In celebration of Mahalia Jackson’s centennial, several local artists will pay tribute to her prolific and influential career by performing renditions of her songs at this year’s Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell.
The lineup includes fellow Grammy Award-winning soul vocalist and Louisiana Music Hall of Fame inductee Irma Thomas, backed by Dwight Franklin’s band, and accompanied by special guest John Boutté. Also set to play is clarinetist, composer, jazz historian and Xavier University educator Dr. Michael White, who features Cynthia Girtley, Mathilda Jones, Barbara Shorts and Danielle Wilson – women hand-selected by White for the similarity of their vocal power to Jackson’s.
But the power of Jackson’s voice wasn’t just in volume; it was in her unparalleled ability to unlock the emotions of her listeners. “She is what I would call a musical prophet of God,” says Dr. White. “She spread His message through sound and beauty, reminding us all of the power of the creator.”
Jackson’s roots were deeply spiritual. After her mother died, her Aunt Mahalia, her namesake, who was nicknamed “Duke,” raised her in an Uptown Carrollton neighborhood. Her grandfather, Rev. Paul Clark, a former slave, set the strict religious tone of the household.
Lois Craft Washington, a cousin of Mahalia Jackson who considered her more of an aunt, says it was her strong Baptist upbringing that grounded Jackson’s unwavering devotion to gospel music. “We were all raised like that – strict to the point where we weren’t allowed to play cards.”
Jackson began singing in church at the age of four, and by the time she was a teenager, had established herself as a significant vocalist in New Orleans’s Mount Moriah’s choir.
“Mahalia was very spiritually filled,” Washington says. “Everything she did came from her heart.”
You can hear the truth of those words in every hymn Jackson sang. From “Amazing Grace” to “In My Home Over There,” her voice moves from low rumbles to sudden explosions of sound. A heavy hopefulness floats after her notes like an anvil with wings – full of weight but carrying on.
Her music carried her many places, but Mahalia Jackson never forgot her beginnings. “No matter where she went,” Washington recalls, “family was very important to her. Whenever she was in town she’d call on me and say, ‘Cook me some of those greens and cornbread.’”
At 16, Jackson moved from New Orleans to Chicago, where she pursued music and toured with one of the first professional gospel groups in the nation, The Johnson Gospel Singers. Her expressive 1948 recording of “Move On Up a Little Higher” reached the passions of millions of people internationally; through radio, television, and various festivals, the world became exposed to her message.
Over the course of 30 years, she would win five Grammys and a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Grammy, be inducted to four halls of fame, perform at Carnegie Hall as their first gospel act and welcome John F. Kennedy into his presidency by singing at his inauguration.
“She brought gospel music to the world,” says famed New Orleans soul singer Irma Thomas, also another relative of Jackson’s. “She was very unique to the industry” because of her firm and repeated rejection of secular music.
Although she didn’t record traditional jazz, she was influenced by musicians like Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong and responded to the spontaneity of brass bands, parades and other street music, as documented by an impromptu performance with Duke Ellington at the first annual Jazz Fest in 1970. The two joined the Eureka Brass Band in a second-line through the Festival grounds, feeling their way lyrically through the unrehearsed moment.
About Jackson’s energy, Dr. White remarks, “More than anything anyone can say, it’s the spirit and the feeling inspired by such purity of sound. When you’re hearing the original source itself, it can’t be diluted.”
He continues, “Mahalia Jackson is one of the greatest and most influential musical figures to come out of New Orleans. She changed the perception of gospel music by helping to make it popular around the world outside of black churches. It became visible and acceptable to audiences around the world. Her message was one of joy and optimism, and by having [this celebration] we are acknowledging her roots and the spirit of New Orleans.”
Mahalia Jackson also embodied the spirit of Jazz Fest and the multiple, original performances in honor of her 100th year show respect for her many accomplishments and recognize her as one of the city’s and the Festival’s most deserving pioneers.
• Dr. White and his vocalists give their traditional jazz tribute on Sunday, May 1, in the Peoples Health Economy Hall.
• Irma Thomas performs a tribute for Mahalia Jackson for the fifth year in a row on Friday, May 6, in the Gospel Tent.
• There is also an additional tribute to Mahalia Jackson on Friday, May 6, at the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage which features Pam Morris and Sister Naomi Washington.