At the end of the 19th century, various musical trends combined to give rise to
gospel songs as we know them today: in particular, Afro-American pastors and musicians
adapted classical Protestant hymns and used them to galvanize black populations
at a time of gradual emancipation. This period also saw the original Jubilee Singers
earn widespread praise and respect for their interpretations of the religious anthems
of slavery. The Afro-American choirs that followed didn't hesitate to appeal
to white audiences. After 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers continued
the gospel tradition by revisiting the spirituals of their forebears.
The Growth of Gospel
In the 1920s, Georgia Tom Dorsey – the pioneer of modern gospel
– broadened the chorus repertoire with compositions such as Precious Lord
and Peace in the Valley. In 1932, he and singer Sallie Martin
founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.
Flanked by the Gospel Singers Convention, Dorsey toured the country,
recruiting top-flight talent to perform his works. Among the singers who popularized
his songs were Willie Mae Ford Smith and the great Mahalia
Jackson. In 1946 and 1947, Jackson, dubbed the "Queen of Gospel,"
recorded such popular songs as Move On Up a Little Higher and the legendary
Protestant hymn, Amazing Grace.
Vocal quartets, the most popular gospel groups of the period, were quick to integrate
the Dorsey repertoire and make it their own. These quartets were typically composed
of two tenors, a baritone and a bass. The 1902 recording by the Dinwiddie Colored
Quartet is considered by many to be the first ever recording of African-American
music in the United States. Another group, the Golden Gate Quartet,
achieved popular success with their virtuosity. In the 1930s, Roberta Martin
broke new ground with three-part vocal arrangements (with no bass) as part of the
Roberta Martin Singers.
Gospel music continued to thrive well into the 1950s thanks to popular groups like
the Caravans, the Davis Sisters and the Bradford
Specials. These groups featured such talented soloists as Marion Williams,
Albertina Walker, Shirley Caesar and Dorothy
Love Coates. In the early 1960s, gospel singer and composer, Reverend
James Cleveland, incorporated elements of jazz and soul into gospel,
and leading church-based gospel choirs soon followed suit.
A great many soul and R&B singers, including Sam Cooke and
Aretha Franklin, grew up singing gospel music in church. Also influenced by the genre were
Ray Charles, James Brown, Elvis Presley
(with his 1960 album His Hand in Mine), and even Madonna
(with her song Like a Prayer).
Two gospel currents marked the 1980s and 1990s. In the first instance, gospel music,
swayed by developments in pop music, took on a more disco sound, popularized by
the Winans family and the group Commissioned.
Second, there was a shift toward unaccompanied (or a cappella) vocal polyphony.
The success enjoyed by reverends F.C. Barnes and Janice Brown
(with her album Rough Side Of The Mountain) or the Clark Sisters
(with their anthem Heart and Soul) attests to gospel music's
The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal has had plenty of occasion
to celebrate gospel music over the years. Founded in 1982, the world-renowned Montréal Jubilation
Gospel Choir has made several appearances at the Festival,
and it continues to transcend the limitations of traditional gospel.
The 1988 concert given by
Queen Esther Marrow and the Harlem Gospel Singers
turned the streets of Montréal into a open-air mass complete with singing
and dancing – proof that gospel has audiences well beyond the church doors.
Also from New York, America's best known choir, the Harlem Gospel Choir (founded in 1986
by Allen Bailey) made its debut performance at the Festival's
30th anniversary edition in 2009.