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In Memory of Organist and Church Musician Christopher Putnam

October 16, 2018

Renowned organist Christopher Adam Putnam, 51, of Berkeley, CA, died last month after a lengthy illness. He was best known for his service at Grace Cathedral, first as Associate Canon for Music, 1994-2000, during John Fenstermaker’s tenure, and then as Canon for Music, 2000-2003.

He worked as a conductor, organist, pianist, accompanist, teacher, and improviser. He was also a gifted liturgist, working closely with clergy in a series of church musician positions, recently as the Associate for Liturgy and Music at All Souls Episcopal Parish in Berkeley.

Born in San Diego, Putnam attended St. Augustine High School, University of Redlands (Bachelor of Music), and the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (Master of Theological Studies). His teachers included Edgar Billups, Samuel John Swartz, Audrey Jacobson, and Leslie P. Spelman.

For many years, he was a member of the Association of Anglican Musicians, and he was one of a select few to attain the prestigious diploma of Fellow of the American Guild of Organists.

After positions at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul (San Diego) and All Saints Episcopal Church (Beverly Hills), Putnam moved to San Francisco and began work at Grace Cathedral, performing duties as organist and choir director. He also established the mixed-voice Cathedral Singers and appeared several times on recordings from the Gothic label as accompanist.

John Sullivan, a member of the music department at Grace, says of working with Putnam for nine years: “He was a wonderfully talented musician, an inspiring and compassionate mentor and teacher, and an unparalleled friend whose unyielding resilience and truly consummate sense of humor had a profound influence on every aspect of my life. I treasure having known him and will miss him dearly.”

At the All Souls Episcopal Parish, Putnam built a vibrant and eclectic music program over a span of 12 years, beginning in 2004. He directed the Parish Choir, playing the organ, piano, and keyboards;  accompanied the Angel Band on washtub and melodica; and led the Hearts on Fire Gospel Choir and Band.

In addition to church music, Putnam performed with the San Francisco Symphony, at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and improvised scores to silent movies at both Grace Cathedral and All Souls Parish. He also taught as an adjunct faculty member at the College of Notre Dame (Belmont) and the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (Berkeley).

Singer Elisabeth Eliassen responded to news of Putnam’s passing by calling him “a man of extraordinary musical talent and endless humor. Chris could play the heck out of any keyboard, and always knew when a soupçon of cowbell was appropriate to an occasion. Truly, it is rare to have known a person of such keen intellect.

“Every conversation I had with him, over the years since our first encounter in the early 1990s, we’d explore a topic from different angles, then find ourselves seeing eye to eye, and really enjoying those arrivals, those satisfying, simpatico moments.”

Putnam is survived by his wife Caroline De Catur Putnam, mother Judith Ann Putnam, and former wife Annette Rossi. Donations are being accepted in his memory at Berkeley Emergency Services.

A memorial service for Putnam will be held on Saturday, Nov. 3, at 1 p.m., at All Souls Episcopal Parish in Berkeley. 2220 Cedar Street at Spruce.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].