Quartets making moves with African Americans grooves

In the first half of the 20th century, Jubilee quartets were a prominent genre of religious music performed by African Americans. Black university choirs formed in the 1870s to collect money for the fledgling and financially precarious Black universities gave rise to the jubilee quartet. Later, as the costs of some travelling choirs started to outpace the money raised, they took their place. The first jubilee quartet was the Fisk Jubilee Quartet from Fisk University, who sang a cappella renditions of spirituals while touring and independently recording. Jubilee has several connotations, including release from suffering (death and entrance into heaven) and freedom from servitude. Later, the term “Jubilee” was used to characterize a certain upbeat spiritual performance style. Early in the 1900s, former members of the Tuskegee Institute Singers, Hampton Institute Singers, Utica Institute Singers, and the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, among others, started organizing comparable ensembles in their areas. Others were structured by people who learned on their own from recordings. Numerous businesses and labor unions supported quartet ensembles.

Throughout the Great Migration, the custom was spread to the North. Jubilee quartets, which played for religious occasions, picnics, celebrations, dances, and other community events, rose to prominence in African American social life. They became so well-liked that primary and secondary schools now teach group harmony as part of their curricula. A cappella jubilee quartets’ sounds were transmitted live on the radio in 15- to 30-minute chunks. Live performances and recordings generated national tours in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and some ensembles started to diversify their catalogs by singing gospel music by Thomas A. Dorsey, Lucie Campbell, and William Herbert Brewster.

The jubilee quartets’ spiritual arrangements are based on three different musical genres: the jubilee choirs harmonized Western-influenced singing, the close harmony African American barbershop tradition, and the call-and-response folk spiritual work song traditions. During jubilee quartet concerts, a soloist begins a text passage, and the group joins together to finish it. A well-balanced voice blend is prioritized in the highly syncopated performing style. Falsetto voice and switching leads are both prevalent.

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