DURHAM, NC – “Your attentive participation, through listening with your ears and your heart, will allow you to enjoy fully this exchange of ideas, to sense these various moods, and to reap the full therapeutic rewards that good music always brings to a tired, disturbed soul and all ‘who dig the sounds.'” This “mission statement” from featured composer Mary Lou Williams closed the welcome announcement on Sunday to a full house at Duke University’s Chapel. As a part of the University’s Centennial Celebration, the North Carolina Central University Vocal Jazz Ensemble and Duke University Chapel Choir combined to honor composer, jazz pianist, and former Duke University faculty member, Mary Lou Williams. Through a blend of gospel, spirituals, vocal jazz, classical music, and hymns, the concert showcased the influence Black artistry and community has had through sacred music.

The program was split up into five sections, preceded by a pre-concert talk by Melodie Galloway on “The Expansive Legacy of Mary Lou Williams,” as well as an organ prelude by Florence Price. Williams cared a great deal about the jazz community, and in the 1950s, found a renewal in her Christian faith that directly tied into performing and writing jazz music. Several selections on the afternoon’s program are from two such works: her multidisciplinary mass setting Mary Lou’s Mass (Dances of Praise) and the jazz choral anthem Black Christ of the Andes, a work honoring the canonization of the first biracial saint. The blending of sacred and secular sounds was a hallmark of her career and was highlighted throughout Duke University’s programming of not only works by Williams, but by her contemporaries Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, and Charlie Parker, as well as Undine Smith Moore and Florence Price, two Black female composers also lauded for their cultural and musical impacts.

The first section of the concert served as an introduction to the afternoon’s theme of community through Black spirituality, beginning with Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” from the extended jazz work Black, Brown, and Beige, followed by a gospel arrangement of the spiritual “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” by featured vocalist and pianist, Patrice E. Turner. The choir began the concert down in front of the altar with Turner and the rest of the combo (bassist John V. Brown and drummer Orlandus Perry), which created a sense of intimacy despite the ensemble’s size. Turner’s low range at the start of “Come Sunday” bloomed into impressive belts and riffs, and the choir supported her with unified dynamic control throughout. The electric bass in “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” provided a solid foundation for Turner to improvise over and the crowd was on their feet by the end of what was only the second song of the afternoon.

The second section of the program showcased the choir, who by this time were back in the lofts behind the altar. The chapel’s stained glass and vaulted ceiling provided a reverential background for the four sacred works of varying tempo and voicing that demonstrated the choir’s clarity of tone and ensemble. Acapella lines, in both slow and fast tempi, were angelically blended, such as in “Lamb of God” from Mary Lou’s Mass. Moments of rhythmic or harmonic intrigue added by the piano and organ in “Praise the Lord” by Florence Price provided further depth into the musicality already established. The third section of the concert bridged ensemble and soloist, with two works for piano and voice followed again by the choir. Turner stood up front to sing “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” and Price’s classical arrangement of the spiritual highlighted the soloist’s impressive range. Turner’s own arrangement of “Jesus Loves Me” brought the audience to their feet and the choir sang “St. Martin de Porres” from Williams’s Black Christ of the Andes with reverence and grace, moving together as one through each melismatic line.

At this point in the concert, the North Carolina Central University Vocal Jazz Ensemble gathered at the front of the stage to perform a mix of standards and spirituals, and I thought the programing was incredibly effective. Two works by Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker (“‘Round Midnight” and “Yardbird,” respectively) were bookended by three of Mary Lou Williams’s own, and the influence of spirituality as demonstrated earlier in the program was evident in all five, as well as the influences the three artists had on each other. The ensemble, comprised of undergraduate and graduate vocalists, was accompanied by James C. Crew, Jr. on piano, Josh Mickens on drums, Kayla King on bass, and Shayna Ryan on flute, who were all excellent at their times to solo. Vocalist Debbie Long’s low register on “What’s Your Story Morning Glory” was remarkable, and the unison scatting on “‘Round Midnight” was unbelievably locked in across the singers. The audience and Chapel Choir all gave a standing ovation when the Jazz Ensemble finished “Praise the Lord” from Black Christ of the Andes and the support and community onstage transitioned well into the final section of the program, a chance for everyone to sing together.

The Jazz Ensemble rejoined the Chapel Choir and together performed “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” directly into “I Sing Because I’m Happy.” The audience was invited to sing the refrain “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free…” and by the end, there were people clapping in their seats and two-stepping in the aisle. The impact of Black spirituality across many genres of music is undeniable, and Duke University’s celebration of Mary Lou Williams was an excellent showcase of this background and diversity in American music. The overarching sense of unification was felt in the very last pew, and I applaud the ensembles for a thoroughly uplifting afternoon of music.