Harold Smith on the Art of Blackness: Black Gospel Music in Kansas City

Scholar, performer and founder and conductor of the Black Musical Arts Community Choir Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr. at Music Theater Heritage, where he is manager of education programs (photo by Jim Barcus)

Born of hopes and challenges, sustained by extraordinary musical talent

This article is the first in a series titled “The Art of Blackness.” Says author Harold Smith, “Like assemblage created from found objects, many iconic cultural elements in the Black experience — notably in areas of music, food, hair, clothing — lie at the intersection of both African and American cultures. Like the ‘Big Bang,’ this collision of African creativity and American captivity resulted in an explosion of new ways of personal expression that still reverberates in Black American life.

“As a result, simply experiencing life as a Black American is an artistic endeavor.”

Moans, hushes, hums and surging, soaring vocalizations— sometimes all in the same song. Repetitive rhythms combined and illustrated with physical movements from swaying and rocking to exuberant clapping and raising of hands. These are the distinct sounds and images of Black gospel music.

Even though I was raised Roman Catholic, some of my fondest memories of the late ’70s and early ’80s are the times a friend from Wyandotte High School invited me to Visitors Day at Eighth Street Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kansas. I personally found the services to be much more engaging and exciting than the Catholic mass that I was used to attending. Parishioners greeted each other with warm hugs and hearty handshakes. Visitors would be formally acknowledged by name from the pulpit. The sermons were passionate and enthusiastic.

However, it was the singing that commanded my attention. From tender solos to rousing choir numbers, the Black gospel music just moved and inspired. Fervent selections could easily move a person to tears. Other stirring numbers would end with the congregation on their feet, shouting, clapping, and many with their hands raised while tears streamed down their faces.

Of course, that was more than 40 years ago. Many of my friends from that time have passed on. The world, and our lives, have changed. Most of those who remain have grown from members of church teen groups to church mothers and church elders. Many now listen to their grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, sing in the same choirs they once sang in.

The origins of gospel music are as gripping as the music itself. Like so many African American art forms, it has its roots in the pain and struggles of slavery.

“Gospel music is organic,” says Kami Woodard, an icon of Kansas City’s gospel music scene. “It is a derivative of the first American form of music, the Negro Spiritual.”

Dr. Dina Bennett, ethnomusicologist and deputy director of the American Jazz Museum, has studied the evolution of the spiritual. “Spirituals do not have instrumentation and appeared during the time African Americans were enslaved,” she said. “During enslavement, the spirituals were called ‘folk spirituals.’ Once freed Blacks had the opportunity to attend university and colleges, nuances were added, and the music was called ‘arranged spirituals’ because it was written for SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices). Gospel music is, as we know it, a written arrangement which began to appear in the 1920s. Gospel music means ‘good news.’”

Odell Talley, another iconic figure in Kansas City’s gospel music scene, adds to this history: “In the 1920s there was a blues musician and composer named Thomas A. Dorsey, who had played piano for Ma Rainey and performed all types of songs that could not be played in a church,” Talley said. “He experienced a spiritual awakening and began composing and performing religious music with the same tempo and sounds he had perfected as a blues pianist.”

The development of gospel music into a wide-ranging genre is as exciting as its origins. Isaac Cates, internationally known gospel musician and founder of the group Ordained, knows this development well. “There have been significant moments in the history of gospel music that have led to where it is today,” he said. “In 1967, Edwin Hawkins applied a Calypso arrangement to the hymn ‘O Happy Day.’ Another was 1997, when Kirk Franklin and the Family recorded ‘Stomp,’ a gospel song that sampled ‘One Nation Under A Groove,’ by Funkadelic.”

Regardless of variances in the music, its fundamental core is the same. According to Woodard, “The notes, tones, timbres, and harmonies come from the heart and are products of our individual experiences. As a classically trained and degreed musician, I have never experienced a more difficult genre of music to duplicate, as it relates to sincerity and authenticity. There must be a spiritual connection to God to perform gospel music as intended.”

“It comes from the soul. It comes from the heart. It comes from our need for God in our lives,” said Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr., former associate professor of music at Harris-Stowe State University, founder and conductor of the Black Musical Arts Community Choir and current manager of education programs at Music Theater Heritage.

The instruments used have influenced Black gospel music’s distinct sound. “Some churches may just have a piano. Many use a Hammond B3 organ,” Dr. Bennett explained. “Black gospel musicians prefer the Hammond B3 organ because it mimics the human voice.”

From left: Odell Talley, Isaac Cates (rear), Kami Woodard (front) and Elwanda Richardson (right) outside the Friendship Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri (photo by Harold Smith)

Kansas City’s Icons of the Art Form

Kansas City has a storied and rich Black gospel music history.

Odell Talley has played on both sides of the state line for more than 30 years. Known for his love of thrift shopping, crisp wardrobe and collection of hats, Talley plays organ and piano at Sunday services and funerals. Every Sunday morning, he streams directly from his keyboard at Zion Travelers Baptist Church. From Talley’s phone, focused on the organ, viewers can witness his fingers gliding instinctively across the ivory keys with a seeming effortlessness reminiscent of Charlie Parker on alto saxophone, while simultaneously hearing the iconic sounds of the Black church at worship.

Talley has documented every service, funeral and church event he has played at in a series of yearly planners. Despite loose paper notes protruding and being held together by rubber bands, Talley is able to sift through these planners to reference every performance since 1994. “I can go back 30 years and tell you every song I played, where I played and who I played it with,” Talley said with his trademark grin.

Looking back on his decades-long career in gospel music, Talley reflected, “Each church had (and still has) its very own niche, and these niches varied from address to address. If you walked into Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, you knew you were going to get the storied Black experience. If you walked into a place like Mt. Olive, you knew you were going to get ‘knock-down, drag out’ church. You could shout all day long at Morning Star. They may take you out stiff as a board.”

Kami Woodard was born into and raised in Black gospel music. “My mother (Earlean Johnson), my aunt (Brenda Perkins), and my childhood church, Greenwood Baptist Church, are at the foundation of my love for gospel music,” she said. “I grew up in the church, singing and playing the piano and organ. I was provided several opportunities to sing all over the United States, because of my mother and my church affiliations.”

From these beginnings, Woodard’s career has taken her from being co-founder of a teenage a cappella quintet while in middle school to touring and performing in Europe with Isaac Cates and Ordained.

Isaac Cates, like Odell Talley, was born and raised in Kansas City, Kansas, and started on his musical path while still in elementary school. Cates, who also studied at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory, is internationally known and has conducted gospel music workshops across the United States. He is a sacred songwriter, composer, pianist and choral arranger with a background in classical music, who cut his teeth at Metropolitan Baptist Temple in Kansas City, Kansas. His group “Ordained” is well known in gospel circles and has toured Europe.

Elwanda Richardson, another local Black gospel icon, toured Europe with Cates and Ordained. “We performed in front of audiences that showed great appreciation for the artistry of our music,” she recalls. “To them it was art, and they loved it.”

Like so many sectors of the cultural community, the Black gospel music community has suffered greatly from the impact of COVID-19. Dr. Brandon McCray, renowned gospel saxophonist and preacher, died from COVID-19 in April of 2020. It is believed that he contracted it at a church workers’ meeting in Kansas City, Kansas.

“We were both working on our doctoral degrees at KU at the same time,” McNichols related. “He helped me with mine and I helped him with his. He was a good man, one of my best friends. I miss him.”

“We lost a lot of folks to COVID,” Odell Talley states. “So now, a lot of older folks, especially folks in the high-risk areas, still haven’t returned to physical church.”

Adds Talley, “Their absence is felt.”

Despite all the challenges faced by Black Americans and the Black church, Black gospel music survives and flourishes. Every Sunday morning there are displays of this legendary art form across our city. You can experience it at Friendship Baptist Church, Mount Calvary Church of God in Christ, Metropolitan Zion AME Church or any number of Black congregations in our city.

An upcoming documentary by the I’m So Glad Project explores the untold history of Kansas City’s place among the roots of Black gospel music. It covers the importance of the often-overlooked Western University, the first northern Black college west of the Mississippi River, in producing internationally known Black gospel artists.

Supported by Humanities Kansas, Charlotte Street, and ArtsKC, the film is a project of the Electric Prairie Productions team of Paul Wenske, producer and writer; Nancy Meis, co-producer; and Chris Wenske, videographer and editor. Narrated by Isaac Cates, the film had a preliminary showing in February at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood. To see a trailer, visit https://youtu.be/7J2mbEeAgg8.

Kansas City’s Black gospel music’s history runs deep, its roots are strong and enduring, and its branches are wide and welcoming.

To see the artists in performance, visit youtu.be/k1WoL8m8TFc; youtu.be/GPbqJQgYEA0; youtu.be/O4COaVtw-8k; youtu.be/-vLym9VUgRY.

The late Professor Michael Charles is one of the most iconic figures in Kansas City’s jazz history:

Harold Smith

Harold Smith is an educator and multimedia artist who lives and works in the Kansas City area. Most of his work is focused on his experience within the American black experience.

Leave a Reply