The spirit of gospel - Mahalia Jackson tribute

Tammy McCann offers a tribute to Mahalia Jackson in the next ‘Hot Jazz’ installment.

By
May 2, 2019 13:47
4 minute read.
The spirit of gospel - Mahalia Jackson tribute

TAMMY MCCANN. (photo credit: MARY RAFFERTY)

When it comes to gospel singing, Mahalia Jackson had ’em all beat. Not that music, or any of the arts, should be considered in competitive terms, but Jackson is recognized by one and all as an iconic and somewhat matriarchal figure of the discipline. Hence, it makes perfect sense for Tammy McCann to come over here from windy Chicago to offer her Jackson tribute, as part of the current Hot Jazz series. 
 
While she’s here, McCann will front a full eight shows across the country, with substantial support from the Eyal Vilner Big Band, led by the eponymous New York-based Israeli saxophonist-clarinetist composer and arranger.
 
For McCann, nothing could be more welcome and natural than saluting Jackson, contrary musical origins notwithstanding.
“My background is as a classical vocalist. That was my very beginning,” McCann explains. “I fell in love with jazz when I was in college. That’s very late in life.” Then again, the line of sonic and emotional expression followed by Jackson, who died at the age of 60, in 1972, was part and parcel of McCann’s personal continuum from the get-go. “Gospel really came from my upbringing. So I like to say that gospel isn’t something I learned. It is in my DNA.”
 
Gospel is a spiritual musical form that comes from the church. “My family is from Mississippi, and the beauty of gospel music is something that has really been interwoven – especially in Chicago.”
 
The Windy City may be 1,000 km. and more from the Deep South, but it became known as the Blues Capital of the North, as such greats of the discipline as Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters relocated, as part of the so-called Great Migration, with African-Americans getting away from the draconic racial segregation Jim Crow laws. McCann’s antecedents also made the northward move, in search of a less restricted lifestyle.
 
“That great migration brought all of that lush and vibrant music up to the north, especially to Chicago, which is hallowed ground for gospel music,” the singer continues. “The father of [Georgia-born] gospel music, Thomas Dorsey, developed the [blues] footprint, here in Chicago. Mahalia Jackson was one of his main soloists.”
 
Indeed, it is said that Jackson’s rendition of Dorsey’s best-known composition, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” was a favorite of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King.
 
McCann eagerly drinks from that sonic and emotive font, which, she says, also informed other areas of life. “I am fed by Mahalia Jackson’s energy. I am fed by her legacy. She was an integral part of so much of the soundtrack of black humanity at that time – be it in the church or on the picket line. Her music was a driving force.”
 
Clearly, McCann believes that gospel is not just about the music. “Gospel is a space, a place. It is a place in which I feel very much at home.” 
 
As the art form was also very much an expression of African-Americans’ quest for freedom, I wondered whether, as time and, to an extent, sociopolitical circumstances have moved along, that element of gospel is less relevant today. McCann prefers to take a more expansive line. “I feel the message of music is just as relevant today, if not more so. There’s a gospel song called ‘If we ever needed the Lord, we sure do need Him now.’ We’ve never needed spiritual guidance so much.”
 
McCann says she is delighted to be making her first trip to this part of the world, and has a sense of bringing the music home. “One of things that is very much prolific, especially in your region, is the celebration of the Abrahamic faith. And here you have Christianity, Judaism and Islam raised right next to each other. It has never been more important for people of God to speak with one voice, regardless of how we get to Him.”
 
That search for a unifying element, McCann says, can be facilitated by extolling the Divine Being. “I feel strongly that my mission-vision in this tour is to praise God, whether you call Him Allah, whether you call him God – I don’t care what you call Him. I am bringing the praise of God, and all are welcome.”
 
That religious celebratory ethos will be funneled through a polished musical performance, with Vilner and his troupe complementing McCann’s robust vocals with some slick, tight orchestrated underscoring.
 
McCann and Vilner and co. have done the business before. “We had an opportunity to play some concerts in New York City. Eyal is such a brilliant, brilliant man. He is such a wonderfully collaborative spirit.” That, despite Vilner’s different musical and cultural backdrop. “There is a growth and knowledge he was so open to learning the pedagogy of gospel music. One thing that is important to me is that gospel and jazz have a pedagogy, and is just as vibrant as German lieder. You have to study it and understand the chord structure and the culture, and then present it in an authentic way.”

EYAL VILNER. Credit: GRAYSON DANTZIC
 
With her personal and professional baggage, McCann is just the person to convey the beauty, power and majesty of Jackson’s oeuvre and character. “I am so happy to be coming to Israel to celebrate the music of this amazing woman. Mahalia Jackson is an icon that represents the culture, my culture, African-American music. I am so thrilled to have the honor to represent her in a world space.”
For tickets and more information: (03) 573-3001, www.hotjazz.co.il, cartisim@shamayim.co.il


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