BRATTLEBORO—Chorus leaders John Harrison and Dr. Dexter Criss invite those in the area to “experience the joy and transformative power of singing gospel music” with “a good dose of humor” at an all-day gospel-sing at the Vermont Jazz Center on Wednesday, Jan. 24, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Harrison, who has led gospel choirs in southeastern Vermont, says that for many years he has done workshops with the River Singers, a multigenerational 90-voice community choir based in Saxtons River.
The event celebrates an art form that melds traditional African-American musical expression with Christian lyrics, according to the University of Southern California’s Gospel Music History Archive.
The sing is “the first time this event has happened in Brattleboro, or anywhere,” says Harrison, who notes that he and Criss have led a gospel choir every fall for a high-school music festival, the Winooski Valley Music Festival.
Criss, an assistant professor of chemistry at the Plattsburgh campus of the State University of New York, also serves as music director for the SUNY Plattsburgh College Gospel Choir, which he has led since 2002.
Harrison, who describes himself on his website as “a professional musician since boyhood,” writes that his passion “is the search for and development of an American choral tradition that integrates African-American Gospel music, jazz, blues, shape-note, rock and roll, country, and Appalachian music.”
“In my own compositions and teaching I want to combine these great American traditions to create a uniquely American choral music that is rhythmically sung and rich with story,” he notes.
Harrison recently left his job at the Twinfield Union School in Plainfield, where he taught choral music to a student body that ranged in age from kindergartners through high-school students.
He decided to take the act on the road.
“I thought it would be fun,” says Harrison, who now devotes his time to “being a full-time choral leader of community choruses.”
He says that he sees his new profession as a “way to reach out, and work to spread singing all around the state,” through one-day workshops and longer engagements.
Learning by repetition
For those interested in attending the All-Day Gospel Sing but who have little or no musical experience, Harrison says, “There’s no need to know how to read music. All are welcome.”
“The tradition in gospel is to learn by rote, by repetition,” he adds, noting that he and Criss provide word sheets for total beginners and score packets for those who are a little more advanced and who request them when they register for the event.
But Harrison notes that gospel “is not a fixed form.”
“It’s a very ‘alive-in-the-moment’ singing style,” he says. Leaders “can change any part of the song on-the-fly, and these improvisational elements can’t be attached to a musical score.”
Consequently, “it’s better off if you don’t read music,” he says, adding that participants “need their hands free to move and be into the music.”
Even though the event doesn’t include a full-on gospel band, Harrison says, “Dexter is behind the piano, playing and leading, and I’m out front, waving my arms. Dexter is a great gospel player, and he gets pretty rowdy on the piano.”
Rarely a deal-breaker
Do people have to practice Christianity to participate?
Not necessarily, says Harrison, the son of two Episcopal clergy members who was raised in the church. He acknowledges that “it’s a secular world we live in.”
“The ’Christianity piece’ of gospel music “can be difficult for some folks, but it’s rarely been a deal-breaker,” he asserts.
“People have to work that out for themselves,” he says. “I try to pick music that’s devotional, to respect the traditions and the faith, because gospel is religious music.”
“But people can be creative in translating it to [their] own experience,” he adds. “The music is about a loving, joyful experience.”
Harrison says he originally looked at Brattleboro area churches as the site for the sing but couldn’t find a suitable space. He expressed his gratitude for the Jazz Center.
“It’s a great venue,” he says. “They have a great tradition of hosting African music,” noting “gospel and jazz have a huge influence on each other.”
Harrison notes the immense influence that gospel music has had on modern American culture.
“I believe gospel music is our unique form of choral music ,” he says. “It’s not European, and although parts of it came from Africa, it developed here.”
“Any pop music on the radio has a connection to gospel,” he points out. “It’s a huge part of our lives. We should support it, encourage it, let the kids know it’s our tradition.”