- Associated Press - Monday, June 6, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - After Sunday, parishioners at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Jackson will look behind the pedals of the organ and see an unfamiliar face for the first time in over five decades.

Born on the shores of the English Channel, choirmaster and acclaimed organist John Paul is returning to ocean, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in Biloxi, after 51 years shepherding an Anglican music tradition for the congregation and spreading his considerable talents across the state.

Hailing from the 1,200-year-old town of Lyme Regis, Paul began playing the piano by ear at the age of 4 or 5. He fell in love with traditional Anglican composers Thomas Tallis and William Wilks. Paul earned a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he studied piano and organ. When he graduated at age 22, he was contacted by the Keller family in Jackson, who was looking for a music director trained in a traditional Anglican background.

“This job came up as sort of an accident,” Paul said. “I came for two years, and I fell in love with Mississippi. . I’ll always be an Englishman, but I became very, very attached to Mississippi. It’s been a lovely 50 years punctuated by many blessings. Mississippi is a place that drags you into community.”

As organist and choirmaster at St. Andrew’s, Paul oversaw the construction of the church’s pipe organ from 1965 to 1969. Some of his fondest memories, he said, were driving his MG sports car to small towns around the state to play for affiliated Episcopal churches. A successful concert harpsichordist with partner Shawn Leopard, Paul also enjoyed a career playing shows from Boston to Miami and in between.

In 2002, Paul was recognized by the state with a Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.

“Artists need community, and there is nothing more powerful than the community in Jackson and Mississippi coming together and saying, ‘Thank you for what you’ve done.’ It was glorious,” Paul said of the award.

As leader of the choir, Paul is remembered by members as a notorious taskmaster who “worked all of the time and demanded excellence from his group,” said longtime friend Tom Royals, who sang in the choir for years.

“I learned a whole lot from John, and he was always willing to help people. He is a wealth of knowledge and good judgment,” Royals said. “I know we can have another person in the position, but you can’t have John Paul but once in a lifetime.”

A service with Paul behind the organ always kept parishioners on their toes. He was known for giving contemporary songs like “Mrs. Robinson” or “Eleanor Rigby” a classical twist during communion interludes, according to St. Andrew’s warden Charles Johnson.

“It’s fine to play wonderful Bach fugues, but what really matters is what people get out of the service in terms of their own participation,” Paul said. “We move into areas of populism to capture and maintain an Anglican flavor.”

Paul’s commitment to spreading faith through music was not limited to St Andrew’s. Johnson said he helped other churches during constriction of pipe organs. Paul also served as organist at Temple Beth Israel for decades.

“Judaism with its total emphasis on ‘the Lord is one’ resonates with me a lot,” Paul said. “I had worship experiences when I was at Beth Israel that weren’t just a matter of a ringer coming in and playing a few tunes.”

As a respected layperson in the church, Johnson said Paul came to Jackson as somewhat of a free spirit who liked to drive sports cars. He eventually traded up on his MG for a Porsche 911 and a Ferrari and earned a reputation all the way up to Memphis as the choirmaster with a Ferrari, Johnson said.

Paul’s uniqueness demonstrates the church’s range of personalities and tastes - in cars and even in worship music.

“Church music is a breadbasket into which people of wide tastes, denominations and needs can dip and use,” Paul said. “I see churches of different races, music, styles of worship coming together.”

At the same time, he said, churches of all denominations can have politics get in the way of “the simple basic truth” of Christ’s love.

“There have been times in my life when I have had difficulty with the divinity of Jesus. I never stopped loving or admiring Jesus.”

Paul will be in Jackson a few times a month and continue to curate the Music in the City series the second Tuesday of every month at the Mississippi Museum of Art.

“We have tragedies all the time in our church community,” Johnson said. “You always have the priests who show up to pray for you, but John Paul has always been the one who shows up on his own with flowers and kind words.”

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Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, https://www.clarionledger.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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