“Look Sweetie, … you see him?” I asked my daughter.
“No, mom, I don’t!”
“How can you miss him? He’s directly in front of you.”
“Mom, I hate to tell you this, but I don’t know this guy. I’ve never heard of him.”
I was really tired when I got the call. I had actually retired to bed by 6:30 p.m. trying to forget my long, hard week. I rose and indicated that I would be ready in 30 minutes. As slow and painful as it was to get mobilized, no amount of money would have kept me home.
“Sweetie, he is sitting closest to the drummer.”
“Oh, mommy, I see him! Look at his chubby cheeks. They look like little chipmunk cheeks.”
“Better to fill with air, my dear!”
The concert started with a call from the trombone and response from the choir. Rooted in communication among slaves, call and response was part of the earliest African-American churches. I grew up attending a small church that, for years, held service without a pianist. Special occasions such as a baptism or Communion Sunday featured a musical call from a deacon or music master followed by a response from the parishioners.
Hearing the height and depth of the trombone as it questioned the choir sent a wave of memories through me that had long been suppressed. At that moment I knew:I am in the right place.
The Chorale Le Chateau was adorned in beautiful burgundy robes. Much like a fine gumbo, the faces were mostly African-American accented with Caucasian and Hispanic faces. Each member had been hand picked by conductor Damien Sneed and sang with passion and glory. The chorale filled Memorial Hall with beautiful renditions of “I Didn’t Hear Nobody Praying,” “Gloria Patri,” “The Lord’s Prayer” and “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.” Scriptures such as the Beatitudes were given to song. Voices from the highest soprano to lowest baritone were heard in genres of jazz, blues, and gospel with a sprinkling of opera. As the audience clapped and swayed, I heard the gentleman sitting next to me say: “Brilliant! This is pure brilliance.”
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra accompanied Chorale Le Chateau. Seated on the front row were several saxophone players. The second row held the trombonists. Trumpet players lined the back row. One pianist, one upright bass player and one percussionist were seated to the right of the horns. Looking at the rows of instruments you would have thought big band. The saxophone players mastered alto, tenor and baritone sax as well as bass clarinet. Intricate sounds of flute, piano, and soprano sax carried what would have been the string section.
Wynton Marsalis was the draw for “Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration.” I sat for an hour looking around the conductor, wondering when my daughter would be introduced to the art of this mighty man. Little did I know the performance originated with him. Marsalis began reflecting forms of the African-American church service 20 years ago. He amalgamated sacred and secular music in “Abyssinian 200: A Celebration.” This work was commissioned by Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem, to celebrate its 200th anniversary. It was performed in London’s Barbican Centre. Though the music was a bit different, this was church as I know church.
When the moment arrived none was disappointed. He filled his chubby cheeks, pinched his lips and we heard signature Marsalis. My daughter and nephew sat on the end of their seats absorbing the distinctive New Orleans sound. Hints of Louie, full upper brass as only an experienced trumpeter can deliver, and riffs of multiple 32nd notes left us all wanting more. Within seconds, the perfect gentleman had faded into the background of the orchestra. Had you not seen images of Marsalis prior to this evening, you would have easily left the venue lacking an ability to identify him.
My children are blessed to have seen, heard and understood Marsalis’ music during their youth. I am blessed to have experienced the expansion of centuries of traditional church music, and our community is blessed to have been a part of such a culturally enriching phenomenon. As difficult as it is to give word to that which leaves you speechless, I know my life is forever changed.
Beverly Scarlett lives in Orange County.