John Nagy | January 5, 2018
Class assignments trigger student anxiety all across campus every day, no story there, but what happened to pianist J.J. Wright during his first semester at Notre Dame was more like existential anguish.
Asking her sacred music students to create prayer services within particular musical traditions, Professor Margot Fassler had urged Wright, then a new graduate student, to compose a jazz setting for evening prayer, known by tradition as vespers.
“And I was like, ‘I can’t,’” says Wright ’14MSM, ’17DMA, sitting in a booth in LaFortune this past September and grinning at the memory of his misery five years before. “I’d already left all that behind.”
“All that” was a jazz career he’d loved and, at age 27, an already sparkling string of achievements: Playing for presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama during his four-year tour of duty as a musician first-class with the U.S. Naval Academy Band. Winning a Latin Grammy for Best Jazz Album of the Year in 2008 — Afro Bop Alliance, with Caribbean Jazz Project. Earning a performance degree from The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City, where after hours he’d frequent clubs like Smalls in Greenwich Village, listening to new sounds, seeing and being seen.
He’d given it all up. He’d grieved it. “Because I thought that’s what I had to do,” he says, explaining his career decision in the summer of 2012 to study at Notre Dame and to serve the church he had loved since boyhood even more than he loved the bebop and cool jazz of his youth. “I thought there was a sense in which God was calling me to leave jazz behind and go pursue higher goals, or something.”