Mass choirs are associated with churches where they rehearse and have a steady place to sing, Sunday after Sunday.
Shades of Praise has no church. They rehearse Thursday nights at Loyola University where one of the founders, Michael Cowan, is a psychologist and theologian at the Institute of Ministry. Cowan and pop vocalist Philip Manuel launched Shades in 2000 to sing gospel and build relationships across racial lines.
This mixture of idealism and spiritual hydrology has come far. Shades of Praise is a fixture in the Jazz Fest Gospel Tent and has gained attention for its Christmas album, Celebrate the Child.
Celebrate the Child is a rolling blend of standards (“Joy To the World,” “Oh, Holy Night”) and lyrics rarely heard, like “Celebrate the Child” and “Oh, Come and Worship.”
Gospel music exerts a long reach on people outside of churches, and a way of luring even the long-strayed to conversions that often find salvation tides in bodies rolling and cries of forgiveness and rejoicing.
For Gregory Probst, Director of Communications at Freeport-McMoran, the road to Shades wasn’t a born-again experience, but rather a pilgrim’s tale of the spirit found:
“My mom’s from New Orleans; her father played piano in Storyville and did vaudeville. My dad’s from St. Louis. When I was a child, his job with Kaiser Aluminum brought us to Gramercy. He was elected to the parish school board in the 1960s; he supported integration. We received threats. A riot shut down the high school my senior year. We had separate black and white proms and to this day separate high school reunions, which I did not attend. That background pulled me toward something that seeks to tear down such walls.
“I joined Shades of Praise in 2004 after reading a Times-Picayune series by Bruce Nolan. He accompanied the choir to Ireland and Northern Ireland. They performed in both Catholic and Protestant churches. The visit sparked a dialogue and the formation of an ecumenical youth choir in Omagh. The U.S. had begun the airstrikes in Iraq the day they arrived. One of the members on the tour bus, as quoted by Nolan, said that he wished that we could send more gospel choirs throughout the world than bombs. I thought, ‘I want to be around dreamers like that.’
… “Our Thursday night rehearsals are therapeutic. I can’t imagine a better way to round out a busy week than to harmonize with people I love, and to end with a circle where we pray for each other and sing some more.”
During this month three performances were scheduled for the choir: Dec. 7 in St. Louis Cathedral’s Christmas series (6 p.m.); Dec. 10 at St. Charles Presbyterian’s holiday series (7 p.m.), and Dec. 13 at the Convention Center for Christmas in the District (5 p.m.).