A Jaida Langham Post
The African American quartet tradition is an artistic form with a unique history and aesthetic expression that originated in the mid 1800s. It is a synthesis of African American and Western practices, containing distinctive elements and sonic qualities that express cultural values and aesthetics of the African American community.
In the context of an African American quartet, the quartet consists of between 4-6 voices singing 4-part harmony arrangements in either an a cappella style or with limited instrumentation. The important characteristic to note is that in defining an African American quartet, it is not defined by group size, rather defined by the number of designated harmony parts.
As mentioned before, the African American quartet tradition is a synthesis of practices, more specifically it is a result of hybridization of European and African American aesthetics and musical values. It originated in the mid 1800s but in the early 1900s when blacks were fresh out of slavery there was a huge quartet wave; since blacks were finally allowed to attend collegiate institutions, the wave was heavily demonstrated in the university singing movement, specifically with African Americans. Example groups include Heavenly Gospel Singers, Dixie Jubilee singers, The Mills Brothers, and Golden Gate Quartet.
As a genre, quartet transcended the boundaries of secular and sacred music, because of this it is considered a sub category of gospel. Some key assets of quartet include falsetto leads, blue notes, grace notes, melismas, hockets, and polyrhythms.
Although its success within the African American community is emphasized, there was a considerable amount of commodification demonstrated in the following but not limited to radio broadcasts, touring circuits, and crossover phenomena.
The quartet genre broadcasted the African American talent and from this Europeans / whites either commodified it or attempted to imitate the genre. Seeing that you cannot compare where you do not compete, I personally feel that whites made their biggest mark in commodification rather than imitation.