Like many of the first genres of African American music in the western world, the quartet was born out of European and African American aesthetics and musical values. The quartet, an ensemble of four voices or four instruments, originated in the mid-1800s out of the collegiate singing movement. Early African American sacred a cappella groups were originally known as jubilee quartets due to their repertoire and performance style. These groups were usually made up of men and possessed a unique singing style that eventually evolved as a sub-genre of gospel.

In the African-American community, the quartet consisted of a minimum of four voices but could consist up to six voices singing four-part harmony arrangements acapella or with limited instrumentation. In this community, the quartet size is not limited as in the European tradition but by the number of harmony parts.

Traditionally, quartet singing started in the Black church, carrying over into other Black genres, including Jazz and Soul music. Today, quartet singing continues to have a strong pulse within African American music and continues to provide the basic framework for Black musical religious ensembles today.

When studying the context of African-American quartets, this performance genre can be subdivided into three main periods:  The Jubilee Period (1880-1929) during which many quartets were formed at newly founded black colleges and universities in the South and in other communities to help raise funding and for entertainment; The Transitional Period (1930-1945) during which quartets began to include folk, spiritual, and secular folk songs, in addition to gospel, expanding their repertoire to compete in contests and appeal to various audiences including, various. cafes, theaters, nightclubs, and predominately White groups; and The Gospel Period (1946-1969) during which there was a clear separation of gospel and secular music. During the Gospel Period, quartets were backed by more instruments, including the organ, bass and electric guitars. Lead singers began to expand passages and incorporate more falsetto, vibrato, and shout vocals, and sometimes even personal testimonies to “work the audience, inducing emotions, crying and shouting from the audience. However, stylistic overlap can be found within each of these periods, as existing styles can continue as new ones are developed amid socio-cultural, economic, political, and educational climate changes. Today, the quartet is still a strong subgenre and thread in the gospel music genre. Though it has evolved, its style remains distinct from that of today’s gospel groups and choirs.

Promotional photo of the Five Blind Boys of Alabama founded in 1937.

Take 6: Behind the Scenes of Quartets

By: Whitney Holmes

Origin of Quartets

Quartets originated in the black church following the American Civil War and Emancipation . The quartet “era” is typically broken up into three sub-eras or three periods in which different types of quartets became popular in America. These sub-eras are the Jubilee period (1880-1929), the transitional period (1930-1945), and the gospel period (1946-1969). Europeans defined quartets of simply having a group of four men in a singing group; however, African Americans considered quartets to be a group of 4-6 people, typically men, that sang in 4 different parts a cappella or with very little instruments. 

Elements of Jubilee Quartets

There are several types of Jubilee Quartets that became well known in America. One of the most well known types is the University jubilee quartet. University quartets began at black higher education institutions, now HBCUS, following the Civil War. Hampton University, Atlanta University, and Fisk University were some of the schools that were known for their quartets. Quartets were often times used as a way to bring attention and money to the schools. Minstrel Jubilee quartets were another type of jubilee quartet that was developed by whites. The purpose of these quartets were to imitate, mock, and humiliate blacks. Barbershop community quartets originated in the black community during the 1880s. They included harmonization with spirituals, folk songs, and the most popular songs of the era in which they were in. These groups started off as recreational groups then became more professional as time passed by. 

Take 6

Quartets became more and more common in both black and white America. Quartets were also common for quite some time, ongoing for several decades. One quartet that developed during the 1980s was the Take 6 quartet. Take 6 is a gospel a cappella group with 6 male members that were known for integrating jazz with spiritual lyrics. Historically, quartets played a major role in the church which led to them involving into gospel groups with a twist. The group originated at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, but they later became well-known across the entire country. Take 6 has received multiple Grammy awards, Soul Train awards, and other musical awards. They have also performed for and with notable artists such as Whitney Houston, Quincy Jones, and Ray Charles. 

Commodification

At the beginning, quartets were known as performers and the only way to hear them was to be in their presence. That began to church during the second decade of the 20th century. With the innovation of technology, quartets became very commercialized. This also made the spread of musical groups faster and listening more convenient for their target audiences. Radio broadcasting significantly impacted the listening style of quartet audiences. Quartet groups began to record their songs, and radio stations played them typically on Sunday mornings. The Southernairies, were the first African American quartet to be broadcasted on radio. The combination of quartet broadcasting becoming more popular in America and the spiritual lyrics within quartet music, eventually lead to the crossover to gospel radio. Quartets began in the black church, and often times incorporated spiritual lyrics within the music so it became a key influence on what became gospel music.

What do I think?

Quartets have clearly played a significant role in African American history and music history in general. Not only did they provide great entertainment for the people of that era, but they influenced many of the modern genres of musical styles we have today. Today, traditional quartets are not very common amongst mainstream America; however, I believe that many R&B boy bands and groups got some of their styles from quartets. There are several R&B groups such as New Edition and Cameo that have the quartet appearance such as wearing suits and having 4-6 men in the group, but the groups typically do not have 4 different harmonizing parts. The idea of harmonization and having several parts however is very common in the Gospel genre. 

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