Heavenly Music

Now that gospel’s Kirk Franklin-induced moment in the pop spotlight has come and gone, the scene can go back to doing what it’s always done best: inspiring and enlightening audiences with some of the most commanding voices in music.

After all, gospel’s roots in New York go a lot deeper than one Texan’s multiplatinum record – they go all the way back to the turn of the century, when ex-slaves migrated to the North in search of manufacturing work and freedom from racial oppression. Consequently, Baptists have a strong, near-dominant presence in New York’s gospel scene, with Sunday-morning services taking on the feel of an ecstatic religious revival that would be perfectly at home in the deep South.

Thanks to its passionately provocative pastor, Calvin Butts, and powerful choir, the Abyssinian Baptist Church (132 West 138th Street; 862-7474) is the best-known venue in the city’s gospel landscape. But a visit there merely scratches the surface of what the northern end of Manhattan has to offer. The New Mount Zion Baptist Church (171 West 140th Street; 283-0788) has been a fixture in Harlem since its founding nearly 81 years ago. So it’s not surprising that every Sunday the entire second floor of the small, steeple-roofed church is crammed with tourists (so much so that there’s a section of the morning program called “Recognition of Visitors”). The huge presence of out-of-towners doesn’t seem to deter Pastor Carl L. Washington Jr., who leads a boisterous call-and-response service (“Isn’t the Lord good this morning? Amen!“), or his congregation, who clap, sway, and sing ecstatically throughout the service. Amazingly, the rollicking gospel music almost never takes a pause, even during the pastor’s remarks. The church’s choir is able to hit vocal registers so high that it’s easy to imagine them reaching the heavens.

Another Harlem fixture, the Mount Neboh Baptist Church (1883 Seventh Avenue, at 114th Street; 866-7880) is home to the intimidatingly great Mount Neboh Mass Choir, known for its triumphal renditions of gospel-music staples like “O Happy Day” and “At Calvary.” Though guests are welcome, Mount Neboh’s divine reputation often results in a packed house well before both the 8 and 11 a.m. services on Sunday. The Greater Refuge Temple (2081 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, at 124th Street; 866-1700) is also incredibly popular among tour groups (one tour guide even complained that groups of visitors are shuttled in and out of the church at twenty-minute intervals). The church’s brotherhood, which sings hymns with gloriously deep, soulful baritones, puts on an astoundingly good show; it performs every third Sunday of the month, starting at 11 a.m.

If the idea of wandering around the outer boroughs in search of gospel doesn’t sound appealing, then a tour group called Harlem Spirituals (690 Eighth Avenue, between 43rd and 44th Streets; 391-0900) might be the way to go. The company offers a multitude of gospel-oriented tours, such as “Harlem on a Sunday With Brunch,” which serves up visits to some of the neighborhood’s gospel hot spots, along with an optional soul-food brunch, and “Gospel on a Weekday,” which offers a less-jam-packed atmosphere to enjoy gospel than the Sunday tours (be forewarned that you may find yourself the only American – not to mention New Yorker – on the bus). Sunday-morning tours begin at 9:30 a.m., weekdays at 9 a.m. Both tours depart from Harlem Spirituals’ Eighth Avenue location; tour guides recommend showing up at least half an hour in advance.

Gospel in Brooklyn doesn’t have the same visibility or prestige that is enjoyed in Harlem. What the borough does offer, however, is plenty of gospel music far from the tourists’ glare. The Brooklyn Tabernacle (290 Flatbush Avenue, near Prospect Place; 718-783-0942) is home to the renowned Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, whose repertoire stretches all the way out there to the Hebrew prayer “Hevenu Shalom Alechem” (found on its CD Favorite Song of All). Much less high-profile is the Concord Baptist Church of Christ (833 Gardner C. Taylor Boulevard, between Putnam Avenue and Madison Street, Bedford-Stuyvesant; 718-622-1818), which has several choirs and offers a more intimate neighborhood feel than most Harlem churches. So it’s not surprising that visitors are more than encouraged to attend Sunday-morning services. “We’re waiting for you,” enthuses one woman from Concord’s sisterhood.

Others Lifting Their Voices
Gospel will be plentiful this summer outside houses of worship, too, thanks to House Full o’ Praise, a series of concerts dedicated to gospel music stretching from July 7 to 17, at the Ethical Culture Society (64th Street and Central Park West; 874-5210), with the final concert taking place at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall (875-5030). The marathonlike festival will feature big-name artists like Nancey Jackson as well as groups like the Great Day Singers and hip-hop-gospel fusionists like the Joy Unlimited Youth Choir.

Though it is mostly excluded from the mainstream gospel circuit and not connected to any particular church, the gay-and-lesbian Lavender Light Gospel Choir (714-7072) has delivered wonderful performances (its moving rendition of “I Shall Wear a Crown” is a highlight) everywhere from the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center to Carnegie Hall.

And gospel may yet again find itself in the harsh glare of the pop limelight later this year, when the ubiquitous Sean “Puffy” Combs is expected to make an uncharacteristic entrance into the genre. Though his album won’t be called Dear Jesus, Forgive My Sampling Sins – the working title is Thank You – it’s likely to give gospel something it’s never enjoyed before: street cred.

Heavenly Music