A cappella vocal groups are also called jubilee quartets because of the characteristics of performance style. They often consisted of men; they had a developed, unique style of singing. They are a sub-genre of gospel music. They are a synthesis of African American and Western practices. Western quartets usually consisted of four members or four voices accompanied by instruments. African American quartets were described as vocal ensembles that consisted of four to six voices singing a four part harmony in a cappella or with limited instrument accompaniment. These quartets resemble the Black church and current Black religious ensembles.
The quartet era was subdivided into the jubilee period (1880-1929), the transitional period (1930-1945), and the gospel period (1946-1969).
The 19th century jubilee period included sacred and secular narrative texts. Quartets sung in moderate and fast tempos. University singing emerged after the American Civil War. Jubilee quartets could include four to six male or female members. They were a cappella ensembles that performed formal arrangements of spiritual and jubilee songs in a four part harmony. Spiritual arrangements were developed from Western influence of jubilee choirs, African American barbershop quartets, and African American call-response and work songs.
Early Black quartets were represented by the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, the Heavenly Gospel Singers, and the Birmingham Jubilee Quartet.
Early recreational quartets included performers like Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and W.C. Handy. Sacred and secular barbershops quartets included the Mills Brothers, the New Orleans Humming Four, the Southern Stars, and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet.
In the transitional period, Black people migrated from the South to the North. University jubilee quartets transformed to gospel performance style by altering characteristics like vocal and harmony limitations and increased bass and solos. Gospel quartets were male and female ensembles of four to six voices with close harmonies and melismatic lead singers, and instruments like guitar, drums, and bass. Switch/swing/double lead was an alternation of verses or phrases in a song with two lead singers. Fifth lead was described as a baritone singer that can sing as a falsetto lead. The role of the bass singer became more prominent with walking/pumping bass.
In the gospel period, jubilee quartets were known as gospel quartets. They began to incorporate more practices of the gospel genre like vibrato, falsetto, and shouting vocals, and instruments like acoustic guitar, drums, electric bass, and piano/organ.