moving to Montreal to become chaplain at St. Mary’s Hospital. 

Fr. Pocock never abandoned his love of jazz and befriended many musicians, including jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and vocalist Sarah Vaughan. 

“He was on a first-name basis with a whole slew of people and he corresponded with some of the biggest names. He’d write letters to people like Carmen McRae, Thelonious Monk and Nina Simone. He had beautiful penmanship,” recalled retired Montreal music promoter Sheldon Kagan. 

“When we first met, I minded my p’s and q’s because he was a priest, but I soon learned he was a wonderful, down-to-Earth guy. He loved his scotch.”  

The night Ellington played at the Esquire Show, Fr. 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,” Fr. 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, Fr. 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.” 

Fr. Pocock was with Ellington the night he died in 1974. It was, he recalled, “the only time he ever said goodbye to me.”  

Fr. Pocock was also one of four co-celebrants at Ellington’s funeral, attended by thousands of luminaries and fans, held at New York’s Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Letters exchanged between Fr. Pocock and Ellington are on file at the National Museum of History Archives in Washington, D.C.

Fr. Pocock left Montreal for Ottawa in 1987 to become pastor at St. Maurice parish, then at Holy Cross parish.  

“He preached on a broad range of subjects, and his parishioners and his patients loved him,” his cousin, Sheila Pocock, told The Catholic Register. “He brought theology down to Earth in a way that everyone could understand. He was a big, gentle man and he was lots of fun.”

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