Quartets: Jubilee to Gospel

The African American quartet tradition originated in the mid 1800’s. The quartet stems from the negro spiritual, containing “distinctive elements and sonic qualities that express cultural values and aesthetics of the African American community”. The quartet is not defined by the size of the group, but rather by the number of harmony parts. In African American history, a quartet is defined as an ensemble of 4-6 people singing a four-part harmony in an acapella style or with limited use of instruments. The 4 parts of the harmony are bass, baritone, first tenor, and second tenor.

Historically, the quartet genre can be divided in 3 periods: the jubilee period, the transitional period, and the gospel period.

During the Jubilee period (1880-1929), many types of quartets emerged:

  • University jubilee quartets were founded out of African American universities such as Fisk University in Tennessee, Hampton Institute in Virginia, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Morehouse College in Georgia, and many more.
  • Minstrel jubilee quartets were formed as a response to the white developed minstrel shows, where whites would reflect their racial imagination of the time period and black were restricted from performing.
  • Community- Based jubilee quartets were founded in the community. They performed at church services, community functions, festivals, and road shows. Rather than the lyrical style of the university quartets, they concentrated on a percussive and rhythmic style. They incorporated the use of expressive vocal devices such as blue notes, grace notes, and melismas.
  • Shape-note quartets concentrated on shape-note singing. The African- American community adapted shape-note singing from the songs of the great Awakening that utilized the four-shape notation, in which each shape represent a specific pitch.
  • Barbershop community quartets were established in neighborhood barbershops. Many well-known quartets started in barbershops such as the Mills Brothers, The New Orleans Humming Four, and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet.

During the Transitional Period (1930-45), quartets started mobbing away from the spiritual music they were singing before. Instruments were beginning to be introduced into the quartets and quartets began to expand to five members instead of the usual four member that had prior. Song Battles became popular during this period. In these battles, quartets would battle to win admiration, trophies, and in some cases radio broadcasts.

During the gospel period (1946-69), quartets started incorporating more performance practices characteristic to the gospel genre.  During this period, the lead singers performed “extended solo passages, incorporating vibrato, falsetto, shouting vocals, and timbre changes”. The use of quartet trainers were also implemented to coach the quartet and step in as a replacement when needed.

The African American quartet developed such a unique style of singing that evolved as a sub-genre of gospel music. The sound created by quartets inspired many of the popular styles of music and genres we have today such as Beatboxing, Jazz and Blues.

Social Implications:

Quartets provided a way for black people to become successful and gain popularity in ways they didn’t have an opportunity to before. Quartets were also used politically as propaganda.


The popularity of the radio created revenue along with commercial recordings, and touring. These things allowed for quartet singers to exposed to an audience beyond local communities.

Important Performers Include:

  • Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet

  • The Mills Brothers

  • Dinwiddie Colored Quartet

Jubilee quartets are an important part of the history of African- American music. The quartets set the tone for music groups to come. The music is enjoyable and while listening, I can see how the quartets could’ve influenced boy groups such as The Temptations, The Five Heartbeats, New Edition, ect.

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