Sherman Washington Jr. (Zion Harmonizers)
December 13, 1925-March 14, 2011
Zion Harmonizers with Aaron Neville, “Wonderful,” live, New Orleans (Gospel Tent, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival), 1991
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Sherman Washington Jr., the leader of the Zion Harmonizers and the godfather of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’s Gospel Tent, died early Monday at his home in Boutte after a long illness. He was 85.
What Ellis Marsalis is to jazz, Mr. Washington was to gospel. For three decades, he hosted a Sunday morning gospel show on WYLD-AM that served as the gospel community’s town hall. He led the Zion Harmonizers, New Orleans’ longest-running gospel vocal group, since the 1940s. The Harmonizers appeared at the very first Jazz Fest, staged in 1970 in what is now Armstrong Park.
After the festival moved to the Fair Grounds in 1972, he oversaw the growth of the Gospel Tent, building it into a cornerstone of the festival’s roots-music presentation. The tent introduced a music largely unknown outside the African-American churches where it was born to a much broader audience.
Until deteriorating health finally slowed him down in recent years, he administered the Gospel Tent with a steadfast integrity and intimate knowledge of the music, musicians and singers. Given that many acts consist of large choirs, the tent features more performers than any other stage at the festival.
“Gospel, even after jazz and blues came down to the front of the bus, was still in the back of the bus,” said Jazz Fest producer/director Quint Davis. “To a large extent, Sherman’s work through the Gospel Tent has helped bring gospel music to the front of the bus. An enormous debt is owed to him by the festival, and the whole gospel world.”
Davis expects the upcoming Jazz Fest to feature a tribute to Mr. Washington.
“You can talk about soul with either a lower-case ‘s’ or an upper-case ‘S,'” Davis said. “Sherman had soul with a capital S.”
In the late 1960s, the Harmonizers roster included a Mississippi-born bass singer named John Hawkins. In early 1970, Hawkins met Quint Davis at Mason’s Hotel on Claiborne Avenue and came back to Mr. Washington with news of this young music fan who was organizing a music and heritage festival.
Mr. Washington went to meet Davis and partner Allison Miner, and the Zion Harmonizers were booked for the first Jazz Fest at Congo Square. The forerunner of today’s Gospel Tent was a 15-by-20-foot open-sided tent with an upright piano and no floor, stage or sound system.
When Jazz Fest moved to the Fair Grounds in 1972, Davis approached Mr. Washington with an idea.
“Quint said, ‘I had a dream,’” Mr. Washington recalled. “And I thought, ‘This isn’t Dr. King, is it?’ He said, ‘I had a dream that I’m going to build a Gospel Tent, and I want you to run it.’ ”
Mr. Washington’s diplomatic skills came in handy. In the early 1970s, gospel choirs rarely performed outside of churches or church functions. They certainly didn’t perform at “hippie” events where beer was served. Pastors resisted the idea of choirs performing at Jazz Fest.
“The preachers were against me,” Mr. Washington said, “because people would drink beer in the Gospel Tent. I would ask the choir’s president or manager, and he’d tell me yeah. Then he’d come back and say, ‘Our pastor doesn’t want us to sing in the Gospel Tent.’ ”
So instead of church choirs, Mr. Washington booked vocal quartets that weren’t affiliated with churches.
“Those are the ones I had to depend on,” he said. “They would tear the place up, pack it out. We didn’t pay those preachers no mind. We kept going.”
Opinions eventually changed and choirs lobbied Mr. Washington to be included. “I think the choir members got on the pastors about it. Because if a person drinks a beer or something, that’s their soul, not yours. If you’re singing, you’re doing what God wants you to do.”
Eventually, a small staff was assigned to assist Mr. Washington, but he still screened most acts in person. He attended rehearsals and private auditions, offering advice along the way.
“He had never been in a role like this,” Davis said. “He was a true man of God who was not in it to advance himself or build an empire. He worked through his community and spiritual connections to put it all together. He knew who was the real deal, who needed to play.”
Mr. Washington insisted on a high level of professionalism and skill, as he knew any group could well be some Jazz Fest’s attendee’s first exposure to gospel. He wanted the music to make a good first impression.
“This Gospel Tent has brought more white people to gospel than anybody had ever seen, ” Mr. Washington said in 2002. “Now, it’s more white people than black people. And they get into it. It brings the white and black together. People get together and stand up, you don’t know who is who.”
—Keith Spera, The Times-Picayune (New Orleans), 3/14/11
On March 14, 2011 at 2:36 AM, the music stopped and his lyrics became a reality.
—Obituary (The Times-Picayune)
listening room: what’s playing
• Bach, Cello Suites, Steven Isserlis, Jean-Guihen Queyras
• Von Freeman, Walkin’ Tuff, Vonski Speaks, Young & Foolish
• Milton Babbitt, Piano Works, Robert Taub
• Buddy & Julie Miller, Written in Chalk
• Nneka, Concrete Jungle
• Jason Moran, Ten
• Steve Lehman, Travail, Transformation, and Flow
• Friedrich Gulda, Piano Recital 1959 (Bach, Haydn, Beethoven)
• Theo Parrish, First Floor
• Theo Parrish, Sound Sculptures, Vol. 1
• Roger Sessions, Works for Violin, Cello, Piano; Curtis Macomber (violin), Joel Krosnick (cello), Barry David Salwen (piano)
• Roger Sessions, Sonatas Nos. 1 & 3; Ralph Shapey, Mutations and Mutations II, 21 Variations, David Holzman (piano)
• Yascha Heifetz (violin), Chamber Music Collection, Vol. 1 (Mozart, et al.)
• Morton Feldman, For Bunita Marcus, Stephane Ginsburgh (piano)
• Sinner’s Crossroads, Kevin Nutt, WFMU-FM (Thursday, 8-9 p.m. [EST])
• Gospel Memories, Bob Marovich, WLUW-FM (Saturday 10-11 a.m. [CST])
• Give the Drummer Some, Doug Schulkind, WFMU-FM (Friday, 9 a.m.-noon [EST]; web stream only)
• Bird Flight, Phil Schaap, WKCR-FM (M-F, 8:20-9:30 a.m. [EST])
• WFMU-FM, Annual Fundraising Marathon