The Mississippi River was the baptismal water of the young Mahalia Jackson, the gospel legend who would take her melodic message from her hometown of New Orleans to the world. Although Jackson left the city at age 16 and thereafter called Chicago her home, she continued to embrace the flavor of New Orleans in her vocal style and fabled cooking. She was to gospel as the trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong was to jazz; both legends became ambassadors of New Orleans and its rich musical heritage.
Fittingly, the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts is located inside Louis Armstrong Park just across North Rampart Street from the French Quarter. Jackson, who died on January 27, 1972, was laid to rest at Providence Memorial Park on Airline Drive in Metairie, Louisiana.
Gospel music is part and parcel of Louisiana life, and other noteworthy gospel groups include the Zion Travelers Spiritual Singers from Baton Rouge. The Zion Travelers’ unique a capella vocals have been broadcast in Baton Rouge every Sunday morning since 1946.
The annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has introduced locals and visitors alike to the wealth of gospel artists in the state with its “Gospel Tent.” It showcases a great range of the genre’s styles including old-time, testifying quartets such as the popular Charles Jackson and the Jackson Travelers and the incredible, country-tinged Electrifying Crown Seekers—with a soloist who sings in falsetto and then goes up for the high notes! Church choirs like the mighty Tyrone Foster and the Arc Singers and strong young voices from school ensembles such as the McDonogh 35 High School Choir bring great exuberance.
Family gospel groups are in abundance throughout New Orleans. Lois Dejean, a mover and shaker in the gospel community for decades, followed in the musical footsteps of her father and grandfather. When her family ensemble, the Johnson Extension, takes the stage it represents six generations of vocalists.
Because of the popularity of gospel music with secular listeners, New Orleans has long enjoyed a reputation for its legendary jazz brunches. House of Blues created the first-of-its-kind gospel brunch—a warm, lively affair with family seating, a full buffet and omelet station. Doors open at 10am and shows begin at 10:20 am on Sunday mornings.
No mention of gospel music in New Orleans would be complete without praising one of the city’s oldest and most beloved groups, the Zion Harmonizers, who perform often around town. This ensemble was founded by Benjamin Maxon; the locally-beloved Sherman Washington took over its leadership in 1942. Washington, who also coordinated the Jazz Fest’s Gospel Tent, led the group until his death on March 14, 2011. Noted for its traditional gospel quartet style and a cappella singing, today’s lineup carries on the rich heritage of its originators.
Gospel music rings out of churches all over the state, while it is also at home at festivals and in clubs. Hymns like “I’ll Fly Away” are blown by brass bands on New Orleans streets and gospel classics have been recorded by world-renowned vocalist Aaron Neville on his 2010 album “I Know I’ve Been Changed.” Sacred music has even entered the sports arena, as football fans cheer on their team with “When the Saints Go Marching In”—showing how influential, diverse and fascinating the world of Louisiana music can be.