The “Jazz Priest” legacy lives on through the Straight and Narrow Gospel Choir

Story by Dr. Sam Pirozzi

Straight and Narrow Inc., is one of the oldest and largest inpatient and outpatient drug and alcohol treatment facilities in New Jersey. Straight & Narrow is a Catholic Charities agency headquartered in Paterson, N.J.  The agency has a staff of 300 and provides services for approximately 1,000 individuals a day.

Since its inception in 1954.Straight & Narrow, Inc. has developed treatment and prevention programs in response to emerging and systemic needs of the community. At the core of Straight & Narrow’s response to each of these needs is the commitment to our mission of “…providing help – creating hope…”  Through this commitment, Straight & Narrow has established a host of programs that provide individuals, families and the community with the knowledge, skills and support needed to create positive, lasting change.

Straight & Narrow’s experiential background in the provision of both residential and outpatient substance abuse treatment services integrates all aspects of behavioral health.  Clients are provided with a holistic approach to treatment with treatment planning focusing on all life areas.  Integration of co-occurring mental health disorders and substance abuse disorders treatment assists in addressing individualized client needs and views the client as a whole preparing them for overall wellness and recovery.  All of the Straight & Narrow treatment programs are approved to provide co-occurring services, and are equipped with credentialed staff including a psychiatrist, an advanced psychiatric nurse, and licensed mental health clinicians to effectively treat our client population.

An integral part of the holistic treatment experience is one’s spirituality.  Straight & Narrow’s Pastoral Care Department assists with meeting the spiritual needs of the clients served.  One of the many activities, which the staff of the Pastoral Care Department coordinate is the Straight & Narrow Gospel Choir.  Participation in the Choir provides clients with a sense of fulfillment, meaning and hope to continue to maintain their recovery lifestyle.  That sense of fulfillment is not limited to the clients at Straight & Narrow. As an agency the spirit of the choir is felt with all who are employed here; to the credit of the agency’s former Executive Director the late Father Norman J. O’Connor.

Fr. O
Father Norman J. O’Connor – “The Jazz Priest”


The Straight and Narrow Gospel Choir originated with the agency’s former Executive Director the late Father Norman J. O’Connor. Fr. O’Connor was known as “the jazz priest” for his work in the Roman Catholic Church and his commentary on jazz.  After his ordination as a Paulist priest in 1948, he spent a decade as Catholic chaplain at Boston University. While there, he was named to the board of the first Newport Jazz Festival, and for many years served as its master of ceremonies.

Fr. O’Connor’s passion for jazz emanated off stage as well, writing a weekly column in the Boston Globe and articles in Down Beat, Metronome and other music magazines. When he was reassigned to New York in the 1960s, as the director of radio and television for that city’s Paulist Fathers, he hosted a syndicated radio show and a local TV show, “Dial M for Music” on WCBS in New York City.

Father O’Connor also used jazz in religious services. ”I’m a 20th-century man,” he told The Daily News in 1969. ”I’m accustomed to the modern sounds of the piano, the drum, the trumpet and the saxophone.”

From 1980 until his retirement in 2002, Fr. O’Connor served as the Executive Director of Straight and Narrow, the largest and oldest rehabilitation center of its kind in the state. Fr. O’Connor’s progressive mindset afforded Straight and Narrow the reputation of becoming a premier treatment provider consisting of a diversity of programs for those affected by substance abuse as well as a host of community programs for adults, children and families.  Under the leadership of Fr. O’Connor Straight and Narrow’s pastoral care expanded its small Gospel choir to become a cornerstone of its drug and alcohol prevention and education program.  At the age of 81, Fr. O’Connor passed away of a heart attack yet his legacy lives on in Straight & Narrow and especially the Gospel Choir.

Straight & Narrow Gospel Choir

Raymond, a client of Straight and Narrow’s long-term program who is a choir member said that “it’s one of my favorite things to be part of the choir here. It allows me to get in touch with my spiritual side”. The choir consists of men and women who are actively in treatment and graduates from the programs for more than 15 years that stay involved with the choir. Straight and Narrow’s former director of pastoral care said, “I always believe eyes are the window to the soul and I can see in some of these clients that their soul is alive. That here’s a good person trying to be better”.

The agency’s Pastoral Care staff integrates spirituality with the client’s clinical care plan helping each person come to know who they are through their relationship with their Higher Power. Straight and Narrow supports clients in their recovery from substance abuse by listening and attending to their spiritual needs. The Pastoral Care staff facilitates spiritual guidance in individual and in groups sessions. Our clients’ spiritual journey is augmented with retreats, choir, art groups, addiction recovery groups, spirituality and bible study groups.

Religious services are provided for multiple faiths utilizing local Ministers, Imams and Rabbis in addition to Straight and Narrow’s own pastoral care Priests and Staff.

DrSam2Dr. Sam Pirozzi is a New Jersey licensed professional mental health counselor, marriage & family therapist and licensed clinical drug and alcohol counselor, with over 35 years of experience. He has worked in a variety of settings as a clinical and executive director, including outpatient and in-patient mental health and drug and alcohol treatment programs, private practice and hospitals. Dr. Pirozzi also teaches in the pubic health department at a local university.

Dr. Pirozzi completed his doctoral degree in Health Care Education at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; he also has a post master’s degree in Marriage & Family Therapy
 and a master’s degree in School and Community Psychology, from Seton Hall University. He earned his BA in Psychology from William Paterson University.


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