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Celebrating the ‘Queen of Gospel’

17th October 2011   ·   0 Comments

A number of events have been planned to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of a woman who has been called the Queen of Gospel and one of the greatest voices of the 20th century. That woman, New Orleans-born Mahalia Jackson, is credited with laying the foundation for modern-day gospel recording artists and creating greater opportunities for women in the entertainment industry.

Over the course of a career that spanned more than four decades, Jackson recorded about 30 albums — mostly for Columbia Records — and her 45 rpm records included a dozen “golds”—million-sellers.

Both Xavier and Dillard universities will host events later this month honoring Jackson, who is considered every bit as culturally significant and influential to New Orleans music and international culture as fellow New Orleans Louis “Satchmo” Arm­strong. The Ashé Cultural Arts Center, Central City Library and the Mahalia Jackson Early Childhood & Family Learning Center will also host events that celebrate the gospel singer’s enduring legacy.

Xavier University of Louisiana will host a campus-wide Mahalia Jackson Centennial celebration October 23-27, 2011. The week’s events will include performances from Xavier faculty and alumni, local artistes as well as a special presentation by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, activist, scholar and songwriter.

Mahalia Jackson, widely known as the Queen of Gospel and a Black music pioneer, was born October 26, 1911 in Carrollton’s Black Pearl neighborhood where she was surrounded by the sounds of the Sanctified Church, Blues, and New Orleans Jazz.

According to Wikipedia, the family’s three-room dwelling on Pitt Street served as home to 13 people and a dog. This included Little Mahala (named after her aunt, Mahala Clark-Paul whom the family called Aunt Duke), her brother Roosevelt Hunter, whom they called Peter, and her mother Charity Clark, who worked as both a maid and a laundress. Several aunts and cousins lived in the house as well. Aunt Mahala was given the nickname “Duke” after proving herself the undisputed “boss” of the family. The extended family (the Clarks) consisted of her mother’s siblings – Isabell, Mahala, Boston, Porterfield, Hannah, Alice, Rhoda, Bessie, their children, grandchildren and patriarch the Rev. Paul Clark, a former slave. Mahalia’s father, John A. Jackson, Sr. was a stevedore (dockworker) and a barber who later became a Baptist minister. He fathered four other children besides Mahalia – Wilmon (older) and then Yvonne, Pearl and Johnny, Jr. (by his marriage shortly after Halie’s birth). Her father’s sister, Jeanette Jackson-Burnett, and husband, Josie, were vaudeville entertainers.

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Mahalia was five when her mother, Charity, died, leaving her family to decide who would raise Halie and her brother. Aunt Duke assumed this responsibility, and the children were forced to work from sunup to sundown. Aunt Duke would always inspect the house using the “white glove” method. If the house was not cleaned properly, Halie was beaten. If one of the other relatives was unable to do his or her chores, or clean at their job, Halie or one of her cousins was expected to perform that particular task. School was hardly an option. Halie loved to sing and church is where she loved to sing the most. Halie’s Aunt Bell told her that one day she would sing in front of royalty, a prediction that would eventually come true. Mahalia Jackson began her singing career at the age of 16 at Mount Mariah Baptist Church in New Orleans. She was baptized in Mississippi by Mt. Mariah’s pastor, the Rev. E.D. Lawrence, then went back to the church to “receive the right hand of fellowship.”

At the age of 16, Jackson moved to Chicago, Illinois and quickly joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church Choir. In 1929, as a member of the Johnson Gospel Singers, Jackson began touring the local churches. At this time, she met the composer Thomas A. Dorsey, known then as the Father of Gospel Music, with whom she toured throughout the 1930s. During a 14-year partnership Jackson sang Dorsey’s songs in church programs and at conventions. His “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which became her signature song, took on a deep poignancy in 1968 when she sang it at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1947, on the Apollo label, Jackson recorded “Move On Up a Little Higher” which reportedly sold over a million copies. It would be one of her many songs that went gold. It is at this time that we begin to see shifts in the musical styling of her songs. Sometimes piano and organ arrangements were expanded to accommodate a full orchestra. By 1950, Jackson was among the first gospel singers to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall. This was followed by a 1952 European tour where she was hailed by critics as the “world’s greatest gospel singer.” In Paris she was called the Angel of Peace, and throughout the continent she sang to capacity audiences.

Jackson would tour Europe again in 1962, 1963 and 1964. In 1952, CBS approached Jackson with an offer to headline her own radio show, “The Mahalia Jackson Show.” After several broadcasts the show was cancelled because the network was unable to secure a national sponsor.

In 1954 Jackson signed with Co­lum­bia Records. Hoping to cut back on a demanding touring schedule, she sought opportunities in film, radio and television. She performed in such films as the 1958 “St. Louis Blues” and “Imitation of Life” in 1959. Jackson made guests appearances on the “The Ed Sullivan Show.” She was the main attraction in the first gospel music showcase at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957 and sang Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” at Newport in 1958. Jackson performed at President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball. She was a close friend and strong supporter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963 at the March on Washington, when King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, she sang “How I Got Over” and “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned” before a capacity crowd of over 250,000 people.

“A voice like hers comes along once in a millennium,” Dr. King reportedly once said of the beloved singer.

Entertainer Harry Belafonte once described Mahalia Jackson as “the single most powerful Black woman in the United States.”

Jackson also sang to large crowds at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

By the late 1960s, Jackson continued to tour although her health was deteriorating. Her last recorded album was What The World Needs Now (1969). In the 1970s Jackson performed for heads of state in Liberia, Japan and India. In 1971 she performed her last live concert in Munich, Germany where she collapsed. After returning home she made one of her final appearances on “The Flip Wilson Show.” Throughout her life Jackson devoted much of her time and energy to helping others. She established the Mahalia Jackson Scholarship Foun­dation to provide financial support for young people who wanted to attend college. For her efforts in helping to create a foundation to promote understanding among peoples from around the world, she received the Silver Dove Award at the Monte Carlo Festival in 1961. In 1971 Jackson received an Honorary Doctor of Music degree from Marymount College. Jackson married twice, first to Isaac Hockenhull and later to Sigmund Galloway. Both marriages ended in divorce.

Following her death in 1972, her two home cities paid tribute to her. Beginning in Chicago, outside the Greater Salem Baptist Church, 50,000 people filed silently past her mahogany, glass-topped coffin in final tribute to the Queen of Gospel. The next day, as many as could – 6,000 or more – filled every seat and stood along the walls of the city’s public concert hall, the Arie Crown Theater of McCormick Place, for a two-hour funeral service. Mahalia’s pastor, the Rev. Leon Jenkins, Mayor Richard J. Daley, and Mrs. Coretta Scott King eulogized Mahalia during the Chicago funeral as “a friend – proud, black and beautiful.” Aretha Franklin closed the Chicago rites with a moving rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

Three days later, a thousand miles away, the scene repeated itself: again the long lines, again the silent tribute, again the thousands filling the great hall of the Rivergate Convention Center in downtown New Orleans this time. Mayor Moon Landrieu and Louisiana Governor John J. McKeithen joined gospel singer Bessie Griffin. Dick Gregory praised “Mahalia’s ‘moral force’ as the main reason for her success” and Lou Rawls sang “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” The funeral cortège of 24 limousines drove slowly past her childhood place of worship, Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, where her recordings played through loudspeakers. It made its way to Providence Memorial Park in Metairie, Louisiana where Jackson was laid to rest.

Listed among Mahalia’s surviving relatives is her great-nephew, Indiana Pacers forward Danny Gran­ger.

“American Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino was expected to star in a film about the legendary gospel singer but Mahalia’s surviving relatives reportedly ob­jected to Barrino’s participation in the film because of the issues in her personal life.

“The family thinks if Fantasia plays the role, it’s going to sully the name of Mahalia. They think she’s got the wrong image, having a child out of wedlock,” Adrian Taylor, the film’s executive director, reportedly told The New York Post.

Dino Gankendorff, who represents Mahalia Jackson’s estate, told theybf.com that the family has not protested Fantasia’s participation in the film project. “I’m not really aware of any objections that the heirs have to the casting of Fantasia. I understand that they were getting ready to film and that she is pregnant, and I don’t know who she is pregnant by.”

Filming of Mahalia! has reportedly been delayed at least until January 2012 because of Barrino’s December 27 due date. Barrino has reportedly sought to delay the start of filming to allow her to breastfeed her newborn baby after he arrives.

Double Dutch Productions LLC, the film’s production company, discredited all of Taylor’s accusations, telling Sister 2 Sister magazine recently, “The comments made by financing broker Adrian Taylor were not authorized or approved by the producers of DDP. [Adrian] is not an employee of this production or an active participant of any facet in the producing of this film.”

The production company apologized to Fantasia for the comments made by Adrian Taylor and went further to completely distance themselves, the movie and Mahalia Jackson’s family from the broker by saying in an official statement, “Mr. Taylor does not speak for this company or the production of this film. The Mahalia Jackson family has not made any negative comments, none whatsoever, about Ms. Bar­rino and her participation in this film project.”

Renowned jazz clarinetist and Xavier University music professor Dr. Michael White has his own ideas about who should have been awarded the starring role in Mahalia!. “In my mind, there’s only one person out there today who could really play Mahalia Jackson and do the role justice — Queen Latifah,” he told The Louisiana Weekly. “She’s got that kind of dignity and that look. In fact, I think she could play the roles of Bessie Smith, Pearl Bailey and Mahalia Jackson. I think she could all of those roles very well.”

Dr. White is among those who are both surprised and disappointed by the lack of attention given to the 100th anniversary of Mahalia Jackson’s birth. While the city-owned Theatre of Performing Arts and an elementary school have been named in her honor, the legendary gospel singer’s name has not been imprinted on New Orleans history and culture the way that of Louis Armstrong has been. Residents and artists pay tribute annually to Satchmo with events like the Satchmo Summer Fest and the Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp.

“A lot of times in New Orleans we have these people who come to change the whole world,” White told The Louisiana Weekly. “Maha­lia Jackson was probably the most identifiable Black women on the planet for a long time from anywhere. That’s says quite a lot. She changed everything in terms of the view of gospel music and the way people around the world viewed Black people. That’s very important.

“She made a lot of statements about the issues that were important to her,” White continued. “Unlike a lot of artists who didn’t openly involve themselves in the Civil Rights Movement, she was right there. She gave her time, her talent and her support to the Movement. That was very important.”

White, who spearheaded Xavier’s upcoming celebration of Mahalia Jackson’s contributions and legacy, told The Louisiana Weekly that he recently discovered that some of his students didn’t even realize that New Orleans was Mahalia Jackson’s birthplace. That startling reality, coupled with the lack of attention paid to Jackson compared to Louis Armstrong, is part of the reason White organized the Xavier tribute to the gospel singer.

“We’re going to try to open the door to make people think about those kinds of things with some of these events,” White told The Louisiana Weekly. “Mahalia Jack­son always talked about some of the things that influenced her as a child. She heard traditional jazz like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong before they left New Orleans; she heard brass bands playing parades and funerals in her neighborhood; she heard people playing traditional jazz on wagons and trucks — so we’re going to do some of that. But she also heard records of classic blues in her house that were being played — Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey — so we’re going to do some of that as well as authentic sanctified music.”

Among those scheduled to participate in the Jackson tribute at Xavier is one of the gospel singer’s nieces who lived with her for several years and accompanied Mahalia Jackson to the Historic March on Washing­ton in 1963.

When asked what he shares with his students about Mahalia Jackson, Dr. White said, “I tell them about the importance of Mahalia on several levels. One, as an African American overcoming poverty to achieve a certain level of success. Two, we talk about her role as a civil rights activist and how she assisted Dr. King and the movement and that she sang for free at different events.

“We also delve into her biography and relate that to other singers that we see like Billie Holiday and others who have some of the personal life issues no matter what they sing,” Dr. White continued. “But most of the emphasis is on the music itself — on her style, the African-American vocal elements in her style, the power of her style, her repertoire, things like that.”

Dr. White, who owns many of Jackson’s earliest recordings and 11 documentaries on DVD about the singer, will share one of those DVDs — The Power and the Glory — with participants of the centennial celebration later this month.

“I think it’s very important to actually see and hear her,” White told The Louisiana Weekly.

On Tuesday, October 18, at 6:30 p.m. the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., will host a free screening of “Rejoice and Shout,” a documentary which traces the evolution of gospel music and includes footage of Mahalia Jackson and other gospel music pioneers.

The MJ100+1 Festival celebrating Mahalia Jackson’s 100th birthday and the first birthday of the Mahalia Jackson Early Childhood and Family Learning Center will take place on Saturday, October 22, from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at 2405 Jackson Avenue. The event is free and open to the public and will include an appearance by the Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indians, a Chicken and Waffle cooking demonstration, lots of food, brass bands, Make-n-Take Crafts, face painting, dance shows and classes, a performance by the Mahalia Jackson Choir, gardening activities, a book giveaway, and an Artfully Aware Workshop.

The Central City Library, 2405 Jackson Avenue, Ste. C-235, will host a screening of several documentaries about Mahalia Jackson on Thursday, October 20, from 12 noon to 6:00 p.m.

On Sunday October 23, the Xavier’s weeklong celebration of Mahalia Jackson will kick off with a Gospel Mass at 12:30 p.m. in the XU Administration Building Chapel. Later that day guests are invited to a showing of the film “Mahalia Jackson: The Power and the Glory” at 4:00 pm in the University Center (UC) Ballroom. Dr. Joyce Jackson is the presenter.

On Monday, October 24, at 7:00 p.m., Xavier professor and internationally recognized jazz historian Dr. Michael White and the Original Liberty Jazz Band will perform along with vocalist and pianist Cynthia Girtley and Olivia Cooper as they explore “The New Orleans Musical Roots of Mahalia Jackson” at 7:00 p.m. in the UC Ballroom. Together Girtley and White performed a tribute to Jackson at the 2011 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Girtley has served as music director for several churches throughout the Washing­ton/Mary­land/Virginia area. She has performed at both the John F. Kennedy Center and the National Cathedral in Washington DC, as well as throughout Europe. Her recording with White, a New Orleans Tribute to Mahalia Jack­son, was released in 2011.

New Orleans activist and gospel artist the Rev. Lois Dejan joins Dr. Jackson, Bertha Reine and Girtley on a panel discussion on “The Legacy and Significance of Mahalia Jackson” on Tuesday, October 25, at 7:00 p.m. Xavier music graduates Danielle Edinburgh-Wilson ‘09, and Veronica Downs-Dorsey ‘78 along with vocalist Mathilda Jones and Girtley will perform in a “Centennial Concert” on Wednes­day, October 26, at 7:00 p.m. Edinburgh-Wilson may be recalled for playing the featured role of Mahalia Jackson in the Jefferson Performing Arts program while still a Xavier student. An Open Sound Alike Contest will take place after the concert.

The week’s celebration wraps up Thursday, October 27, at 7:00 p.m. with “An Evening with Bernice Johnson Reagon.” Dr. Reagon, a performer, activist, songwriter and scholar known as a “SongTalker,” has been a major cultural voice for freedom and justice. She will discuss Mahalia Jackson’s influence on her life and the integral role of gospel music and spirituals in the Civil Rights Movement.

The Xavier University Mahalia Jackson Centennial Celebration is free and open to the public. All evening events will be held in the Ballroom, 3rd floor of the University Center. For more information call (504) 520-7462 or visit the Xavier website at www.xula.edu.

The Dillard University theatre program will open its 76th season this month with a six-performance run of “Mahalia,” a celebration of the life and work of Mahalia Jackson on the centennial of her birth. The show opens on Friday, October 28, and runs through Sunday, November 6, in Dillard University’s Cook Theatre.

“We are thrilled to open our 76th anniversary season with such a moving show that provides a unique historical look at the life of Mahalia Jackson,” said Cortheal Clark, di­rector of Dillard’s theatre program. “She was the world’s greatest gospel singer and the spiritual voice of the Civil Rights Movement.”

The Dillard University production of “Mahalia” is directed by Troy R. Poplous from a book by Tom Stolz. Tickets are $15, and $10 for seniors and students. The Saturday, Nov. 5, performance is a special fundraiser for Friends of the Dillard University Theatre. This show will be preceded by a full dinner in the Professional Schools Building’s atrium. Tickets to the dinner and show are $50. For more ticket information, contact the Dillard University box office at (504) 816-4857.

Additional reporting by The Louisiana Weekly editor Edmund W. Lewis.

This article originally published in the October 17, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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