The Fisk Jubilee Singers at the Kennedy Center

Matthew Kennedy directing the Fisk Jubilee Singers of 1971-72


Again for posterity (since all of the articles appearing in this blog can be found online in perpetuity), here is the review of the Fisk Jubilee Singers' concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. as it appeared in Down Beat Magazine in 1972. It is listed in the Down Beat magazine archives


Down Beat Magazine, April 27, 1972


“Caught in the Act (headline)

By Martha Sanders Gilmore

Fisk Jubilee Singers
John F. Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.

      The Fisk Jubilee Singers delivered a stunning centennial performance in the ghost-white Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center. The utter sincerity, artistry, and convincing aura of the 19 songsters – the fact that they’re college age boggles the mind – outweighed anything we had attended in the hall to date.
      Ten young ladies dressed in floor length sun-yellow gowns and nine young men in black tie and dark suits enhanced the usually somber hall.
      The Fisk Jubilee Singers came to Washington under the auspices of AAMOA (The Afro-American Music Opportunities Association, Inc.), a non-profit organization only in its third year dedicated to ‘promoting and aiding black musical talent’ via development of Black Music Centers, communication, education, individual assistance, financial aid, scholarship programs, commissions of works by black composers, and placement services for performers and teachers.
      Ernest Dyson, associate director of AAMOA, is responsible for the organization’s first attempt at accomplishing these objectives in the Nation’s Capital and deserves commendations for an effort that should have been far better served by the Washington public – the Fisk Jubilee Singers sang to a deplorably small audience which points up the serious gap in knowledge of our cultural heritage. Proceeds from the performance were to go to the Fisk Scholarship Fund, but Dyson unfortunately lost money on the concert.
      The story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is of epic proportions. They have been in existence since Oct. 6, 1871, only five years after Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. Had been founded. Striking out northward to raise funds for their financially troubled alma mater, The Fisk Christian Singers, as they were first called, initially performed in towns in Ohio (where they raised their first $50 which they donated to the Chicago Fire Relief Fund), then traveled on across the midwest. The tiny band of 11 singers met at once with hostility and acclaim, the latter eventually predominating.
      The singers’ success led to a tour of Europe in 1873 where they performed at the court of Queen Victoria as the first black group to take the Negro spiritual abroad, only six years after Emancipation. They returned to America, having won countless friends and having accrued funds of over $150,000 which went into construction on their campus. The singers later performed at the White House for President Ulysses S. Grant.
      The fact that Fisk Continues to attract singers of the highest caliber is not surprising, considering this reputation. The Washington concert was programmed by Matthew Kennedy who has been involved with the Singers for 40 years, and included spirituals sung 100 years ago, folk, songs, and commissioned works by four black composers.
      Anne Gamble Kennedy provided piano accompaniment on a few of the numbers, but the great majority were rendered a cappella. It was a pleasure to hear unamplified voices in the Center’s Concert Hall – present-day electronics fight with the hall’s acoustics but the unadulterated voices made a perfect marriage with and gave new life to the hall.
      In a jubilant and varied program of 21 works and three encores, the Jubilee Singers proved entirely professional and exceedingly well-rehearsed. Their breaks were clean and crisp, their harmonies lush.
     Great Day made a robust entrée with the proud soprano voice of Renée Williams soaring over it all. Our Father had a carol aspect to it, an antiphonal, contrapuntal, inter-weaving of voices. The dynamics were adventurous and well executed. Ev'ry Time I Feel The Spirit came on like a chant, bursting with joy, followed by a finely honed Steal Away, bereft of slurring and given to swelling crescendos. Outstanding and orchestral was Ain’t Got Time to Die with soloist Lanier Ferguson stepping forward to sing ‘I’m working for the kingdom.’
      The second portion of the program included such folk songs as I Got a House in Baltimore (middle syllable vibrantly underscored) as the group nodded and chanted as though singing a round, the shape of the song suggesting a madrigal. Leon Brown’s tenor voice was resonant and unfaltering. A Creole folk song, Monsieur Banjo, was whimsically charming while Callalu from Trinidad was calypsoesque and West Indian.
      The third section contained works commissioned for the centennial year, two of them by Fisk graduates. Arthur Cunningham’s We Gonna Make It pitted the beautifully dramatic voice of Cheryl Pitts against subdued humming, suggesting Gershwinesque syncopations in a song of hope.
      We Sang Our Songs by William Grant Still had the dignity of an anthem: slow, measured, ever going forward but delightfully unpredictable. Undine Smith Moore’s Lord We Give Thanks to Thee for These, Thy Servants spoke of affirmation and reflected the convincing religiosity of the occasion.
      Walk Together, Children chimed like church bells while the very contemporary work of David Baker, Now That He is Safely Dead (in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King) provided what was for me perhaps the highest point of the evening. It embraced lovely dissonances and Bartokian elements within its complex structure, evoking the programmaticism of Bach in the low bass notes on the word ‘dead’. A notable work.
      In addition, Baker set Langston Hughes’ Dream Boogie with bopping tongue-in-cheek humor.
      Jane Harrington received great applause for I Want Jesus To Walk With Me and the group won an enthusiastic reception for Wheel, Oh Wheel, communicating with one another as members of a jazz combo would. James Sawyers achieved rain-barrel tones in Daniel, Daniel which officially ended the evening but was followed by several encores. You Gotta Put A Little Love In Your Life was softly swinging in jazz inferences while Deep River, though familiar, was done to a turn. The Fisk Alma Mater brought the audience to its feet, exuding joy, and concluded this program of jubilee.
      I have never enjoyed a program in the Center’s Concert Hall so well. Here was pure, totally uncommercialized music of the highest artistic quality, music of supreme exultation and hope, befitting the hall’s designated purpose.”

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