Where Music and Ministry Merge

Where Music and Ministry Merge

By Norm Freeman on Mar 28, 1999 at 12:00 AM in The News



WHEN it comes to percussion, Norman Freeman has done it all: played in wedding bands and R & B acts as well as in the orchestra pit of ''A Chorus Line.''

He has also sat in with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic and toured with the former Yes keyboard player Rick Wakeman. Yet he never heard audience reviews quite as warm as those for his latest gig in Greenwich.

''Great,'' raved Susanne Woods.

''Way up there,'' gushed Tamara Kahrimanis.

And from Judy Hall: ''I can only tell you that the man has brought a sense of enthusiasm, wonderful sermons, and this musical talent that is so overwhelming the congregation.''

Greenwich, which already enjoys a reputation as a town that has it all, now has one more thing: a vibraphone-playing clergyman.

Since he arrived at St. Paul Episcopal Church in the Riverside section of town little more than a year ago, Father Freeman has developed a reputation for combining music and ministry through a series of jazz vespers programs at the church. At the same time, he continues to work as a professional musician. Recently he accompanied Luciano Pavarotti during a holiday appearance on ''Saturday Night Live.''

Mixing ministry and music comes naturally to the 46-year-old Juilliard-trained cleric. As he tells it, the two passions spring from the same wellspring of the soul. ''Entering concert halls for me feels like going to temple,'' Father Freeman said. ''They are holy places to go praise God with our gifts, our talent, and our ability to reach others.''

The world of entertainment has its share of high-profile ordained ministers, people like Della Reese, star of the television program ''Touched By An Angel,'' and the soul singer Al Green, who has continued to release critically-praised albums since he traded pop success for a career in gospel. Yet Father Freeman is unusual in that he is a parish priest, on call to his congregation and answerable to the hierarchy of his church.

Father Freeman still plays with the New York Pops and the Orchestra of St. Luke's in Manhattan. Despite its name, the latter ensemble is secular in nature and the orchestra that performed with Mr. Pavarotti on ''Saturday Night Live'' in December.

Skitch Henderson, founder and conductor of the New York Pops, calls Father Freeman ''a minister of the kettle drums'' and ''the most devoted player, not just to me, but to the whole orchestra.''

Mr. Henderson, the former bandleader of ''The Tonight Show,'' recalled the day his timpanist told him he might become a priest. ''I was ecstatic, because that's what he was,'' Mr. Henderson said. ''My only worry was that he would leave.''

But Father Freeman has stayed on as Mr. Henderson's regular percussionist, even journeying with the Pops to Japan for New Year's Eve. His involvement with the Orchestra of St. Luke's is more irregular.

Born a Presbyterian, Father Freeman grew up in a household with what he described as ''strong Judeo-Christian values,'' although not the church-going kind. ''Dad used to sit me down in front of the TV to watch Billy Graham's crusades,'' he said. ''As a child, I always said my prayers every night even if my parents weren't there.''

His discovery of churches, he added, came from playing in them as he grew older. At first a drummer in the club-date band of one of his schoolteachers, he rapidly progressed to the vibes.

As a high school student he made weekend treks from his Rockland County home into Manhattan to study percussion at the Henry Adler Drum Shop. Later, at the Juilliard School, the veteran percussion teacher Saul Goodman encouraged him and other students to ''reach down deep inside us to find that place that would inspire our playing.''

After graduating from Juilliard in 1975, his career thrived. In 1976 he became an extra percussionist for the New York Philharmonic, lasting long enough to work under the batons of Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta and Kurt Masur. For a time, in the late 1970's, he was the only white member of a jazz-soul fusion band. He also played in the orchestra of the Broadway show ''A Chorus Line'' for much of its 10-year run.

He also married in 1983, by which time he was regularly attending church as a prospective Roman Catholic. It was the church of his wife, Lori, and the denomination under which they were married.

''The mystery of the Roman mass really spoke to me,'' he said. ''It probably touched that part of me which has a sense of theater. It was also a place where I could find God and worship in a community.''

Yet Father Freeman said he found himself troubled by some aspects of Catholic dogma, most notably regarding papal authority. An Episcopalian friend suggested the next step in his religious journey.

''He invited me to church one day,'' Father Freeman recalled. ''My first Sunday there, I felt touched by the Holy Spirit in a way I hadn't felt before. As I knelt before leaving, I really had a sense of peacefulness, a sense of rootedness, a sense of being home.''

That feeling grew into commitment over time, even as his career flourished to the point where he and his wife could afford a home by the beach in Sea Girt, N.J. By 1989 he was seriously considering a vocation in the Episcopalian clergy. One day he told his wife of his decision.

''I kind of looked at him a while,'' Ms. Freeman said. ''Once I got my jaw off the floor, I said 'sure.' We both have strong faith and belief in God. We both felt Norm had qualities and talents rich in dealing with people. It was very hard to say no.''

A six-year process of testing and seminary study followed, including a three-year waiting period while his request to enter a seminary was reviewed by a bishop. At the same time, he still worked regularly as a musician.

The transition was at times abrupt. From March to August of 1994, Father Freeman traveled as part of Barbra Streisand's tour band. A year later, he was counseling people with cancer and mentally disturbed patients at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan as part of the pastoral work required of an aspiring priest. Far from being daunted by the experience, Father Freeman called it ''unbelievably fulfilling.''

One reason Father Freeman has been successful at St. Paul's, its congregants say, is because of his willingness to listen. ''One of the things he has done is connect with the congregation,'' a longtime St. Paul's parishioner, Jean MacFarland, said. ''He isn't up in the pulpit all the time.''

Late last year, on All Saints Day, Father Freeman played the vibes at St. Paul's for the first time, as part of a jazz vespers service. A subsequent one was held in January.

Father Freeman presides over these ceremonies as both minister and musician. He enters the church wearing his priestly vestments and, as the ceremony progresses, gives a sermon. But he also performs during the service as part of a four-piece ensemble. Musical numbers range from Father Freeman's variations on church hymns to pop standards like ''How High the Moon.''

The congregation apparently enjoyed it. The second vespers drew more than 200 people to St. Paul's the night of the Super Bowl.

The pastor of St. Paul's, the Rev. Robert E. Taylor, acknowledged that he wondered in the beginning how his curate would blend such diverse interests. ''I think he has done it beautifully,'' Father Taylor said. He called the vespers ceremonies ''a roaring success.''

As a parish priest, Father Freeman must deal with a wide range of responsibilities: ministering to the sick, visiting the troubled, presiding at weddings and funerals. He splits the Sunday services with Father Taylor, and is involved in the church's day-care operations, teaching a class of 4-year-olds about life, music and, as he says, ''God in the world around us.''

At the same time, Father Freeman and his wife are rearing two children, daughter Brady, 11, and son Chris, 8. Ms. Freeman said her husband is home more now as a parish priest than he was in his days as a professional musician. Besides, she added, cutting himself off entirely from musical performance is not something Father Freeman can easily do.

''Once you have realized that talent and used it, really worked hard for it, you find that it is something that nurtures your soul,'' she said. ''You'd close off a piece of yourself if you didn't do that anymore.''