Since the beginning of the 1850’s specialized groups of singers began to form, including quartets. Quartets frequently sung without the use of instruments, but sometimes guitars, bass, and drums would be incorporated into the style of music. The a cappella style of music became known as jubilee quartet with the repertoire nature and sonic qualities of it. The designated four-part harmony arrangements of quartets made them specific for only four to seven singers.  The quartet genre of music is historically divided into the: jubilee, transitional, and gospel period.

Jubilee specifically emerged within African American universities as “secular narrative texts sung in moderate or fast tempo”.

Fisk University was one of the most prominent schools that had a jubilee quartet. Fisk’s jubilee quartet was prominent in preserving the tradition of Negro Spirituals. In fact, through concerts and tours Fisk received an enormous  amount of financial assistance as well as fame and recognition of their musical groups.

Other performers of jubilee quartet include the Mills Brothers who later became know as the “Four Kings of Harmony”. With their stardom they became the first African-Americans to have a network show on the radio. Some of their notable songs are: “Tiger Rag” and “Nobody’s Sweetheart”.

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The birth of quartets, and later jubilee quartets, gave way to music that consisted of harmonized singers that relied mainly on each others voices rather than instruments. As time progressed, the harmony of quartets influenced the birth of pop and soul music genres.

 

 

 

Jubilee Quartets

The jubilee period occurred from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as a way for Black colleges to gain support for their financial hardships. Fisk University, also known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, was the first university to establish a tour to provide a financial cushion. Because of this, the establishment of other university quartets helped to reinforce the popularity of quartets. The quartets consisted of male and female a capella ensemble of four to six voices that perform formal arrangements in close four-part harmony, with rhythmic style of singing. African-American quartets quickly caught attention, due to their musical styles; which incorporated blue notes, hocket, and melisma. Minstrel jubilee, community-based quartets, sacred harp, and gospel quartets are the different forms of quartets and they all expressed various styles of singing.

As time progressed, the commodification of quartets led to radio broadcasting, touring, and a crossover phenomena. In the twentieth century, the quartet evolved into a sub-genre of gospel music and assisted with the evolution of secular and sacred music.

Quartet Competitions

Quartet competitions also known as song battles originated in the 1940s. These contests functioned to promote and maintain high standards of quartet musical performance, to define and validate black cultural aesthetics and values, and finally to provide a forum for sharing collective expressive behavior in the community. They were held in Churches, high schools, universities, and other community gathering center. The contestants were awarded audience admiration or trophies while larger contests were publicized and sponsored by individuals who sought profit. Groups that were involved in these competitions were The Fairfield Four, The Dixie Hummingbirds, Flying Clouds of Detroit, and Golden Gate Quartet.

Key Names

Sam Cooke, Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, Dixie Hummingbirds, Willie Dixon, Fairfield Four, Five Blind Boys, Georgia Minstrels, Golden Gate Quartet, Pilgrim Travelers, Soul Stirrers, Wheat Street Female Quartet, and Zion Harmonizers

Key Words

  • Jubilee: nineteenth-century genre with sacred or secular narrative texts
  • Strophic; song form in which a single melody is repeated with a different set of lyrics for each stanza
  • Blue note; a note that falls between two adjacent notes in the western division octave
  • Grace note; a short note performed as an extra before the principal pitch
  • Melisma; a single syllable sung over several pitches
  • Hocket; interlocking patterns shared by two or more voices or instruments that produce a single melody

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Written by Kori Barnes, Kaila Crosse, and Naomi Gross
Page designed by Kaila Crosse

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