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Hall of Fame - Clifford Zirkel

Click below to view Clifford's big band performance:


Rev. Clifford Zirkel, born in 1918, was reared in San Antonio Texas, and passed on in December 2007 in Austin Texas. He dedicated his life to preaching the Gospel and the appreciation of swing jazz. Beginning in 1939, he earned a BA at Trinity University; his Masters in Theater Arts from Northwestern in 1940; and in 1946, a Phd Divinity from Yale University.

He eventually moved with his family to Austin, ministering at Terrytown United Methodist and eventually at St. Luke’s UMC until 1986. Always an innovator in his sermons, Pastor Zirkel “raised eyebrows” at the 1972, Tarrytown UMC, Good Friday service by adding extra amplification to the sanctuary’s sound system, and playing a recording of Jesus Christ Superstar; accompanied by a slideshow of paintings portraying Jesus’s last week on earth.

His personal passion for jazz evolved from his participation in quartets and combos in college, playing clarinet and tenor saxophone in the “Squeakin’ Deacons” at Yale. In the early 1970’s, Clifford kept his playing skills sharp by performing in Austin’s premier swing, big band, the Nash Hernandez Orchestra. In 1978 he organized his own sixteen-piece band, which as a local critic noted, “provided a fine balance between veterans and youth”. In addition to performing at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Symphony Square, Zilker Park Hillside Theater, the Legends of Golf Tournament, and numerous private events, the band recorded for Phantom Productions. At Christmas time his big band was noted for performing original, swing arrangements by Johnny Ross of classic Christmas tunes. 

Clifford once remarked that big bands of the mid-20th century exemplified the creative tension between the individual and the group --- the individual players taking their solos, yet always returning to play as an ensemble. And he commented on how jazz could bring joy and uplift people. He felt jazz was a gift from God to mankind, and it should be included in the music of the Church. Clifford’s Easter sermon’s topic, that same year as the Jesus Christ Superstar, Good Friday service, was taken from a quote from Martin Luther: “Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?”