The Migration of Gospel Quartets

Local styles that shaped the idiom we call gospel flowed out of late 19th-century church song books. The music broke into two major tributaries – at least in New Orleans. On one side, the songs from standard hymnals used in black churches and given strong improvisational twists rolled into the repertoire of brass bands playing in parades, particularly funerals. “When the Saints Go Marching In” was a staple of churches and sung in slow tempo, as a spiritual, until Louis Armstrong’s 1938 recording as an up-tempo anthem gave the marching bands an ignition switch for the second liners with their spontaneous gyrations.

Well before that, many tunes that traveled from the pews to the stiff reading cards of the marching bands carried a sacred essence into the profane world of the streets. Think “Streets of the City.” Think “Over in the Gloryland.” So much of the music played at Preservation Hall and Palm Court exalts the hold that spirituals had on early jazz.

On the other side of the tradition stood gospel quartets whose singers laid out rich a capella harmonies to the approval of pastors and people swooning, if not bouncing in the pews.

The image of four vocalists in tight harmonies cuts sharply against the Gospel Tent panorama at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – singers in a mass choir, swaying to a band of five instruments or more, a lead vocalist pitching the lyrics to bravura call-and-response. The best example of the older tradition, at least in recent vintage, was the Zion Harmonizers led by the late Sherman Washington, a stunning baritone.

 “During the 1920s and 1930s almost every black Baptist and Methodist church in New Orleans had a resident male quartet,” writes Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff in To Do This, You Must Know: Music Pedagogy in the Black Gospel Quartet Tradition.

Abbott, a researcher at Tulane’s Hogan Jazz Archive and Seroff, a Tennessee-based independent scholar, have done impressive work in reconstructing the road that the music traveled. “For the better part of a century, a capella quartets thrived in black New Orleans; more prevalent than brass bands, they were also more directly connected to folk music traditions,” they write. “A period of heightened religious quartets singing began in New Orleans during the early 1930s under the influence of quartet trainers migrating from Alabama, who introduced a dynamic new style of harmonizing that touched off a ‘quartet fever’ in the city’s black working-class neighborhoods.”

Alabama! Quartet fever! Such are the tiny gems in To Do This, You Must Know.

This weighty work of history is the third collaboration by Abbott and Seroff since their 2002 book, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895. The middle book is Black Traveling Shows, “Coon Songs,” and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz. The work they have done is a major achievement in American musicology, and the books are published with handsome illustrations by University Press of Mississippi.

Clarinetist Tommy Sancton and pianist Lars Edegran do a splendid job on instrumental versions of songs from those early quartets and the repertoire of street bands. Hymns & Spirituals. New Orleans Quartet (NOL-CD-99) culls 14 songs that were recorded at live performances in Trinity Episcopal Church, between 2007 and ’09.

Since Sancton returned several years ago to his hometown after a journalist’s career in Paris, the one-time student of the peerless George Lewis has become a mainstay of the traditional jazz community. On numbers like “In the Garden” and “Abide With Me,” Edegran’s anchoring work on piano gives Sancton room to roam; his lines quaver and soar like a vocalist in flight. Of all the instruments in the classic jazz ensemble – or a parade band for that matter – the clarinet is the woodwind that, at its best, comes closest to intoning a feminine essence.

In his memoir, Song For My Fathers, Sancton writes of his lessons under George Lewis: “He would go up and down the horn, weaving in and out, sometimes harmonizing with the melody, sometimes leaving space and playing a counterpoint, something laying down a rhythmic arpeggio. His tone was gorgeous, especially when he let his horn sing out on the long notes with his plaintive vibrato.”

The “plaintive vibrato” is every clarinetist’s goal, fusing the sadness and sweetness that give church song an essence of the blues. “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” has a slow moody blues melancholia to fit a harmonizing quartet, with no musical accompaniment, or a clarinetist undulating across a landscape of African-American memory, the notes supplanting the tolling lines of sorrow.

Lars Edegran’s supple piano gives Hymns & Spirituals a base line to dramatize the nature of melody, a songline that draws its beauty, instrumentally and in human voices, which swing together.

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