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Father Jazz : Tom Vaughn, an Episcopal priest, traded success other pianists would kill for to do God's work in a Valley church

September 01, 1991|DAVID WHARTON | David Wharton is a Times staff writer

The record company executives loved it. Tom Vaughn had just cut his first album and was headlining at the Newport Jazz Festival. The beauty of it was that this pianist was also an honest-to-God Episcopalian priest. Father Tom Vaughn. A man of the cloth in a world of smoky clubs and street slang.

A gimmick like that sells records like you wouldn't believe. The executives had Vaughn booked for club dates and television appearances a year in advance. Then he screwed it all up.

"I had to tell these guys that I'd committed myself to the church," he recalls. "There was a lot of pressure to go out and make a lot of money. But the priesthood was too important."

Maybe the music came too easy for him. Maybe that's why he clung to the clergy, in need of a mission. Vaughn went on to record seven more albums, none of which sold as well as the first, and flit on and off the talk-show circuit. But jazz would always come second, his career would always skirt fame. At 54, he thinks about that. He is now retired as rector of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Canoga Park and spends mornings in the small den of his Northridge home.

"For God, For Country and For Yale" reads a banner on the wall. Dozens of black-and-white photographs show Vaughn at the piano. An invitation to the 1984 Presidential Inaugural Ball is displayed beside a John Wayne decanter, a gift from the Duke himself. Along one wall stands a concert grand piano.

Vaughn will play in public on Thursday, at Monteleone's West in Tarzana. Such performances are infrequent. He rarely ventures beyond the comfortable confines of his den.

"I play three hours every day," Vaughn says, sitting at the piano. The only people who hear are his wife and a nervous Samoyed puppy.

Vaughn's mother, Elizabeth, maintained a strictly religious Kentucky home and taught her son piano from an early age. When he was 10, the family moved to Detroit, where his classical piano teacher was friends with the legendary Art Tatum.

"The combination of his electrifying velocity and the way he voiced chords," Vaughn recalled of the first time he heard Tatum. "I hadn't been exposed to music like that before."

The dizzying experience sent him spinning into jazz.

As a young man, he played his way through college, performing in clubs while earning a history degree at Eureka College in Illinois. The study of religions particularly interested Vaughn, so he subsequently attended Yale Divinity School.

After graduation and ordination, in 1964, he was assigned to a Michigan church and continued playing occasional club dates and college concerts. George Wein, the father of the Newport Jazz Festival, walked into a Detroit club one night when Vaughn was playing with Gene Krupa. Wein brought the young pianist to New York to record his first album.

"That he was an Episcopalian priest who played jazz piano earned him considerable publicity," says Leonard Feather's "Encyclopedia of Jazz in the '70s," explaining Vaughn's early success.

Says Vaughn: "I was sitting on top of the world."

In the following years, he appeared on the "Steve Allen Comedy Hour," "The Merv Griffin Show" and "The Tonight Show." He recorded albums, played concerts and moved to Los Angeles to be close to the entertainment community. All of this remained a sideline to the clergy.

Even so, fellow priests no doubt shuddered at the thought of the jazz crowd. But Vaughn never saw the two pursuits as entirely unconnected.

"With the piano, I can get completely out of myself," he says. "Nothing can move me at the deepest spiritual level like music can."

But the music was never completely satisfying, he says. Human beings tend to desire what they don't have.

"Music was something that came to me as a pure gift. Maybe it came too easily," he says. "The clergy came to me through hard work and learning. I felt called to the inquiries of the mind."

This man wears his eclecticism on his sleeve. He sports a Friar Tuck girth with an ornate cross hanging from a chain. The gravelly voice and laugh, however, the hat pulled slightly down, the nervous gum-chewing--all speak of jazz.

Ultimately, he offers no satisfying explanation for the choice he made to forsake the success that other pianists would kill for, doing God's work in a Valley church when he could have toured the world as a musician.

His last album was in 1976, and now he is working again in the studio, taking the work slowly. He and his wife have the house to themselves, with their three children grown and moved out. Vaughn is also hosting a new public-access show on Continental Cablevision, "All That Jazz," which will feature interviews and performances. Tommy Newsom of the Tonight Show Band will be the guest for the first episode, which has yet to be scheduled.

As for Vaughn's performances, he plays local dates several times a year. Times reviewer Don Heckman praised the "elegant harmonic textures and two-handed rhythmic patterns" he displayed in a 1990 performance at the Biltmore Hotel's Grand Avenue Bar.

In a more familiar locale, the back of his house, Vaughn sits at the glossy black piano and gently fills the den with music: a spritely and meandering version of "Surrey With the Fringe on Top," a frenetic rendition of "Summertime," then a Dizzy Gillespie tune played "like it should be in a cathedral," he says, slowly and dramatically as if it were a pastorale.

"There are a lot of people who didn't take Tom Vaughn seriously because Tom Vaughn didn't want musical notoriety badly enough," he says. His gaze shifts to someplace beyond the confines of the den, as if he is watching those successes he has enjoyed and those he turned away from. "I've never made much of a fuss over it myself."

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