Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Kayla Parker-Tolbert passes away

"For me, the goal is always a song you can sing forever, a song that will mean something to people of all kinds."

--Kayla Parker-Tolbert, who recently passed away.

I first heard Kayla Parker-Tolbert's rich, agile lead vocal in the early 1990s on Marvin Winans' Introducing Perfecting Praise. I remember being amazed by the range she displayed on "Now Are We." For a long time, I couldn't figure out whether I was hearing one voice or two--one low, one high. I also thought "Perfecting Church" was a powerful cut.

Since then, I've enjoyed her work with Vanessa Williams, Tim Bowman, CeCe Winans, and most recently Vickie Winans (though she's been on many, many other albums). And I've longed for her to make a solo album. I keep a short list in my mind of artists I'd love to see move from the background to the forefront, and Kayla Parker-Tolbert was at the top. As it turns out, she was working on an album for release this year.

She had one of the most beautiful, versatile voices I've heard, and I can't believe she's gone.

Here's a YouTube video of Kayla Parker singing "Now Are We."

Read the Black Gospel Promo release on Bob Marovich's blog, where I learned about her passing.

Find out more about Kayla Parker-Tolbert on her website, and on a MySpace page dedicated to her.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Good Musician Is Hard to Find?

Recently, The New York Times and PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly each reported on the difficulty many African-American churches face in finding and retaining musicians who are familiar with traditional gospel music.

Samuel Freedman's NYT piece identifies several reasons for this trend: The growing influence of hip-hop among younger musicians, a decline in the types of school music programs that employed church musicans, and a commercial marketplace more friendly to gospel musicians, giving them more options for their gifts. There's even some discussion of the ways the popularity of "name it and claim it" theology has affected this issue (Though I think it overestimates this factor--prosperity theology isn't considered mainstream evangelicalism. Still, it is interesting--and, I think, fairly rare, though not inaccurate--to hear African-American churches described as evangelical.)

Although I appreciated this piece, I didn't appreciate the faintly disapproving tone the people interviewed seem to have toward younger musicians (though I respect their scholarship). I left with the sense that they view younger musicians as shallow, mercenary hip-hoppers who aren't really interested in serving God with their music ("just another gig.")

I wonder if there's a more significant generational angle that's not being explored here. After all, there's a great deal of great gospel that's been produced since the 1960s and 1970s, which Freedman calls "contemporary." I guess that designation is historically accurate, in the same sense in which the 1950s are seen as the Golden Age of gospel. Still, for someone who grew up in the hip-hop era, Edwin Hawkin's "Oh Happy Day" is "classic" gospel. And Cleveland's music, though groundbreaking, relevant and interesting, is not seen as contemporary. For people in their 20s and 30s, contemporary gospel is early BeBe and CeCe Winans, The Winans, Commissioned, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, The Clark Sisters, etc.--largely music produced in the 1980s. I'm wondering if part of the issue is that these pastors and potential music ministers have conflicting, generationally-driven ideas of what constitutes an appropriate repertoire. There's a bigger shift going on here, I think.

Bob Abernethy's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly piece deals more with the question of preservation, which I find compelling. How can churches make sure that traditional gospel music and the spirituals tradition thrive? Again, I don't think it's necessary to set hip-hop and hymns in opposition--I disagree with Dr. McMillan's statement that people are more likely to remember hymns than hip-hop--but I do think Dr. Simpson makes an important point: younger people do need to receive exposure to and training in traditional music, if it is to survive.

For me, the questions that need to be explored are:

  • How can churches make sure they expose young people to traditional music and the spirituals, with the goal of encouraging and cultivating musicians for the future? What might that look like? Could it involve providing music lessons at the church, or sponsoring music lessons for young people who seem to have musical gifts?
  • Given the generational issue I described above, do you think churches should be more open to a broader group of gospel sounds? For example, might worship services include spirituals, traditional gospel, praise and worship, and maybe even holy hip-hop?
  • Can church musicians have artistic freedom, or are they expected to stick to a specific type of songs? If so, why? In my opinion, part of trusting a musician and respecting his or her skills and calling should involve working together to make sure the music ministry not only serves current ministry needs and goals, but also gives the music minister the freedom to grow, stretch, and take the congregation new places, musically and spiritually. (For one example of this, read my interview with Byron Cage.)
  • Should churches try to offer more competitive salaries in hopes of recruiting and retaining skilled music ministers? In my opinion, this wasn't addressed well--or fairly--in these two pieces. Do churches offer reasonable salaries for the kind of commitment they require?
  • What other issues do you see here?

Finally, this week's poll question: Does your church employ a salaried music minister?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rediscovering Commissioned

A couple of weeks ago, I started listening to Praise and Worship: Commissioned, one of several Verity Records/Legacy Recordings compilation albums featuring gospel music of the 1980s and 1990s.

This album reminded me what a significant part Commissioned has played in my life. Like Take 6 and the Winans, this group's discography is part of my soundtrack. Number 7 was one of the first albums I bought for myself, and somewhere in my apartment is a well-worn State of Mind cassette. I did lots of step aerobics to Matters of the Heart ('cause it was the 90s, that's why), and I made the 5-hour drive from my college campus to my first job interview listening to Time and Seasons.

During the group's heyday, Commissioned really had the total package. A combination of innovative production techniques and an urban R&B sensibility that drew from the male quartet tradition. Incredible songwriting that was very emotive, relational and contemporary.

Commissioned is so beloved because their music provides a soundtrack for those of us who are learning what it means to have faith permeate every part of our lives. Commissioned's music helped us hear what relevant everyday faith sounds like, Monday through Saturday, more directly than a lot of more traditional gospel music. It bridged the gap between the celestial and the temporal. The deacons may have raised "A Charge to Keep" from the front row pew on Sunday morning. But on your way to work, you could fight rush-hour traffic while bobbing your head to "Be an Example." Same concept, different language. And it wasn't superficial, the way some contemporary gospel can be. Put in a Commissioned disc, and you hear a lot of honesty. You hear wisdom earned through struggle. You hear frank dialogue with God, and the language of joy, celebration, repentance and dependence.

The music is especially powerful because while it's open to everyone, it offers an aural paradigm for a particularly masculine way of doing faith. (I wouldn't describe it using the idea of muscular Christianity, but I sense an intersection there. )My sense is that the men of Commissioned demonstrated a way of being Christian that young, cool, urban African-American men could relate to. Their music integrated values that many see as feminine--or typical of feminine/"feminized" religiosity (collaboration, expressiveness, emotiveness, vulnerability, humility, spirituality) in ways that are very masculine. (Parenthetically, I sense some of these same intersections in the music of jazz vocalist Kurt Elling.) Commissioned made room for a contemporary, masculine form of gospel that shaped not only a generation of young Christians, but young Christian men: a way to see themselves openly questing after God and pursuing faith, without having to wear a choir robe or a dark suit, or speak Christianese.

As I observe the ways that Christians are currently discussing ideals/ideas about masculinity and femininity, and consider the ongoing discussion about homosexuality in the gospel music community, I appreciate Commissioned's inadvertent contribution to the discussion. Musical gender work, as it were.

Because I listened to Commissioned during my formative years, listening now gives me an especially meaningful gift. I am reminded of what it meant to have innocent faith--to internalize the tenets of faith so that they became part of me before I truly needed to believe them with actual faith. As I sing along, I remember when trust was so very easy, and answers always seemed to fit. I am returned to myself, and returned to first love and belief. I am given a language for faith and repentance and hope.

After listening to the compilation, I pulled out my copy of the Commissioned Reunion live recording, and it's been in heavy rotation for the last couple of weeks. Even though it was their last hurrah, it's an excellent introduction to this groundbreaking group. And if you didn't get to see this incredible concert (and I did!) you'll feel like you were there. The excitement and energy stream from the speakers. A DVD of the initial recording is also available.

In response to a friend who asked what my favorite Commissioned song is, I generated a list of about 20 favorite songs. So I'm using that question to debut a new feature for the weekly poll (it's on the left side of the page). Weigh in by voting for your favorite song--and let me know why it means so much to you by posting a comment. If I haven't listed your song ("Oh, that's my jam!"), post about that, too.


Get acquainted with Commissioned--or download some of your old favorites--at Rhapsody's Commissioned page. Check out Google's Commissioned page to view their discography. has several articles on Commissioned, mostly focused on 2002's Reunion tour. This article offers a good overview of the broad impact group members have had on gospel and mainstream music.

Although I didn't pay it much attention when it was initially released, this week I'll be listening to Mitchell Jones' Still Commissioned.

If you're aware of a Commissioned tribute site, let me know by leaving the URL in the comments section.

Sites to Savor: An Amazing Site About "Amazing Grace"

Thursday, the Library of Congress launched a new web site devoted to the history of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Like Sweet Chariot: The Story of the Spirituals, it’s a multimedia website and history project.

The audio collection and database is in the Guiness Book of World’s Records as the largest collection of recordings of a single musical work. It's comprised of 3,049 recordings of the hymn and was donated to the Library of Congress by collectors Allan Chasanoff and Ramon Elozua. The site includes a searchable database of collection materials.

Other resources include a timeline outlining the history of the hymn (written in 1779), an article tracing the spread of the hymn throughout England and the U.S., and discussion of its role in shape-note singing. These resources draw heavily from the work of music journalist Steve Turner.

So far, I’ve only spent a few minutes clicking around, but I’m really impressed by its breath and magnitude. It’s a site worth savoring during an afternoon at the coffee shop, or enjoying in small sections. I took a minute to skim some of the articles and listen to a version of this English hymn recorded in 1950 by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Lottie Henry. I’ll definitely be back for more.

(Hat tip: Friends of the Negro Spiritual)