Dr. Jan Meyer: Worth showing up early for University surprise

By : 
Dr. Jan Meyere
Biker's Diary

On Sunday evening we felt as if we had discovered a heretofore well-kept secret. After all these years of being associated in one way or another with the University of Minnesota, I had no idea that the University of Minnesota Gospel Choir existed. And what a great discovery it was.

We almost missed half of the show. The announcement from which we were taking our information had the event starting at 7:30. We just happened to get there quite early, and because there was virtually no one in the lobby, we assumed we were so early that we must be first to arrive. Wrong. The doors to the hall itself were closed, and we thought nothing of that because we were so early. We got a surprise when we opened them and went in because there was quite a crowd. We took our seats, and almost immediately the house lights were turned down, and the choir started filing out from the wings onto the stage.

Spouse Roger looked at his program, and sure enough, it said it was starting at 7. “Good thing we left early,” he whispered to me. “We’d have missed half the concert!” We laughed later, because one thing we discovered when we lived in a 55-and-over community in Arizona is that old people always come early. Planners of an event scheduled to start at 5 could count on a significant number of people arriving as early as 4. We were laughing because we have become part of that old group!

This concert was held in what I feel is the best venue for music that exists on campus, and in fact most places, the Ted Mann Concert Hall. All of the seats in the house are good ones, and we go to a significant number of events there. The acoustics are very good, and always enable performers to sound their very best. It was the same for this concert.

After a couple of opening numbers for warm-up, including the opener “The Word of God,” Director Adrion Davis started feeding us tidbits about the history and makeup of gospel music. The next selection was the familiar “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” which was written in 1996 by the “Father of Gospel Music” Thomas Dorsey. The tempo and the enthusiasm kept rising, and it wasn’t long before the audience was hand clapping and foot stomping, all of which is a part of gospel music.

Not only did we hear a lot of truly great music, we learned a few things. According to a story in the Chicago Tribune, Dorsey was born in Georgia and moved to Chicago as a teenager. There had been a traditional structure to spirituals which began changing in the 1930s when Dorsey was a traveling musician doing jazz and blues. One time, while on the road, he received word that his wife and child had died in childbirth. He was devastated, and while he had been touring as a jazz pianist with various other jazz greats of the time, he felt called to leave that life. He went to work for Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. There he created a new gospel form called “gospel blues” combining his jazz and blues background with traditional gospel music of the call-and-response format.

His renditions placed more emphasis on solo voices, and incorporated a praise leader to “help lead the congregation into singing gospel music.” Through his grief process, he turned to writing songs of faith, and “his new passion became writing a new kind of religious song.”

Director Davis explained that the word gospel means “good news” and “hearing gospel makes you want to tell your friends” the good news. Appropriately, Sunday evening’s concert was titled “I Gotta Tell Somebody.” The choir’s music filled the spacious hall and soloists also were just outstanding. Each audience member received a copy of the words to the songs, so I guess it was okay to sing along on those old familiar spirituals such as “Shine on Me,” and “Git on Board.”

The biggest surprise for me was, of course, the fact that this choir was started in the early 1970s, about the same time when I first became a student there. Director Adrion Davis is a Ph.D. candidate at the University. He has won numerous teaching awards and plays percussion, piano and organ besides, of course, singing. He has his own music production company named Divers Music. His mission has been described as developing “outstanding programs (that) serve the needs of learners, and promote learners as champions of the community.”

While the choir welcomes all singers (without auditioning!), university students receive two quarters per semester for participating which requires rehearsal every Tuesday night. The 43 choir members listed in the program were not likely all students nor were the rhythm section members. But student or not, it’s an incredible way to spend Tuesday evenings, even better that we get to hear the results of their work, and they get a couple of credits for it.

A bonus was there weren’t even any protestors outside objecting to religion on campus, but then maybe the professional protestors’ bus has Sunday night off.