By Keith Spera
Music writer, Times-Picayune
Sherman Washington Jr., the Zion Harmonizers' longtime leader and the godfather of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival's Gospel Tent, died early Monday at his home in Boutte. He was 85.
What Ellis Marsalis is to jazz, Mr. Washington was to gospel: A beloved patriarch who advanced the cause of his chosen genre.
For three decades, Mr. Washington hosted a Sunday morning gospel show on WYLD-AM that served as the gospel community's virtual town hall. He had led the Zion Harmonizers, New Orleans' longest-running vocal group, since the 1940s. He built the Gospel Tent into a cornerstone of Jazz Fest, introducing a music largely unknown outside African-American churches to a much wider audience.
"Gospel, even after jazz and blues came down to the front of the bus, was still in the back of the bus," said Jazz Fest producer/director Quint Davis. "Sherman's work through the Gospel Tent helped bring gospel music to the front of the bus. An enormous debt is owed to him by the festival, and the whole gospel world."
The upcoming Jazz Fest will salute Mr. Washington. "You can talk about soul with either a lower-case 's' or an upper-case 'S,' " Davis said. "Sherman had soul with a capital S."
Mr. Washington grew up in the church, the son of a minister at Morning Star Baptist Church in Thibodaux. He joined the Zion Harmonizers in 1941, not long after the group's formation. His brother Nolan, who died in 1997, sang alongside him.
When Harmonizers leader Benjamin Maxon quit in 1943 to preach full time, Mr. Washington reluctantly took over. "I was scared," he recalled in 2002. "I felt like I wouldn't be able to do it. It's a lot of responsibility."
He worked in the tailor's shop at the old Stein's clothing store at Carondelet and Canal streets and sang on weekends. While serving as an Army truck driver during the Korean War, he developed a taste for country music. "I'm a Western man," he once said. In Korea, he "didn't hear nothing but Western, and I fell in love with it."
After the war, he returned to New Orleans and logged 43 years as a truck driver for Boh Bros. He raised a daughter who is an anesthesiologist and two sons who worked for the Postal Service.
But he was also the de facto father of a much larger family. His weekly WYLD radio show announced anniversary concerts, sent out birthday wishes and spun mostly local gospel records. Callers rang just to say hello.
In 1970, the Zion Harmonizers were booked for the first Jazz Fest, in what is now Armstrong Park. The forerunner of today's Gospel Tent was a 15-by-20-foot open-sided tent with an upright piano and no floor, stage or sound system.
When Jazz Fest moved to the Fair Grounds in 1972, Davis approached Mr. Washington.
"Quint said, 'I had a dream,' " Mr. Washington recalled. "And I thought, 'This isn't Dr. King, is it?' He said, 'I had a dream that I'm going to build a Gospel Tent, and I want you to run it.' "
In the early 1970s, gospel choirs rarely performed outside of churches or church functions. They certainly didn't sing at "hippie" events where alcohol was served.
"The preachers were against me," Mr. Washington said, "because people would drink beer in the Gospel Tent. I would ask the choir's president or manager, and he'd tell me yeah. Then he'd come back and say, 'Our pastor doesn't want us to sing in the Gospel Tent.' "
So instead of church choirs, Mr. Washington recruited vocal quartets that weren't affiliated with churches.
"Those are the ones I had to depend on," he said. "They would tear the place up, pack it out. We didn't pay those preachers no mind. We kept going."
Attitudes softened, and choirs soon lobbied Mr. Washington to be included. "I think the choir members got on the pastors about it. Because if a person drinks a beer, that's their soul, not yours. If you're singing, you're doing what God wants you to do."
Mr. Washington administered the tent for more than 30 years, eventually overseeing a small staff.
"He was a true man of God who was not in it to advance himself or build an empire," Davis said. "He worked through his community and spiritual connections to put it all together. He knew who was the real deal, who needed to play."
He insisted on a high level of professionalism and skill, as any group could be a Jazz Fest attendee's first exposure to gospel. He wanted the music to make a good first impression.
"This Gospel Tent has brought more white people to gospel than anybody had ever seen," Mr. Washington said in 2002. "Now, it's more white people than black people. And they get into it. It brings the white and black together. People get together and stand up, you don't know who is who."
European festival promoters introduced to gospel at Jazz Fest subsequently hired groups for overseas tours. The Zion Harmonizers, known for their matching, brightly colored suits, first traveled to Europe in the 1980s. The Hamonizers plan to celebrate their 72nd anniversary on March 27 at New Home Missionary Baptist Church in the 1600 block of Carondelet Street.
As Mr. Washington's health declined, he curtailed his stage time. During gospel brunch performances at the House of Blues in recent years, he appeared for only a few songs.
But even as he ceded administration of the Gospel Tent, he consulted with the new producers and made the rounds at the Fair Grounds in a wheelchair.
He realized the Gospel Tent, and its mission, was larger than any individual. Years ago he expressed hope that his successor would continue in the spirit that guided him.
"These younger people are much different from me, even the younger guys in my group," he said. "I hope that they would have patience, try to help somebody. I hope."
Survivors include his wife, Shirley; two sons, Sherman Washington III of New Orleans and Byron Washington of Los Angeles; a daughter, Denise Jolly of Atlanta; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.