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Pianist brought love of jazz to church

Burrell Joseph Gluskin

Burrell Joseph Gluskin

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Updated: August 31, 2012 6:15AM

For years on Sunday afternoons, jazz musician Burrell Joseph Gluskin would cut loose on the piano, playing improvised tunes and nontraditional hymns for worshipers at an experimental Lutheran church in Lombard.

Jazz vespers, a freeform worship service that Mr. Gluskin helped develop in the late ’60s with his friend, the late Rev. Jack Lundin, at Community of Christ the Servant, drew the attention of Chicago’s jazz community.

“It attracted a lot of professionals,” said Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School. “Burrell knew everybody in jazz in Chicago. Bobby Lewis, Larry Novak — all of the top musicians. They would show up and sit in.”

The gatherings often turned into long jam sessions, and sometimes entire bands would come to play in the old barn that housed the congregation.

“It was basically like going to a jazz club only it was on Sunday afternoon,” said one of Mr. Gluskin’s daughters, Deidra Egan. “My dad loved jazz and felt that it was a very important American art form. He really wanted to promote it.”

Mr. Gluskin, a former band director and music professor for 10 years at Triton College, died of congestive heart failure on July 6 at Westbury Care Center in Lisle. He was 85 and a longtime resident of Lombard.

Along with jazz vespers, Mr. Gluskin wrote a unique book of songs for CCS called Joyful Noises: Hymns for Humans, which featured complicated, jazz-oriented music and thoughtful lyrics. Though active with the Lutheran church, Mr. Gluskin was a non-practicing Jew.

“He just liked the atmosphere and the attitude of the people there,” Egan said. “He recognized the need for spiritual grounding, but he didn’t like labels for himself.”

Mr. Gluskin was born Oct. 17, 1926, in Duluth, Minn., the only child to Russian-born parents. His father worked as a carnival front man and his mother was a legal secretary.

The family eventually moved to Chicago, and Mr. Gluskin started playing piano in his youth. As a teen he formed a combo with Chicago musicians Bill Russo and Marty Clausen, who were his classmates at Senn High School. The group practiced above the Green Mill, a popular jazz club on Chicago’s North Side.

In August of 1944, Mr. Gluskin joined the Navy and played piano for the officers’ club while stationed in the Panama Canal. After he was discharged in 1946, Mr. Gluskin returned to Chicago and studied music theory and composition at the American Conservatory of Music, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Later he went on to receive a doctorate from another school.

A member of the Chicago Federation of Musicians, Mr. Gluskin played gigs around Chicago at many jazz hotspots, including the Mill Run Theatre, Arie Crown Theater and the Signature Room of the John Hancock building. Over the years, he created thousands of arrangements and accompanied dozens of popular entertainers, such as Connie Francis, Jack Benny and Michael Jackson. At one point he also taught music history and appreciation at the College of DuPage and helped launch music boosters at Glenbard East High School.

He married Mercia Holt in 1950 and became a father of six. On top of his music career, Mr. Gluskin worked in management at American Airlines, Playboy Magazine, Time Life and the U.S. Census Bureau.

While at the airline, he enjoyed the perk of free plane tickets and loved a spontaneous trip.

“My dad would take us kids to watch the airplanes go by, and he would just say, ‘Let’s get on a plane and go somewhere,’” Egan said. “So we’d fly somewhere, goof around at the airport and fly black home.”

Mr. Gluskin was a consummate practical joker and a puzzle fiend. He once bought one of his daughters a crossword puzzle that measured 10 feet by six feet.

“He would search far and wide for the most bizarre kind of gift,” said another daughter, Gina Conrad. “That was my dad’s kind of humor. He loved to shock people and see what their reaction was.”

Mr. Gluskin was preceded in death by his wife, who died in 1991, after a long battle with breast cancer. In addition to Egan and Conrad, he is survived by two sons, David and Geoffrey; two daughters, Lisa Veinot and Aimee Townsend; seven grandkids; and three great-grandkids.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Aug. 19 at the Chicago Federation of Musicians, 656 W. Randolph, Suite 2W.

“We’re going to have some musicians performing freeform jazz,” Egan said. “It’ll be the kind of service my dad would have liked, that’s for sure.”

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