Ten years ago, Shades of Praise gave its first performance — on the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center towers. Its mission to create gospel music through an interracial choir immediately expanded to embrace world peace.
“Nobody really, seriously set out to create a symbol,” said Michael Cowan, executive director of Common Good who co-founded the choir with jazz vocalist Philip Manuel. “To our surprise, Shades of Praise started to become a symbol of how New Orleans could be,” Cowan says.
In the decade that followed, Shades of Praise has been a voice of hope to New Orleanians who lost homes after Hurricane Katrina and has sung songs of thanks to volunteers who came to rebuild.
The choir is now preparing for its Nov. 20 fall concert, “Higher in the Lord,” at Loyola University. Director Al Bemiss will unveil a new repertoire of contemporary gospel music. Looking back over the years, Bemiss says the unique gospel choir has exceeded his expectations.
“There’s so much talent. There’s so much energy,” he says.
A versatile, professional musician, Bemiss played keyboards for R&B headliner Clarence “Frogman” Henry for 28 years, but grew up hearing gospel music as a “preacher’s kid” at the Fifth African Baptist Church. His mother and uncle never took formal piano lessons, but could always get congregants to jam and clap their hands.
“Gospel is the music that I love,” Bemiss says.
“Al is probably the best teacher I’ve ever known. He just keeps stretching us deeper and wider,” said Charlotte Travieso, Tulane’s executive director of alumni affairs and a bass.
Bemiss conducts rehearsals like an athletic coach leads a workout. Standing behind an upright piano, wearing a baseball cap, he gets the group’s attention by playing a few introductory chords. “Okay, let’s get to work.”
“He's no nonsense about rehearsal because he cares so deeply about what we do,” said Marly Sweeney, a clinical social worker who sings alto.
“Watch how we’re gonna run this play,” he says, going through a few bars on the piano. “Got the game plan? We’ll move on then.”
Singers learn their parts by rote, without the benefit of sheet music.
“You gotta work those endings. Sopranos, give me an ooh-ooh,” he says. Teaching each section one line at a time, he lays one melody on top of the next ‘till, almost magically, there’s four-part harmony.
“Altos, you sound funky!” he compliments the animated group, swaying as they sing.
Music is interspersed with laughter. If the singers miss a cue, Bemiss good-naturedly runs through it again. “Thank God for rehearsal,” he says.
“He’s like a Zen master,” said Sylvana Joseph, an attorney and writer who joined the choir in 2003 upon the insistence of a friend.
“Is it like any other gospel you’ve ever heard? No,” she says emphatically. “It’s not about a perfect choir; it’s a perfect choir in spirit.” Half the members never sang with a group before. “Everybody just loves being there,” Joseph says.
Bemiss begins searching for music months ahead of the performance, looking for lesser-known gospel songs and putting his own spin on them.
The fall concert’s opener, “Sweet Aroma,” has a Caribbean, funky feeling, Bemiss says.
Musicians will join the singers in the fall performance – bass guitar, drums, saxophone and trombone – everyone rehearsing together in the weeks ahead.
“We are a special group. We have people from all denominations and professions,” said Joshua Walker, a soloist who also performs with the New Orleans Opera Chorus.
“The music has a spiritual effect,” Walker says. He remembers the choir’s tour of Ireland. Members shared with one audience how singing with the group had changed their personal perspectives on race.
“Catholics and Protestants were holding hands across the aisles of the church,” Walker recalls.
“Gospel is spreading the good news — that’s the meaning of gospel,” said Walker whose parents both sang gospel in Georgia churches.
Members say they enjoy rehearsals even more than performances.
“Once I get to choir and the hugs and the chattering starts, I begin to feel uplifted. By the end of the night, I feel my soul has been soothed and I have gotten the sustenance and therapy I need to make me able to continue to do daily what I do,” Sweeney said.