Saints' Paradise is the first comprehensive anthology of the musically and spiritually powerful trombone shout bands from the United House of Prayer for All People. It includes performances by the most influential bands, designated by church elders as 'The Three Stars of the Kingdom'. These are: Edward Babb and the McCollough Sons of Thunder (Harlem, New York City), George Holland and the Happyland Band (Newport News, Virginia), and Norvus Miller and the Kings of Harmony (Washington DC). Each of these bandleaders, who are also renowned trombone players and arrangers, in turn built on his own teacher's style to achieve during the 1960s and 1970s a distinct, overall sound. Their styles and repertoires are now emulated by the next generation of bandleaders and ensembles which are known as 'copy bands'. Sadly, both Holland and Miller have passed away since these recordings were made; Babb continues to play energetically in Harlem, across the nation, and even abroad. In 1993, Babb, Holland, and Miller were honored by their church for their artistic excellence and their spiritual devotion in a program in Washington DC called 'Legends of Leaders'.
Saints' Paradise also includes the younger bandleader, Cedric Mangum, with his group, the Clouds of Heaven (Charlotte, North Carolina). Mangum further assisted the elderly Madison Prayer Band, praise singers heard here with guitar and bass (thought to be remnant from early string bands that included banjos and mandolins) and the ever-present tambourine; Though each band has younger and older members, the youngest band on the recording is Madison's Lively Stones from Washington, D.C. It seems fitting that 'the Stones' exuberance in continuing their tradition opens Saints' Paradise, as they process from the back of the hall to the stage on Folk Masters at Wolf Trap with When the Saints Go Marching In.
Grace's biblical appearance - a visage still displayed prominently in photographs and paintings at every United House of Prayer - was striking, with long curling fingernails, wavy black hair, and majestic robes over tailored cut-back suits that reinforced the impression of a stylish and imposing man who represented God on earth for his congregations. In the late 1920s Grace drew as many as twenty thousand people nightly. Harlem church elder Saint Rose Franklin said of this era: "I remember Daddy Grace from the first when we threw the leaflets around to come out to the tent, and everybody looked at the picture, and this looked just like Jesus ... We all come stand around, and, when he came to pray for salvation, he'd pull off his coat, and people would line up, and he'd put his hands on them, and most would go down in the [wood] shavings and come up speaking in the other tongue ... It was way back in 1926."
Grace's church was sometimes denounced by other African-American church leaders as a cult. Some criticised the militaristic uniforms (reminiscent of both Marcus Garvey and the Salvation Army) as well as the hierarchical ranks and titles accorded the leadership of the HoP. Others called him a charlatan, as he proclaimed the value and healing power of a Grace line of Products ranging from soaps and toothpaste to coffee beans and cold cream. The charismatic Grace was also often at odds with the law, in part because of his encouragement of mixed black and white congregations. During the 1930s he was arrested many times for violatying segregation laws in the South.
The church's music was also stigmatized. In one Columbia, South Carolina, neighborhood the House of Prayer was sued as a public nuisance. When the state's Supreme Court ordered a church closed in 1938 it weighed in with this description: "... the evidence showed that there is dancing carried on in the church, weird noises and music, shouting, stamping of feet, unearthly sounds, use of drums, trombones, horns, and scrubbing boards."
Since his death in 1960 Daddy Grace's charisma and powerful personality have been well remembered. Even now they are constantly reinforced by the invocation of his name in sermons and depictions of his person over the pulpit in each House of Prayer. Grace's successors, Daddy McCollough and Daddy Madison, have emphasized the importance of Church members' financial and material success, and they have embarked on massive campaigns to build churches of elaborate architectural diversity and style to replace the board and brick edifices of an earlier time - so proclaiming spiritual and social triumph. Even so, the House of Prayer remains a place where ecstatic 'shouting' with the spirit and speaking in tongues are essential religious experiences, offering relief from emotional, social, and physical pain.
In Black Gods of the Metropolis, written by the eminent Black sociologist Arthur Huff Fauset at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1940s, the descriptions of the House of Prayer in Philadelphia sound uncannily current: "The service usually begins with unison singing, accompanied by piano or band. Then there is testimony. The singing is interlarded with shrieks, handicapping, stamping, and frequently concludes with the wholesale spectacle of a number of followers advancing to the front of the auditorium, where they dance on the sawdust-covered floor. Other members flit about singly through the aisles and passageways. From time to time someone will collapse and fall prostrate to the floor ... All the while there is much calling out in tongues, which is said to be the Holy Spirit speaking through the human form ..."
Shout band music has driven United House of Prayer services since the 1920s - a period of tent revivals and the construction of the initial and still influential churches in Newport News, Virginia, New York City's Harlem, and Savannah, Georgia. The idea of 'shouting' in African American religious congregations has its sources in West African praise-singing for the spirits and chiefs alike. In the Afro-Atlantic-connected world of the American East Coast, shouting is generally associated with the older rural congregations in South Carolina's Low Country and the Georgia Sea Islands - particularly around the holiday period of Christmas and New Year where special steps, rhythms, and biblical passages are used in a setting called the 'ring shout'. Although the movements associated with shouting, such as spinning and gyration, shaking the head from side to side, and pumping arms in the air, cannot be considered dance in the secular sense of the word, some House of Prayer members and clergy refer to them as 'dancing with the Spirit'.
Today's trombone shout bands of the House of Prayer provide music for Sunday services, parades, baptisms, funerals, and special convocations, moving congregations to 'shout' with heartfelt, spiritual energy. The music builds gradually from slower tempos and sweet melodies with full harmonies to sweeping crescendos and intense 'thundering' figures. In such musical passages individual lead horns and horn sections wail and cry in an improvised and overwhelming display of musical and spiritual emotion, underpinned by a dense, booming rhythm section of drums, cymbals, sousaphone, and unison-riffing trombones. The musicians use the power of this thundering chorus to bring the entire congregation 'to one accord'. Bandleader Edward Babb says, "Once you are on one accord, then the Holy Ghost can come in ... when everybody is on that level, and I can feel it, and the members can feel it. And when we feel it, it changes us. We have to get out of self and walk in spirit, not flesh. We feel the Holy Ghost's power then, and the music comes through our horn, and no more is it the average music you'd hear in a night club or a jazz radio station. It's actually music given to us through the spirit of God, through the brass, and the people can feel the radiation of the horns ... It's like fire shut up in the bones!"
These moments of accord recur frequently during a service that - especially when two or more bands are present - may last from early morning to well into the afternoon. Even to a noninitiate it can feel as if spirits are flying about in the church. Mostly women and some men, young and old, 'get the Spirit' and speak in praise of the Lord, Daddy Grace, and the Spirit itself using the 'other tongue' - a smattering of English, what occasionally sounds like Portuguese, and a rapid-fire of syllables often at alternating low and high pitches.
In explaining why Daddy Grace used shout bands to attract people to his services, Pastor Herbert Whitner of Washington DC noted, "He had to bait his hook to bring in his catch". Whitner goes on to suggest the biblical basis for the House of Prayer's highly developed music in citing Psalm 150: "Praise ye the Lord. Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet. Praise Him with psaltery and harp. Praise Him with timbrel and dance. Praise Him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise ye the Lord".
Gospel scholar Horace Boyer comments that Bishop Grace took the Psalm a bit further in urging " ... the use of brass and reed instruments within the church service. It is from his denomination ... that modern gospel music - the most arresting music of the last half of the 20th century - based its use of the accompanying instruments, other than the piano and organ. The legacy of the 'Daddy Grace Band' is so strong that it influenced many of the rhythm and blues and jazz instrumentalists of contemporary music"
If Grace's shout bands had a certain kinship with secular music, they were also influenced by the gospel quartets of the day. Just as intricate vocal arrangements could update the old spirituals and hymns, so could instruments be used: shout bands employed the saxophone, trumpet, and trombone, and backed them with piano, drums, tambourine, and washboard, applying many of the techniques and arrangements of jazz in the swing and big band era.
Although the late George Williams of the Newport News HoP is generally credited with being the seminal trombone player and organizer in the first generation of shout bands, church historian Dr Robert O Washington observed that, "Williams was a bandleader and a soloist, he didn't make the trombone into the group instrument that it has become in the shout bands". The dominance of the instrument seems to have emerged in the early 1960s, when ensembles included here such as the Kings of Harmony, Happyland Band, and Sons of Thunder - began to expand rapidly into the massive trombone choirs associated with today's music. An RCA recording of a shout band from the Charlotte House of Prayer in 1936 had no trombones. Trombones were used in this period but not in a fashion that outnumbered other brass instruments. Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s show diverse instrumentation in these earlier ensembles. Yet today, a shout band's prowess is partly evaluated by the many ways in which trombones are used. Eddie Babb of the Sons of Thunder notes, "We have nineteen pieces - a host of trombones - in our band. There's alto trombone, tenor, baritone, second lead trombone, and a special effects unit of four trombones. So it's a lot of brass, and unusual and uncommon to the average eye".
Today's near exclusivity of the trombone as the lead instrument in shout bands may have developed incrementally, but in retrospect it seems an almost inevitable evolution. As the title of Harlem Renaissance writer James Weldon Johnson's 1927 collection of poetic sermons, God's Trombones, suggests, the valveless slide instrument is uncannily well-suited to recreate the emotional range of the human voice in service of the Lord - from throaty growls and clarion screams to shimmering melisma and swinging scat. The trombone has become such a definitive voice in the musical tradition of shout bands that current players say they can't remember first hearing the instrument, because it was always present in their lives at the House of Prayer. Many recount stories of playing 'air trombone' with broomsticks and plumber's pipes. Children who mimic adult trombonists are humorously referred to as 'fist bands', because one hand grips the imaginary instrument while the other fist moves as if holding the slide. At nearly any service one can find a few young boys playing with their fists or 'sitting-in' on toy instruments with the teens and older men in the shout bands.
Saints' Paradise affirms what the children receive by sonic osmosis and what the adults know and feel in their hearts: that this intense enveloping music engages the senses and soul in ecstatic celebration that is at once both personal and communal, both physical and spiritual. The relation of spirit and flesh is one of the enduring mysteries in Christianity - and the improvisatory Spirit-induced African-American sensibilities of an HoP shout band carry that mystery to a blazing experiential level at each service.
Bishop S C Madison, 'Daddy Madison', with apostle-like gray beard, in jaunty roll-brim hat and white suit, has carried on the legacy of the United House of Prayer as a total social, economic, cultural, and spiritual institution. The church continues to build and rebuild its visually memorable churches in the poorest areas, to create low- and middle-income housing, to feed its congregations and their neighbors at cornucopic cafeterias, and to offer hope of economic and spiritual progress to its members. Some churches have hierarchies of multiple senior and junior shout bands that play for, compete with, and energise one another, all the while continuing to move congregations to ecstatic devotion each week at United Houses of Prayer nationwide.
The Washington HoP, with its gold dome and black angel statuary, stands like a sort of urban Taj Mahal at the edge of the historic, but struggling, Shaw neighborhood. Saints' Paradise takes its name from the adjoining southern-style cafeteria. Just as music animates the spirit, the cuisine at Saints' Paradise (and all the other House of Prayer-run cafeterias at churches from New Bedford to Savannah) revives the body. Indeed, a day of service is not complete for many church members without a meal that includes a soul food menu of baked chicken, fish, crab cakes, pigs feet, barbecue, greens, mashed potatoes, okra, butter beans, sweet tea, and cornbread on the side. Musicians exhausted from hours of playing to the edge of their energy eagerly fill their plates amid laughter and anticipation, and many also work in such cafeterias to stay close to the church and its calls for their performances. The Saints' Paradise cafeteria is also a daily mecca for District of Columbia construction workers, businessmen, mothers, children, students, and all comers, black and white, young and old, who seek a 'belly buster' meal at trimmed down prices. It seemed appropriate that this essential institution at the D.C. House of Prayer - one where a sense of daily fulfillment of the flesh occurs under a most spiritual of titles - give title to this collection of music.
Jerome Blanchard, the Lively Stones' manager and bass drummer, notes, "We started out as little guys just running around. Apostle Madison gave us a name, we were encouraged by Brother Norvus Miller, and we have made our way". Their sound is different from the older bands through the influence of modern gospel, funk, and even hip-hop. When asked about their similarity to the young jazz brass bands from New Orleans like Dirty Dozen or Rebirth, Blanchard is nonchalant: "They are more for playing parades. They remind me of the Mummers where I grew up in Philly. We are into our music as a spiritual thing. We are giving God our horns. I like what they play, but it's not my style". All the young men in the band either have jobs or are in school, according to Blanchard. He adds, "We're in it for soul salvation. It gets us closer to God, and it's better than being on the street and selling drugs. And better than any other kind of music. We got it from the older bands, and we just keep going. We're trying to boost up the service."
As with all House of Prayer bands, the Lively Stones wear dark suits with colorful ties. Asked how this young band differs from the older, more established groups, trombonist Damon Rodney noted, "Lively Stones - we play our horns more or less like we're singing them. So we have more than one part. A lot of bands have only certain basic parts, but we try to split into voices the way we sing them, and that's how we play them". Jerome Blanchard adds, "Everywhere we go we hear so many bands. Our organization's so big, so I can't even name how many bands are out there. Our band, we try to do something different ... different keys, different songs. I guess some of you are familiar with the Kings of Harmony; they set the foundation. We're walking in their tracks, and we're trying to go higher than they're going. We're trying to start something new."
The Stones have cleared new ground in one special regard: in the early 1990s they began to play outside the church around Washington - at Dupont Circle, in the alleys of Georgetown, even brightening our day by jamming outside the old Folk Masters office at governmentally grim L'Enfant Plaza. Although the House of Prayer historically frowned on such public playing, the Lively Stones have shown it can be done with elan and dignity and as a means of support.
Several of the band members relate individually how the church and music have saved them from an undesirable lifestyle. Jerome Blanchard speaks for the group in addressing the role the spirit plays in his life and his music: "To me, it's an individual thing. When I come to the service, I come with my fire burning already. When I get to the House of Prayer and get in the middle of it, I get that extra charge of God. I'm sure the band will be ready. Tonight we're going to cut loose in here, so put on your shouting shoes."
At this 1994 Good Friday performance, the Lively Stones marched confidently in wearing the cool, nearly expressionless public faces of today's youth. They heard the screams and applause of a house packed with young female fans and male church elders, as they brought their version of When the Saints Go Marching In down the aisle and onto the stage. Their moderate tempo It's Time to Make a Change, with its walking bass, has a majestic strutting quality that matches their brassy on-stage and in-the-street personalities. Never Going to Let You Go has a touch of Middle Eastern sound, said by church members to evoke life in the Holy Land. By the end of their set, a six-year old horn player named Andre had joined them on stage, as they marched in a circle, shirts soaked in sweat, waving their shiny trombones triumphantly up and down, back and forth, in time to the music. Their faces showed happy exhaustion - very Lively Stones indeed!
The players are: Jerome 'Mann' Blanchard, bass drum; Frank 'Butter' Williams lil, snare drum; James 'Bam-Bam' Tate, second trombone; Damon Rodney, third trombone; Tony 'George' Lawson, lead trombone; Stacy Jenkins, third trombone; Dwayne 'Tic' Jenkins, lead trombone; Calvin 'Scoobie' Harris, baritone horn; Ivan Jackson, tuba; Craig Dudley, first trombone; Thadeous Cradle, first trombone; Curtis 'Skee-bop' Graham, first trombone; Dwayne 'Chit' Whitner, third trombone.
Leading the foremost band at the Harlem church arguably puts Eddie Babb at the top of the House of Prayer musical kingdom. Indeed, as one hears his subtle melodic techniques and powerful solos, combined with the irresistible drive of swing and the improvisation of modern jazz, it is hard to imagine who can musically top the Thunderbirds with Babb at the helm. The Harlem church's pastor, Apostle H M Swaringer, praises both Babb's musical and devotional abilities: "He can judge the mood of the crowd and create a sound that will touch the hearts of every person sitting within hearing distance of his trombone, like he is playing something you have been waiting to hear and didn't know it". In 1997 the National Endowment for the Arts signaled its agreement with Swaringer by awarding Edward Babb the highest honor America bestows on traditional artists, the National Heritage Fellowship. The band traveled to Washington, and, beneath a portrait of George Washington, played at the White House for Mrs Clinton and a packed East Room crowd. Several House of Prayer members in the room got the Spirit.
Of his life in music, Babb recalls, "I was raised here in the House of Prayer. I was born at 15th and Lennox and moved to 125th Street. I started to play horn when I was thirteen years old. It was just a normal thing for a young man in the House of Prayer to do. It was my desire to play the horn to inspire someone to feel the spirit of God. The band has been together ever since 1962. Our nickname is the Thunderbirds, so we try to thunder every time we play."
In He Touched Me drum rolls sustain the musical tension, while Babb leads the band through a series of figures and finally unleashes individual trombone voices to sing in call-and-response fashion. Their dirge-like One Day at a Time sweeps along slowly with the soulful majesty of an old-time prayer band until the tempo quickens into a jazzy exploration of the melody, replete with lead and section horn runs and fills, and drum accents. At the outset of Sweet! Babb asks the crowd to meditate on the music to relieve suffering - an essential message in all HoP musical services. He builds the musical arrangement until he urges everyone to follow him "a little higher." In that moment a few dozen people begin speaking in tongues. The band moves incessantly toward a conclusion of thundering fanfares - a final plateau before 'climbing the mountains' of His Eye is on the Sparrow. Babb almost frantically paces the stage as he plays, demanding more from his fellow bandmembers with each riff from his driving horn. Finally he begins running in place as if climbing an imaginary set of stairs. Sweat flies from Babb's brow as he sprays notes heavenward from his instrument - crescendo upon crescendo until a tumultuous end of brassy bombast, fanfare, and booming drums. The show concludes, and the band and audience are happily exhausted. Horns are packed, hugs exchanged, coats donned, and the world outside in wintry New York City seems a warmer and more joyous place.
Band members include: Edward Babb, lead trombone; William 'Brother Bill' Cohen, trumpet; Emanuel Grier, second lead trombone; Andrew Cole, sousaphone; John Byers, baritone horn; David Cole, trombone; Walter Williams, trombone; Sidney Kolluck, trombone; Billy Perry, tenor trombone; Tyrone Pickney, tenor tuba; Anthony Woodard, trombone; John Smothers, trombone; Robert Daniels, trombone; Jimmy Hart, alto trombone; James Daniels, cymbals; William Montgomery, snare drum; Elder Willie Williams, bass drum.
Holland had a familial base for his music: "I started playing as a sophomore in high school in the town where I lived. I was always associated with the church. My family roots, my mother, and all my brothers, all of my sisters, and all of my children, are in the House of Prayer, and I had a special love for the instruments and had occasion to meet a fellow in our organisation that was the beginning of the bands in our church, and we call him the 'father of the trombone', Brother George Williams. Our association was so close that people thought we were brothers. I received motivation and inspiration from him because of his dedication to what he was doing."
Holland's own quiet intensity as a mentor made him seem a bit like a cross between coaches Vince Lombardi and John Thompson, as his charges - ranging from forty-four-year band veteran trumpeter Joe Jackson to the twelve-year old trombonist Toine Guy, in the band for two years played with dignity and fervor.
The Happyland Band's moderated, mellow sound reflects Holland's own taste for careful arrangements that break out into a more ecstatic improvisatory approach only in the final stages of a service. Ardent in supporting the House of Prayer for groundbreakings, convocations, baptizings, parades, and funerals, as well as regular Sunday services from Miami to New York and back to Newport News, the Happyland Band is renowned throughout the HoP. Holland says, "They called us 'Happyland,' because everywhere we traveled in the Kingdom we made people rejoice and very happy. There are three stars in the Kingdom, and we are one of them."
A retired railroad brakeman and longshoreman who spent fifty-two years playing the music, George Holland says with conviction, "It's a spiritual connection. It's music that can't be written. That's the mystery of it. It is a revelation. After all my years on the bandstand, I can be asleep at home and wake at 4:00 a.m. and get a musical revelation."
The smoothness of Happyland's welldrilled performance style reaches to an earlier era in its use of the trumpet and in the overall mix of jazz, gospel, and sweet soul music. This style, from the period before trombones dominated shout bands, is evident in the first phrases of Won't it Be Sad?, as Joe Jackson's insistent but contained trumpet jousts with his fellow elder Holland and the young Antonio Guy on trombones. Other trombone soloists and sections add their voices in sequences with almost amusing transitions based on Sousa figures, creating a unified musical statement that is pleasing across the generations.
Old-style patriotism has long been a hallmark of the House of Prayer, so it was not surprising when Happyland played this soulful version of America the Beautiful, a song they use on the Fourth of July and church ceremonial occasions.
As the band's Folk Masters concert drew to its conclusion, the normally reserved Holland approached the microphone and intoned emotionally: "I'd like to say here, before we play our last selection, we are very happy, enthused, and overjoyed at your reception of our performance - especially the youngest fellows that are in our group that are just starting out. I hope that the opportunity will present itself, when at some time in the future, that we will be able to come back again. For our last selection we will play Just a Closer Walk with Thee.
The band members are: George Holland, lead trombone; Antonio Guy, second lead trombone; Clinton Griffin, tenor trombone; Joe Jackson, trumpet, Keary Griffin, second trombone; Cory Cook, second trombone; Eddie Perry, sousaphone; Toine Guy, baritone horn; Lorenzo Bamer, bass drum; Ernest Bell, snare drum and band president.
On Good Friday, 1995, the Madison Prayer Band made their first appearance outside the HoP. They began by following the solo trombone of Mangum with soft, almost otherworldly voices on the old standard Lord, Fix Me and fell into a miraculous mix of soulful gospel accompanied by the old-style rhythm section. In Shouting Time, band members moved freely into the 'other tongue', leaving no doubt that they were comfortable declaring their faith in the Spirit on stage.
The Madison Prayer Band includes: Saint Dolores Peay, Saint Essie Bryant, SaintJo Anne Graham, Saint Lily Mae House, Saint Sarah Young, Saint Cora L Frederick, Saint Mary Williams, Saint Vera Gaston, Brother William Ford, Saint Mary Williams, and Deacon B D Degraffinrid - vocals, tambourines and washboard; accompanied by Cedric Mangum on organ and trombone; Charles McCauley, guitar; and Andrew Williams IV, bass.
The Clouds, as their House of Prayer fans call them, were formed in 1965 under the direction of Elder Johnnie E Phifer. At the time they were called the Number Two Shout Band, because there was already one band at the church, the McCollough Tigers. In June, 1984, at a convocation in Los Anbeles, the Number Two Shout Band was renamed the Clouds of Heaven by Bishop McCollough. The McCollough Tigers have been reorganized and are now in Gastonia, North Carolina, and the Clouds of Heaven, under the exuberant directorship of Cedric Mangum, have assumed a lead role.
A hairstylist by day, Mangum got his start in music playing drums, and it was as a drummer at age nine in 1969, that he first joined a shout band. In 1974 he switched to the sousaphone and about two years later to the trombone. Today Cedric Mangum is not only a remarkable trombonist and arranger but also a fine organist. He rose to the directorship of the Clouds of Heaven in 1974, initially assisted by Elder G Ricks. When Cedric was growing up he lived across the street from another trombone player, Brother Zeb Harrison, who is now a member of the Clouds of Heaven. Cedric recalls that when they got home from school in the afternoon they would go out onto their respective porches and play, answering each other back and forth, drawing quite a crowd. That musical front porch jam of trombone voices had the effect of promoting the House of Prayer in the neighborhood and is recreated here with son Cedric Jr taking Harrison's place in what Cedric Sr calls a Spiritual Conversation.
As a 'copy band', part of what the Clouds of Heaven do is pay tribute to the prior generation of influential bands known as the 'Stars in the Kingdom'. Lord I'm Troubled about My Soul, with its walking bass and mesmerising brass drones, is a tribute to Norvus Miller, late legendary leader of the Kings of Harmony. Keep Oil in Your Vessels, with its minor mood, has the admonishing feel of a church elder citing biblical examples for a righteous life. Mangum's crisp trombone provides the voicing for the sermon. Complementary to the Clouds' initial selection on this CD, the uplifting conclusion, with inflections of soul and pop music, is Ease My Troubled Mind.
The Clouds of Heaven members include: Cedric Mangum Sr, lead trombone; Cedric Mangum Jr, second lead trombone; Wayne Parker, second trombone; Anthony Monroe, second trombone; Anthony Patterson, second trombone; Willie Johnson Jr, first tenor trombone; Fred Hargro, baritone horn; Clifford Gibson Jr, second tenor trombone; Miles Kilcrease Jr, sousaphone; Marcel Sinclair, drums; Thomas Hudson Jr, bass drum; Blair Smith, cymbals; Lorenzo Camps, tambourine and cowbell.
Norvus Miller's energy was amazing - directing a band, playing trombone, always off to another performance. One night after playing late to close a show in Lowell, the Kings rode overnight to do Sunday services in New Haven, Connecticut, then returned to Lowell for a concert that afternoon. Miller spoke fondly of his trips around the country with Daddy Grace and then Daddy McCollough. Norvus's own part-time line of work, driving a long-distance 'Luxury Liner' bus for the House of Prayer, neatly dovetailed with his musical travels with the Kings. At the drop of a hat he also accompanied me to Newport News to seek out the retired George Holland and urge him to pull the Happyland Band back together to play on Folk Masters. Here, as everywhere, Miller diplomatically broached the value of public performances for HoP musicians with local pastors, senior church leaders, and Daddy Madison himself. Whether at a House of Prayer in Savannah, South Philadelphia, or Harlem, knowing Norvus Miller got us invited into the inner sanctum, to dinners overflowing with fine Southern cooking, and to large musical occasions where the presence of the Spirit was overpowering.
In February 1993 Norvus was celebrated along with Eddie Babb and George Holland at a 'Legends of Leaders' concert held at the 'Mother Church' in Northwest Washington DC. It could have been just another of an endless array of honors and plaques Miller had been awarded, but this was special. He was with his two peer musicians, and the event was captured on video by Susan Levitas for The Music District, a documentary on African-American performance traditions in the nation's capital. A little over a year afterwards, on May 1, 1994, exhausted from working up to three jobs and playing music, and often awake as many as twenty hours a day, week in and week out, Miller died suddenly of a heart attack. He was forty-eight years old. Levitas was asked by the House of Prayer to document Norvus Miller's funeral for The Music District and for church members themselves.
The crowd at the funeral was so huge that services had to be held twice. Every major shout band in the southeastern United States were there. Norvus Miller's casket, accompanied by a flower display in the shape of an HoP 'Luxury Liner' bus, was attended by a rotating honor guard of fellow HoP bus drivers in full traditional uniforms: purple coats with epaulets and gold buttons, white gloves, and a distinctive HoP driver's hat. These men also served as pallbearers. Miller's son, Norvus 'Butchy-Butch' Jr, led the Kings of Harmony in a tribute of wailing trombone voices that still echoes in my heart.
Pastor Whitner led a testimony-filled service that continued for hours and invited many non-church members to express their appreciation for the fallen friend and musician. Finally, accompanied by more trombone players than I could count, the coffin was carried out into the rainy streets for several blocks of musical salutation and finally spirited away in a hearse.
The recording here of a jam session by Miller, Babb, and Holland at the 'Legends of Leaders' event can also be seen in 'The Music District'. Eddie Babb suggested it be called Revelation and Improvisation. The two other selections, Oh, Happy Day and When the Saints Go Marching In, include vocals by Virgil Smith and are from the Kings' all-too-brief performance at Folk Masters in 1992.
The band members include Norvus Miller Sr, lead trombone; Norvus Miller, Jr, trombone; Virgil Smith, vocalist; Joseph Hayward, snare drum and band president; James Freeman, bass drum; Anthony Roberts, trombone; Henry Cleveland, trombone; Sidney Wiggins, trombone; H Shepherd, trombone; Joseph Chambers, trombone; Lloyd Mays, trombone; Glen Lewis, trombone; Purcell R Miller, trombone; Marick Stewart, baritone horn; Darren Strouse, sousaphone; and Perry Smith, trombone.
Nick Spitzer - 2.11.99
The above is a slightly edited version of the booklet notes from the 1999 Smithsonian Folkways CD
'Saints' Paradise' SFWCD 40117, reproduced here with permission.
The record will be reviewed in these pages in due course.
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