by David Jackson
Songs of sorrow. Songs of jubilation. Songs of direction. Songs of freedom.
For more than 40 years, the New Orleans Black Chorale (NOBC) has performed the music that has come to be known as the Negro Spiritual. These songs, which communicate the African-American experience during slavery, have been the genesis for all uniquely American musical art forms as they gave birth to rag time, the blues, rock n’ roll and soul genres.
“The spirituals are the legacy of our people,” said NOBC second alto, Sedonia McMorris. “When slaves were trying to escape to the North, they used these songs like ‘The Drinking Gourd’ and ‘The North Star.’ What they were really doing was telling other people where it was safe to eat. They also bring out the deep commitment that they had for God. They held on to it and shared it with their children’s children. And now we have it.”
The New Orleans Black Chorale originally grew out of an ensemble that sang with the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony when it presented the first “Symphony in Black” in 1979 at the Municipal Auditorium. This concert highlighted the contributions of Black artists to the cultural wealth of New Orleans.
The group was set to give its final concert later this month at Xavier University. That performance has been canceled as a part of steps being taken to stem the spread of coronavirus. When it is rescheduled, it will be the group’s last.
Originally under the direction of the late Edwin B. Hogan, the New Orleans Black Chorale was comprised of soloists, people from organized church choirs, college choirs, and others with an interest in preserving American Negro Spirituals. But after the performance, the group decided to stay together with Genevieve Short as the first president. She then introduced Xavier University Dr. John Ware as the first director when he was only 27 years old.
“I considered myself a good singer before I started with the Chorale,” said NOBC Treasurer Moira Ogden. “But I really didn’t learn how to truly sing until I started singing with Dr. Ware. He trains your voice as if it is an instrument. Through his instruction, he shows you how to get the most of your instrument in a way that I’ve never been taught. I attribute all of that to him. He’s very good at that.”
Ware is currently a music professor at Xavier University where he teaches voice, conducting, vocal diction, vocal literature and pedagogy, and is the conductor of the Xavier Concert Choir and University Chorus. He is passionate about keeping the American Negro Spiritual alive. He is also the designated Rosa Keller Endowed Chair in Music at Xavier University and holds memberships in the National Association of Teachers of Singing and the American Choral Director’s Association.
In addition to creating complex harmonic arrangements that have evolved from the monophonic style enslaved Africans adopted in the 18th and 19th centuries, Ware shapes the Chorale into a symphonic unit of dynamic voices. Ware’s toughest task is to take people with varying degrees of vocal ability and transform them into a world class singing organization.
McMorris, who did not sing professionally before joining the Chorale, always thought of herself as having an adequate voice. But she said her experience in the Chorale has given her confidence as a singer and educated her culturally as well.
“I’ve gotten a lot of satisfaction and I’ve learned a lot,” said McMorris. “There are composers and works that I’ve never heard of and it has really broadened my horizons. It has really opened up my eyes to a lot of genius in my own race. I learned how inventive black people were and how much musical composition we have had through history.”
One NOBC singer on the other side of the spectrum is second alto, Juanita Smith. One of those many New Orleanians who are local musical legends hidden in plain sight, Smith sang background for musical icons Ernie K. Doe, Allan Toussaint, Dennie Spellman, Art Neville, Roland Stone and Irma Thomas in the early 1960’s.
Smith said besides giving her a platform to sing for her extended family, it is also allows her to do something that is also culturally significant.
“I think it’s extremely important that we pass this on to our younger children,” said Smith. “I think we are losing the people. This is a part of our culture. I think that art form should always be preserved. These songs are a vision of hope. It probably was also a release from the frustration of the indignities that our ancestors must have felt.”
Throughout its history the Chorale has not only given the New Orleans community access to music not usually heard, but has also provided scholarships to music students at Xavier, Dillard, and Southern universities.
The 40-year-run has been very challenging and required a massive commitment from its members. When they first started, NOBC was comprised of more than 50 members who participated in a two-hour practice each week and sang in a six-month performance schedule.
Now, there are 23 full-time members of the Chorale who have added singers from choirs and vocal students to help fill in their numbers.
With their final performance for the Annual Black History Concert, the NOBC will give New Orleans a final taste of their sustained excellence on March 29. The final concert will mark the end of an era that NOBC members hope will not extend to the music itself.
“This is music that you don’t hear,” Ogden said. “You don’t hear it on the radio and you don’t hear in the community any more. It’s a tremendous part of our culture. It just feels like when we’re not here anymore then people will not hear it any more. Our young people should hear it and know of it’s genesis. We uplift each other.”
Kennesaw State University music professor Tyrone Jackson said the spiritual can effectively be traced to African sources but is quite specific to the religious experience in the United States of Africans and their descendants.
“The birth of the Negro Spiritual is of the “collision” of two cultures,” said Jackson. “That being West-African and Euro-American. These songs were formed during slavery to convert slaves to Christianity. The fusion of West-African call and response coupled with work songs, and field hollers provided the means to create this genre. Not unlike the “blues”, this music was created as a coping mechanism and a way to communicate with each other secretly.”
“The performance of spirituals eventually became an art form where many Historically Black Colleges and Universities treated them as classical repertoire. This legitimized the music and allowed it to be transported and received globally.
In fact, the late Moses Hogan produced several arrangements that are now standard repertoire for the Chorale. It is important to note that this style was created only in America—even though slavery was in other colonies and continents. The clever lyrics coupled with the syncopation of the rhythmic meter led to a new style of music in America that was exported to Europe via World War I through American G.I.s and was instrumental in forming the rock groups of the United Kingdom. The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and John Lennon has cited Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Muddy Waters, and Big Bill Broonzy as influences. These gospel and blues musicians came out of the same influences that created the Negro Spiritual. To deny the validity of this art form is to deny American music.”
The NOBC has performed in Mexico City (2015 and 2016), Xavier University for a special performance for Pope John Paul (1987) Cane River in Nachitoches, Christmas in the Oaks, Jazz Fest, the 1984 World’s Fair, White Linen Night and the New Orleans Museum of Art. The NOBC has been well received abroad for its expression and dynamic interpretations of the Spiritual. But locally, it is always a challenge to attract people to hear them sing.
“(In Mexico) we were treated like celebrities,” said McMorris. “They were so appreciative. But it can be extremely discouraging when you come home. Sadly, sometimes our talents have to leave New Orleans to be truly appreciated. These people are revered in other places but no so much here. We have a lot of talented musicians here and it makes it difficult.”