Up From the Soul
Jazz Fest at the Gospel Tent
In May of 1995, the year after I began writing this column, a monsoon rain overtook a German film crew in a big white car driving back to the city on Interstate 10. We were returning from Boutte and an interview with Sherman Washington. Washington is gone now though his gravelly baritone lives on with the Zion Harmonizers’ recordings, and superb version of “Jesus on the Mainline” included on Deacon John’s Jump Blues.
The sky that day was ink black; the worried cameraman guiding the white Lincoln rent-a-car was muttering in German about water rising on South Claiborne Avenue. I was finishing a week’s field producer gig, cash in pocket, when they let me off in knee-deep water at Jefferson Avenue. The driver feared making the turn. I didn’t blame him as I sloshed two blocks to my then-home.
What stands happier in my memory bank was a service the week before at Israelite Divine Universal Spiritual Church on Frenchman Street in Gentilly. The producer had just arrived from Frankfort and was suffering severe jet lag. I had a head cold but the music that night was pure magic: a caravan of gospel singers come to eulogize Bishop Herman Brown, an impresario and ally of Sherman Washington as the latter oversaw scheduling at the Gospel Tent.
With groups like the Boutté Family Gospel (Hello, Lillian!), the Wimberly Family Gospel Singers, the City of Love Music and Worship and Arts Choir, plus Craig Adams & Higher Dimensions of Praise lined up for the festival’s first weekend this year in the tent of church song, we do well to remember those who helped put gospel in the mainstream.
The German producer was nodding off as the hosannas rang for Bishop Brown, who had booked many gospel artists for concerts, broadening the idea of church song as something people would turn out to hear in a big hall or for public brunch somewhere. I had never heard of the guy. As his life in music passed before me I saw Quint Davis, executive producer of the Jazz & Heritage Festival, wearing a coat and tie in a pew near the front – Quint, in a tie. Meaning Bishop Herman Brown was a serious man.
The German producer was making noises about his need for sleep and I was making excuses to stay when Reverend Alvin Bridges marched across the altar followed by the Desire Community Choir in flowing robes and a dazzling, zigzag pattern of body rhythms. Bridges made a turn in front of the coffin, leaned over and somehow touched the deceased. At that, all the preachers popped up and surrounded him for a supreme breach of protocol at which Reverend Bridges backed off, or up, obtaining the microphone, announcing that his Desire choir came from the Lower Nine, a place people looked down on, but they were here to sing for Jesus. I paraphrase, yes, but Bridges was setting people up to realize that even from the Lower Nine, the spirit shall rise.
“We … must … go,” wheezed the producer.
“Not yet,” I said, ingesting two cough drops. “You need to see this.”
It was a lie. I confess it now, 19 years later. The guy needed to crash, I could see that, but I was young and selfish. It was the most spectacular evening of gospel music I had seen to that point and I wanted to stay.
Then came Ruby Ray and the Spiritualettes, a choir in color-coordinated royal blue and a young man, perhaps 19, given the lead vocal for “Jesus on the Mainline.” They were swaying back and forth like tropical palms on a wind-battered island, singing to the skies, a work of pure beauty with a trailing comic touch as Ray flicked her hand at him, like some smiling, jibing schoolmarm, saying, “Sing, boy – sing!” He kept singing and jumping, she kept flicking and saying, “Sing, boy!”
An aura of darkness folded across the face of my German employer and it registered on me that if the guy passed out or had a heart attack I would not only lose a week’s prime wages but also have to get him to a hospital. And so we left. I got him back to the hotel where the crew arrived the following day.
I have no idea what happened to the boy who sang with the Spiritualettes; perhaps he’s a man and still with them. They are performing Sun., April 27, in the Gospel Tent.
From the festival website: “The New Orleans Spiritualettes were formed in 1956, in the midst of a New Orleans gospel movement that eventually produced a dozen or more musical ensembles. Founded by Mississippi transplant Ruby Ray, who remains the group’s leader, The New Orleans Spiritualettes have continued to rely since that time on strong rhythms and heart-felt harmonies that recall a backwoods choir as much as a more-refined, city-based ensemble.”
Heading home that night from the church, a week before the aforementioned flood, I was trailed by a regret that I didn’t stay the night to see the full show of gospel talent and the fervor with which they sang. To this day that evening remains the stand-out gospel experience of my life.
Correction: The February column on black Carnival praised Robert McKinney, a pivotal contributor to the Louisiana Writer’s Project, for his unsung role in the book Gumbo Ya-Ya. Kim Marie Vaz, author of “The Baby Dolls,” sent a response: “Robert McKinney graduated from Xavier University in 1933. He was not a Dillard graduate. Also, he did not work on Dillard’s Negro unit of the Louisiana Writer’s Project. He worked with the ‘integrated’ group with Hazel Breaux, Caroline Durieux and others.” Thank you, Ms. Vaz. We regret the error.