The audience let out a shout of recognition as Ora Thomas began strutting across the Mahalia Jackson Theater stage. A member of the Central City Senior Center, Thomas was about to deliver her well-known rendition of the gospel classic, “99-1/2 Won’t Do.”
“Lord I'm runnin', tryin’ to make 100 because 99 and a half won't do,” her voice rang out to the upper balcony.
Snapping to attention, members of the Mahalia Jackson Youth Gospel Choir, onstage as well, spontaneously joined in on the chorus.
“When the spirit gets to movin’, it just takes over,” Thomas explained afterwards about the audience response.
“I have a passion that overflows from the inside out,” she chuckled. "Jesus is inside."
The Gospel is Alive concert is a longstanding part of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation’s cultural mission to support the roots of jazz music, said Executive Director Don Marshall, who was seated in the auditorium that morning.
“2011 is the centennial of Mahalia Jackson’s birth,” he added.
The concert has been held for over 20 years in conjunction with Jazz Fest to showcase both local and national Gospel artists such as Kirk Franklin. Grammy-nominated Vickie Winans, a headliner in the Gospel Tent the day before, was included in Monday’s program.
“I’m looking at folks who’ve been through something,” Winans told her audience. The internationally acclaimed singer said she is pushing 60.
The Council on Aging arranged transportation to bring together more than 500 seniors from 12 centers to experience Gospel is Alive.
But following last year’s concert, several attendees asked to become part of the entertainment and form a Gospel choir.
“We have a new group of seniors – baby boomers – who want to participate more,” said Howard L. Rodgers III, executive director of the Council on Aging. They aren’t satisfied with just sitting and listening.
“Katrina taught you that life is short” and created a “can-do” spirit, Rodgers said.
For two months leading up to their performance, 35 seniors from Mercy Endeavors, 12th Ward Save Our Community, Pontchartrain Park Senior Centers and Central City Senior Center came together for rehearsals.
Dolores Ware, 76, organist and de facto director, chose the hymns. Ware, Thomas and Betty Samuels - sisters who’ve sung gospel music in churches since their teens - continue to perform together.
Energizing the choir and leading choreography was Mary Simon Mitchell, a retired supervisor from Regional Transit Authority who is also an aerobics instructor at the Pontchartrain Park Senior Center.
The gospel singers bent down, scooping up, while chanting, “You Have to Reach Way Down and Jesus Will Pick You Up.”
“We gonna put a little action in it to lift the spirit,” Mitchell said.
Evelyn Collier from the Central City center delivered a rousing rendition of “I Know I’ve Been Changed.”
“We have talent in the senior centers,” Rodgers said. They can do much more than baby-sit or cook a meal, he added.
The group performed onstage next to a new generation of gospel performers among the Mahalia Jackson Youth Gospel Choir.
The Rev. Lois J. DeJean, founder of the youth choir, wants her singers to develop a greater appreciation for their elders.
“They were quite impressed!” DeJean said. The kids saw that when you get old, you can still sing, she added.
Having youth and elders onstage singing the same music underscored the event’s theme, demonstrating how gospel music transcends age, said Johnny Jackson Jr., event chairman.
Many of the songs were handed down from the days of slavery and are still meaningful today. “The substance is unchanged,” Jackson said.
The New Orleans Council on Aging Community Choir will perform again Friday, May 13 at 10 a.m. in the “Castle at Southern University for 2011 Senior Fest. Members of the city’s senior centers will be featured in a talent contest.
The theme for this year’s Senior Fest—Older Americans: Connecting the Community—pays homage to the many ways in which older adults bring inspiration and continuity to the fabric of communities, the council stated.
The Council on Aging plans to introduce the choir at other community events in the future.
“Hopefully, next year, we can get them to Jazz Fest to perform in the Gospel Tent,” Rodgers said.
Reprinted from the Times-Picayune