The black church has for more than a century been a primary source for all forms of Afro-American musical expression. Those whose roots have reached deeply into the soil of gospel and spiritual -- say, Bessie Smith, Jack Teagarden, Mahalia Jackson, Marion Anderson or Ray Charles -- constitute a pantheon of American performing artists. Dizzy Gillespie, asked how vibraphonist Milt Jackson can so readily get down on the blues, replied, "He's sanctified, man," referring to Jackson's feeling for gospel.
For confirmation that the tradition is still vital, one need not look beyond the Washington area, for we have here a number of fine gospel groups, including the Tabernacle Echoes, which for 29 years has operated out of the Tabernacle Baptist Church on Division Avenue NE. The Echoes will perform Sunday at 7 p.m. in Howard University's Cramton Auditorium. Also on the program, part of Howard's homecoming celebration, are the university's gospel choir and the Winans of Detroit.
"Most of them have been nurtured in it through their families," says Louisiana-raised codirector and pianist John Watson of the Echoes' 16 voices, one of which is his tenor. "My father was a Baptist minister, and even though no one else in the family was interested in music, they tell me I came here singing," he laughs. "I used to try to sing everything I heard, and finally one day the pastor heard me when I was about 10 and his wife decided to give me my first music lessons. Inside of three months I was playing "Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross." I've been involved with a multitude of groups since."
Forrest McCain, who also sings tenor, joined the Echoes soon after arriving here from North Carolina in the late 1950s, and has been the group's president for 22 years. He points out that they were the first to take gospel into Constitution Hall (1968), the Kennedy Center (1969) and the restored Ford's Theatre (1975). He adds that their new album, "Lord, Give Your People Love," is receiving national air play, and that the Echoes recently sang before a delegation of 12,000 in Atlanta. A Midwest and West Coast tour is in the planning stage, and trips abroad loom on the horizon.
"I was so thrilled with what I heard," recalls McCain of that afternoon in 1958 when he walked into church and first came upon the Echoes. "There were two people doing a hymn, "Wait Upon the Lord," and I'll never forget it." Reflecting on the contemporary tilt of the Echoes' style, McCain observes, "Even young people can first listen to the music, and that can stop them in their tracks, and they'll say, "Well, let me listen to the message."" McCain says the group does many benefit performances, including visits to D.C. Jail, hospitals, schools, nursing homes and college fund-raising events.
Few who have witnessed a stirring performance by a gospel choir have been unmoved by the undefinable "gospel lift" that the music projects. Alto singer Mary Fletcher, who came to Washington from West Virginia in 1957 and joined the Echoes three years later, has been with them longer than any current member. She speaks of this sensation from the performer's standpoint. "It's a very unusual feeling," Fletcher says. "Not only are we ourselves being lifted up, we see the expressions coming from those who are the recipients of our music, and that is also inspiring and uplifting. It encourages you to keep on going."
The Tabernacle Echoes' repertoire consists of originals -- mostly by Watson, Esther Bell, and codirector Harold Sutton -- and adaptations of older works. "There's a lot of stuff out there that they put an ethnic tag to, and it's little more than some kind of satanic shout," Watson says. "I made a commitment to do whatever I could to upgrade the music. This is the most viable ministry I have. I can more effectively say what I feel about my Creator, how I feel about what He's done for me and how I know He loves me, through my music."
Alluding to the recently released album's title cut, his own composition, Watson says, ""Lord, Give Your People Love" -- that's something that's sorely needed in this country. If we had that, then we wouldn't have the multitude of problems that we have."