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Strength in (Whatever) Numbers 

With the bulk of their members reforming as evacuees in cities such as Houston, Baton Rouge and Atlanta, New Orleans' gospel choirs seek comfort in their belief and their music. And now they're ready once again to raise the Gospel Tent at Jazz Fest.

"For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

-- Matthew 18:20

Sweet Jesus on the dashboard. For Byron Johnson, who's served as the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church's (FABC) minister of music for the past 24 years, that's more than just line in a song. It's turned into a way of life. Between New Orleans, Houston and Baton Rouge, where he's temporarily living, Johnson travels frequently to minister to his scattered flock, working hard to keep the congregation united in spirit and song. Hurricane Katrina proved indiscriminate in spreading destruction to structures secular and sacred, and many of New Orleans' largest and most venerable churches were damaged by floodwaters and wind -- not to mention their parishioners being scattered across the South and beyond.

Before the storm, Johnson had presided over 13 separate choir groups totaling more than a thousand people as well as an orchestra and liturgical dance groups. After 8 feet of water flooded the Gentilly sanctuary, the congregation had to start from scratch -- and with faith.

"You have to play the hand that's dealt to you," he says via cell phone from behind the wheel of his car, driving from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. "You can pout about it, or you can start the work. And if it's truly a church, then you have faith, and faith can move mountains."

Reuniting the choir was a no-brainer to Johnson; worship was going to keep the community together, and praise songs were an essential part of worship: "From the time we started services, we knew we'd need a choir. And the members, it was a part of their lives every day. It was almost destined -- when are we gonna get this back together? We start small, we start all over again, but the premise is we're a family, and the numbers will come."

Franklin Avenue's choir, along with many other local gospel outfits, have quarter-century-plus histories with Jazz Fest, and not uniting in song, in this year of all years, was never an option. Johnson has practically moved mountains to make sure Franklin Avenue makes it to the Fair Grounds.

"It's just like starting over," says Johnson. "You roll up your sleeves and rebuild it." The presence of choirs like Franklin Avenue's at Jazz Fest is a testament to the strength of New Orleans' church communities. There's been a lot of improvisation and some shrinking numbers.

But they'll be there.

New Orleans' church leaders have been active in the rebuilding process, serving as representatives for the largely voiceless evacuated population. Franklin Avenue's pastor, Fred Luter, was one of the 17 local community leaders selected to consult with Mayor C. Ray Nagin on his Bring New Orleans Back Commission. Bishop Paul S. Morton, who leads the Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, visited Washington, D.C., several times to meet with U.S. Senators Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), as well as the Congressional Black Caucus and FEMA. And many in the African-American community and beyond were heartened by Watson Teaching Ministries' Pastor Tom Watson's colorful rhetoric (and even more colorful ties) during his unsuccessful yet symbolic mayoral campaign. The power in the church communities of the Crescent City has never been more evident, and it's that unity and strength that has kept their choirs unbowed -- even when, sometimes, the sopranos are rehearsing in a different geographic state than the altos.

Franklin Avenue has established satellite ministries in Houston and Baton Rouge to provide church members with a worship community while they're displaced from home. Other Baptist churches have offered space for service and choir rehearsal, so church leaders like Johnson find themselves on the road much of the time. Pastor Luter preaches at Istrouma Baptist Church in Baton Rouge on the first and third Sunday of the month in the afternoons, after a morning service at First Baptist Church in New Orleans; on the second and fourth Sundays, he's at First Baptist in Houston.

The Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church has also opted to reach its evacuated population on their own ground. Loretta Petit sings in Greater St. Stephen's choir and has a long career in gospel-format radio -- she's currently at WYLD-AM in New Orleans as a morning show host and assistant program director). Petit believes that the church, whose congregation was nearly 20,000 members strong, is serving its home congregation best right now in Atlanta.

"We lost our east sanctuary on Read Boulevard," Petit says, "and a lot of members relocated to Atlanta, to Houston." Greater St. Stephen now operates out of its West Bank location on Ames Boulevard, one Uptown on South Liberty Street, two in Atlanta, and temporary churches in Houston and Baton Rouge. "Even if a choir has gone from 30 members down to 15, it's still a group," she insists.

Lauren Haynes, a singer and former youth director at FABC, currently lives and sings in Houston. She's resolute that her choir will return in whatever form and in whatever way. "We rehearse wherever we are, and even though we're singing in three different locations now, we'll be getting together for Jazz Fest. They'll be calling all the members of the Franklin Avenue music ministry," she says, noting that ministry has gained some new members in Houston, where they're considering making the temporary church a permanent institution.

"In Houston, I see more new people [from New Orleans] than people from our choir," Haynes continues. "Lots of churches were damaged, and I think people came when they heard there was a church here from New Orleans.

"With gospel music, it's passed down from generation to generation, to large amounts of people," she adds. "Every church I know that uses gospel music as one of their worship techniques has some similarities. And it's a blessing to keep something, here, that reminds you of home."

Johnson follows Luter's route, leading choir rehearsals on Saturdays, getting ready for the Fest as well as the Essence Music Festival in July that has relocated this year from New Orleans to Houston. The number of active choir members is way down, but the delegation in the Gospel Tent this year will likely number about 60 (down from 80 in previous years), and all former members are welcome to join in.

"We're emailing and calling members from all the evacuee states, saying they're welcome to come to Jazz Fest and make it a weekend," says Johnson. "It's difficult, finding a place to stay. That's the challenge. What we get from Jazz Fest will probably not pay the musicians' expenses. But we'll get there."

Sherman Washington, who has booked the Gospel Tent for many years, was unable to comment at press time due to health problems. Roland Jack has assisted him for the past three years and consulted on gospel booking with Festival Productions Inc. "I've been hearing that it's hard to get gospel musicians, gospel bands into New Orleans right now," says Jack. "There were very few musicians before, and churches were sharing them. They'd play an 8 a.m. service somewhere, 11 a.m. somewhere else and another one in the evening." Jack relocated permanently after the storm to Harrisburg, Pa., where he currently works as minister of music at the Bethel Village AME Church.

Loretta Petit notes that, ironically, booking for the tent this year is more local-heavy than past years, even though many locals are, well, less than local right now. "It's a cut below what we're used to in terms of national acts. I don't know their business, but I'm sure it's finances. But if anyone relocated, they will show back up for the Jazz Fest."

Cynthia Liggins Thomas is one who is coming back, at least for Jazz Fest. Before Katrina, the NOCCA graduate toured and recorded as a solo act nationally as well as singing with the choir at the Greater Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Marrero. Her church flooded, but is up and running now -- without Thomas, whose husband -- a general manager for Smith and Wollensky steakhouses -- was relocated to Dallas after the company decided not to reopen its New Orleans restaurant.

"I'm praying, I'm hoping, that they'll continue to grow," Thomas says by phone Easter weekend, from a performance in Pennsylvania. "The way I see it now, some churches might be gone, but some are still here, and the ones that are still here are growing. It'll be a little more unified, as separate congregations are forced to be together. And, oh my gosh, do I miss it? I just had my daily cry on the plane."

New Orleans and Katrina victims remain on Thomas' mind. Before the storm, she was recording an original gospel single, "Take Care of the Babies," whose sales would benefit an orphanage that cares for children living with HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe, through her nonprofit organization, Let Love Rule. When Katrina hit, she was inspired to direct her assistance closer to home.

"We started thinking, why not an album instead of a single?" she says. The 18-track album, which was recorded in New Orleans and will be released in early June through her own LuvMo label, features Ellis Marsalis on two songs; it also found her songwriting exploring more traditional New Orleans styles. "There's some jazz, some gospel, some R&B," she says. "There's a remake of 'My Favorite Things' tailored to New Orleans, about all my favorite things in New Orleans. I miss home, but I can actually help more from the outside."

As for the Gospel Tent's regional focus this year, Thomas sees it as inspirational: "I think it's wonderful that they've booked so many people from home. Everybody from home needs to express themselves, and we do it best through our music."

Veronica Downs-Dorsey agrees. "Anywhere you go at a gospel music conference, you can always tell the choirs from the South," she says. "It's a special sound." Downs-Dorsey has, more than most, had to think on her feet since Katrina; she does double duty as choir director at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church -- which reopened for Mass on Easter Sunday -- and as director of the student gospel choir at McDonogh No. 35 High School on Kerlerec Street, her alma mater. McDonogh No. 35's student choir has performed in the Gospel Tent for nearly 30 years, and Downs-Dorsey wasn't going to let this be their first year as absentees.

Leading a student choir presented some special hurdles for Downs-Dorsey, as her school reopened in January, with Jazz Fest booking already underway. No. 35 was the third public school to open its doors in New Orleans, after McMain High School and Ben Franklin Elementary. The temporary open-enrollment policy meant she was seeing a lot of new faces (and voices) -- and many of her trusted student singers weren't back.

"Only 30 percent of our students were back, and only 20 percent of my choir was back," she says. "I've got four sopranos back, out of 30."

So what do you do with numbers like that, and Jazz Fest fast approaching? "Pray, for one thing," she says. "Pray the Lord's going to send you some people."

To fill up her ranks, Downs-Dorsey employed her daughter, Veronique, who entered No. 35 as a freshman in January. ("These are all the schools I've been to this year," says Veronique, showing four laminated school IDs)

"Kids are the best P.R.," Downs-Dorsey explains. "They know the Aretha Franklins. I'd say, 'Veronique, do you know somebody who can sing?' The kids told me there was a pair of twins from [Walter L.] Cohen High School. They walk in, I say, 'You're in the choir." She also used the temporary scheduling changes to her advantage. "Because No. 35 was open enrollment this year, we didn't have regular classes, so I taught all my ninth graders gospel music, and I was listening to them as they were singing basic songs, and I pulled a lot out and put them in the choir."

For this Fest, Downs-Dorsey is also sticking to classic songs that her former students know, in case they'll be able to return in time for the show. Once No. 35 returns to a college-prep curriculum, new students will be able to test in if they want to stay.

The pull of the choir, Downs-Dorsey agrees, is powerful. One singer with the St. Peter Claver choir commutes from Jackson, Miss., to rehearse. "I'm glad," she says, that the Gospel Tent lineup this year focuses on local acts. "We need to bring local people in, keep them busy."

"I think it will be a positive influence if the choirs stay together, and they will," says Roland Jack. "The church is a central thing, and the music will be a pillar for the New Orleans community."

click to enlarge With their church flooded and fellow members scattered, - Franklin Avenue Baptist Church choir members often - rehearse in other churches around town, including First - Baptist Church. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • With their church flooded and fellow members scattered, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church choir members often rehearse in other churches around town, including First Baptist Church.
click to enlarge New Orleans' church leaders have been active in the - rebuilding process, serving as representatives for the - largely voiceless evacuated population. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • New Orleans' church leaders have been active in the rebuilding process, serving as representatives for the largely voiceless evacuated population.
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