Last night’s performance in my Augusta, Georgia. Absolutely surreal.
Last night was homecoming. Here are some words from the leader of Chorale Le Chateau, Damien Sneed:
What can I say about last night’s performance in my hometown, Augusta, Georgia? The experience was completely and absolutely surreal. I remember meeting Wynton for the first time as a young student at the Davidson Fine Arts School when he was on tour with his septet performing IN THIS HOUSE ON THIS MORNING. I will never forget how the sound of each instrumentalist literally imprinted my mind. It became one of the most memorable moments in my early development as a musician.
Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that Wynton and I would one day perform in my home church, Good Shepherd Baptist Church. As conductor of the ABYSSINIAN MASS, one of my main responsibilities is to communicate the intent of the composer to the singers. My earliest beginnings in Good Shepherd Baptist Church consisted of an immersion in what the Mass requires from the singers. The fervent moans of the movement, “Meditation”, remind me of the deacons at my church crying out to The Lord with moans and groanings on behalf of the congregation in intercession.
While sitting and listening to Wynton solo in the second part of “Offertory”, I couldn’t help but shed a few tears of joy. What a joy it was to have my first jazz piano teacher, Donald Macey and my first gospel music piano teacher, Aundre Clark, seated in the congregation. Then my high school history teacher, Vivian Rosier, was seated on my left. My family showed up in great numbers and then to top it all, my 80-year old mother was present. For me, all of this synergy culminated in an emotional catharsis when we sang “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” in the “Doxology”. I knew in that moment that everything about last night was divinely orchestrated years and years ago. Every experience, good and bad, worked together to create that single moment.
Last night will forever be etched in the minds and hearts of my family, my church family, the people of Augusta and my own.
And last night was a homecoming for the JLCO. Sharon and Grey Mayfield from the Garth Fagan branch of our family, the great Wycliffe Gordon’s mother and sister, Lena Bell and Karen Gordon blessed us with their presence. I don’t know why so many great trombonists come from this region of the country. Let’s hear from one of them. A man with magical talents: singing, preaching, arranging, composing, and conducting, the possessor of perfect pitch and a metronomic sense of tempo….AND, a personality and character superior to all of those abundant abilities, Mr. Chris Crenshaw:
My brothers, my brothers! I can’t remember how many times I have been asked, “When is the band coming to Augusta?” As soon as I got word from my cousin Damien Sneed and Jason Olaine, I immediately started letting people know that we were indeed coming. The congregation really came out and supported not just the home folks, but all seventy choir members, fifteen JLCO brothers, and staff.
As expected, Good Shepherd Baptist Church and Rev. Clarence Moore welcomed us with open arms. This powerful concert concluded an overwhelming day for me on many accounts, and showing my brothers off to the Augusta area truly made it worthwhile. Thanks again, my brothers!
Three moments caught my eye tonight. After we went to intermission, I noticed Nicole Phifer going to her “quiet place” in a chair backstage. She certainly deserved it after she sang the stew out of “Prayer!” I noticed that Damien got full during the “Doxology”. It was a moment I shared internally; he had to be feeling something as he was conducting his choir in front of his home church.
I also noticed my daughter Jazzlyn start to cry as I was about to leave. I spent time with her earlier in the day, and she was sharing all that she had learned in school, what she did at cheerleading practice, what songs she learned, etc. After the tragic news about Adrian Peterson’s two-year-old son passing away (ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend assaulted his son), I was so glad to see my daughter and the rest of my family. I told her I would make it up when we go trick-or-treating.
Here’s Damien again to introduce two members of Chorale Le Chateau:
I will never forget when my late father, James Sneed, walked me, at 6 years old, up to Elaine Sturkey and asked if she’d take me under her wing. Elaine Sturkey, at that time, was the choir director, pianist and organist at the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church. This is the same church where my parents were married years ago, with Elaine’s older sister, Jessye Norman singing “Moon River” at the wedding. My relationship with her has blossomed over the years and she remains a mentor, confidant and great source of support. Here are some words from Elaine:
Last night we performed in Augusta, Georgia, at the Good Shepherd Baptist Church! While most people wouldn’t think of it as some hugely important or exotic stage…it rivaled them all because it was quite simply, “home”! For me, the bus ride into Augusta was particularly nostalgic as we traveled in via the country roads from Athens towards Augusta where much of my core family had lived. Passing through Washington, Georgia, the place where my parents were born and raised, brought a little pitter patter to my heart. I felt like a little girl seeing the scenery with fresh eyes…it just brought a smile to my face and anticipation in my heart. Finally we arrived!
The performance last night had a special energy. At the start of the show Damien received a rousing applause just because he was a “home boy”!! Delightful! The opening solos with lines like “God is great and greatly to be praised!” from the piece titled “Call to Worship” began to transcend from “performance” towards “worship”. And it felt like the mood was set for the evening. By the time we got to “Prayer” and Nicole walked us through the life of Jesus, it was on!! During intermission, Brandy (choral member) remarked, “Tonight is different, and ‘Choral Response’ was different here because we were in a house of worship,” referring to the presence of the Holy Spirit.
During the second half, Wynton played like the spirit had hit him in “Offertory”!! Everybody knows he is accomplished, but he brought the fire last night! Standing to his feet and letting it rip! That’s just the way the spirit was moving and there was no escaping it!
Just before the last song, “Amen”, Chris Crenshaw (trombone) took on the traditional and familiar tenor of an old southern preacher! And the church and choir responded with “Yes, Sir”, “Well” and “My Lord” and an array of call and response phrases and wails that are so indicative of the flavor of Southern Black church worship. I am always somehow emotionally moved by the “Amen” piece…maybe because it means “so be it!” And it signifies the end.
Lastly, I felt especially proud of Damien, whom I have known since he was a child, now standing tall as a man and blessed to be conductor on this tour. He is God gifted and talented in multiple musical expressions, instrumentally and vocally. I could not help but thank God in those moments during the concert in the very church that was Damien’s “home church” for His faithfulness. It was a good night.
Funny I am reminded of the line from the “Wizard of Oz” that I faithfully watched annually growing up in Augusta, “There’s no place like home!” And there isn’t!!
Stephanie Estep and I attended Davidson Fine Arts School together from 5th thru 12th grade and we sang together in chorus. Stephanie was the first vocalist I ever accompanied. We used to travel across the state of Georgia competing and singing. I’m so honored to have her on this tour. Here are some words from Stephanie:
I was born and raised in Augusta, GA but have not been back to visit in three and a half years. Last night was a warm and wonderful homecoming as we performed to an exuberant crowd of family and friends. I have known Damien Sneed for over 20 years and am lucky to count him among my friends. It is at the same time surreal and familiar to be on stage with him and watch him lead this incredible group through our musical journey each night, and especially last night.
Entering the sanctuary I could feel a new energy in the choir and orchestra. As I looked around with each glance, I saw a different person sharing the stage who also calls this place home. We were singing for our loved ones, and a spirit of joy and gratitude overwhelmed me as we finished the Prayer with an inspiring performance by our soloists. Tears were flowing down my cheeks and dripping off my chin before I could get a chance to wipe them away.
The “Choral Response” follows immediately and is sung by the women alone. All of our faces were glistening with tears and glowing with the spirit. It felt as if I were singing with a chorus of beautiful angels.
That incredible electric energy continued through the second half of the performance climaxing with a solo by Mr. Marsalis that brought him, and members of our audience, to their feet. We watched in awe as he too was taken by that powerful feeling and continued to play and play at the urging of the orchestra allowing all of us to linger in that expressive moment.
There is something transcendent about music that I don’t often find myself feeling. I don’t think a lot of music nowadays has the heart and soul or the intention to raise people to that level, but there is something in this piece, with this group of musicians and specifically last night in the Good Shepherd Baptist Church that took all of us to a special place. For me that place is home. There was home all around me; the people with whom I am lucky to share the stage, the audience thrilled at the joyful return of their loved ones and beautiful music presented for them, and a home in the music.
The evening ended for me with even more joy as I got to reunite with childhood friends and introduce my family to Mr. Marsalis who was a kind and gracious host. I am lucky and blessed to be a part of this experience every night but here in my hometown I am overjoyed.
Today is a travel day to New Orleans. On Sunday night, we will be performing at the Saenger Theatre, which just opened its doors two weeks ago for the first time since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Outside of the Jazz Fest, it’s always difficult to get an audience for Jazz in New Orleans. Haha! Just one of those sweet ironies that makes me love it even more (like a woman you love who will never love you (no matter what you do)). Still, it’s home, a place we all love with unbearable intensity, and it’s an honor to be a part of the grand re-opening festivities.