Gospel Jubilee to Bring A Bit of Heaven Here on Earth at Proctors
“If someone were to say to me, ‘What do you want people to take from The Gospel Jubilee the night of the 23rd,’ I want them to experience gospel music whether they’re a believer or not,” says Sara Hill, founder, and producer on the 10th annual celebration of joy. “I’m hoping this concert will help them delve a little deeper into the music and to the legacy of these people we’ve honored because it’s important.”
Some people have jokingly said the only difference between gospel and blues is that in gospel “he” is spelled with a capital H. There is in fact more truth than fiction in that statement. And the Gospel Jubilee is an extraordinary proof of that connection. Obviously, as a roots music journalist, I’m not frequenting African American churches every Sunday, but coming to this event for me is like an invitation to heaven: a chance to look up as you’re getting down.
To say that this event is a “roof raiser” is hardly hyperbole. Literally, hundreds of voices representing the cream of the Capital Region’s gospel church choirs and special guests is inspirational by virtue of its breadth alone. Never mind that the presentation is exquisite by any standard. If you want to experience the genesis of American music at a fundamental level, the primary root of roots music, come to this event. It will take your breath away. And Sara Hill is the mojo maker behind this annual Proctor’s Theatre showcase.
“I was fortunate. I grew up as a foster child, and I had two wonderful parents that raised me that really deeply rooted me in who I am today,” Sara explains. “Going back to my journey, it was really about the way I was raised, the values I was given by my foster parents who were both African American and just took care of me ever since I was two years old to the time, I lost my dad. I was 13, and I lost my mom when I was 19. After my mother and father passed away, Sara Hill was actually on her own.”
How many times have I heard a variation on that theme from blues artists whose catharsis is played out on stages from the chitlin circuit to world concert halls? But Sara’s story took a different turn.
“When I lost my mom, I was a student at Fisk University in Tennessee. I never made it home. She was in a coma as I was traveling back to Albany, so over the years even at my age now, if I had one regret that would be it. But she raised me with the priority to always excel. She raised me to know what I had to do. And I knew it would be a disservice to her memory and her spirit if I just decided to go buck wild.
“That wasn’t me, but what I’m saying in my childhood growing up with her, and I just thank God for the grounding because that priority for me when I came out of Fisk was to do what I had to do: take care of her business and her family. Everybody was so good to me, and my oldest sister and I took care of what we had to do, and from that point, I just had that drive in me.”
Sara went on to graduate from the prestigious Tisch School of The Arts at New York University and spent 20 years in The City working in the arts rubbing shoulders with wonderful people like Bettye LaVette and Phoebe Snow.
“During that time, I was able to network and really be a part of the theater and arts and entertainment scene in many different ways from producing to working with showcases. I started my own company showcasing talent, I’ve always been drawn to music, always been drawn to the stage wanting to do projects that no one else was doing. There was a niche for me.”
It was Proctor’s Theater head Phillip Morris who lured her back to the Capital Region. “I had lunch with Phillip when I first came back from New York City, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I feel like in that conversation he saw something that was relevant to his team. Downtown Schenectady had just come alive when I came back in 2006, and it was really booming. It was starting to generate this energy, and Phillip had this energy. I just knew when we talked to each other that we had a common spirit.
“It was just bringing Proctors and the marketing and programming team to heights. He had this dream, and I think he knew I had this passion, especially coming from my experience in New York City and having an opportunity to work at the Public Theater and Joe’s Pub. I don’t even think the resume mattered to him. I think it was what he heard from me and what he felt I could bring to the team.
“I never thought I was coming back to upstate New York. When I lived in The City that as the last thought I had in my mind that I would ever relocate, have a career, let alone a leading gospel concert or part of the gospel music scene. Never thought about it.
It was Sara’s sister who sealed the deal. “My sister set me down one day and said, ‘You know you have done so much. We need you to do it in New York upstate. You need to come home. That’s where God is sending you, Sara. You need to think about it. Whether it’s The Egg or Phillip Morris or whomever, you can do the same thing you did in The City and bring it home full circle.’
“I’m very thankful to be a vessel to be able to have this concert. This concert, long story short, began with one concert in the small GE Theatre at Proctors. Phillip came to me one day in the marketing room when I was working over there, and he said to me, ‘You know, you should do a gospel concert. You should do it.’ And the only reason he said that was because Crowns the musical was playing at Capital Rep. For opening night, they wanted something to happen in the lobby that drew people in and really represented the black community, black gospel, and I put together a gospel choir. I think it was from the Church of God of Prophecy off Madison Ave. came, and I knew the young lady and her mom. They were great singers, and they brought a tambourine.
“Gospel Jubilee for me was really in my soul. I feel like coming out of New York City and coming out of the public theater and working down there for seven years at that venue, by the time I came to Phillip Morris, it was a given. When I came, Philip put me in marketing because he was like, ‘I want to put you in programming. I want to put you in marketing. We need that. So, let’s give it a couple of years. Let’s see how we do in marketing, and you’ll always be able to do programming.’
“It (the gospel event at the Cap Rep Theater) was simple, and it was a thing in the lobby, just getting down in the lobby and the cast of the musical came out and was standing there watching it, and they were like ‘Yeah!’ “I still have it on video somewhere. Phillip loves it, and honestly, I don’t think Phillip at the program knew how to touch gospel programming. It was always a challenge, and to me, it was like a no-brainer.”
Soul singing legend Al Green’s church is a righthand turn coming out of Memphis off Elvis Presley Boulevard. Watching him preach and seeing a woman speak in tongues as she danced in ecstasy brought home to me the crucial connection between the church and American roots music. The Gospel Jubilee strengthens that connection. It’s the secret sauce that made Howlin’ Wolf more electric sitting in a chair than Mick Jagger is dancing and prancing. It’s the edge, and if you haven’t experienced it, you don’t really get what blues and rock and roll is about.
“Thank God for music,” says Sara. “You know gospel music digs deeper than any other music that I feel. I’m a heavy classic rock fan. Don’t get me wrong now. There’s a lot more to my story, but I grew up listening to everything from rock to blues to spirituals to the gospel. My foster parents Lillian and Elijah Cook were very big music lovers. We grew up listening to Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers and Mahalia Jackson, and everything from that to Joe Tex, B. B. King to Aretha Franklin to you name it. We had a record player.
“My mother was old school, standalone 78s we were playing back in the day. I just remember her cleaning the house and music playing, and it was like a big deal. Oh, she liked to move. You gotta remember they came from the old school, so they played cards, and they played Pokeno, and they played spades, and they had people around the table and kids not allowed in the room. They had their beer and whatever they were drinking, whiskey. My father liked to drink wine and beer. Although they were members of the Wilborn Temple First Church of God in Christ, they weren’t strict Bible Belt people. You know what I’m saying?
“You’re talking about the blues now. Alberta Hunter – when I think about the blues, I think about those legends like even Tommy Dorsey. He was a Baptist minister. You look at Alberta Hunter and the history of spirituals and all of that. The blues is the religion. The blues and gospel and the spirituals, it’s all connected.
“There will be people at that concert on the 23rd in that audience that has known me since I was two years old. After our generation, there will be no story about what we know of. Do you understand what I’m saying? And the reason I’m focusing on paying homage to Antonia Brown and Regina Parsons is that I just want you to hear this because both of these women, both of them – not only do they share a musical gift, Don, and were singing and directing music in the church at a young age there were phenomenal women, foot soldiers, trailblazers. These were women who had the same history that Artis Kitchen and Pee Wee Harris have, the cloth of this Capital Region that we’ll never, ever, ever, see again.
“When you sing the blues, you’re singing out of your heart and your feelings the same way you’re singing out gospel to me, the connection of the black church to the spirituals and gospel music, blues and even rock and roll and soul music. It all stems from the same thing. It’s all history of music, and it’s amazing how it all – now I look at things Kanye West just had a documentary out on Netflix. I was watching it the other day, and his credits were rolling, and there was a song back in 1971 by Pastor Barnett and it’s a gospel song with a church choir, right?
And it’s powerful, just a powerful song. “Ship Without A Sail” is the song, and it’s a classic. If you listen to the words of that song and the meaning of the song, it makes perfect sense to have this in his credits, and it’s coming back full circle.
“Gospel Jubilee took off. Now I’m at the state, and when I left Phillip, he said to me, ‘There’s no one that can do this except you. So, individually we’d like you on board as an arts presenter and keep Gospel Jubilee under your belt because nobody can do Gospel Jubilee like you.’ And I turned to Phillip, and I mean this. I’ve said it over and over again that what I want to see happen from Gospel Jubilee is that Proctors will commit themselves to programming gospel music so that one day when I’m not even here that it will take off, and there will always be a Gospel Jubilee no matter what we call it because I can’t be the end-all and be all.
The Gospel Jubilee takes place at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 23rd on the main stage at Proctors Theatre at 432 State Street, Schenectady. Tickets are $25 available by calling 518-346-6204, https://www.proctors.org/event/gospel-jubilee.
The Jubilee Choir and Jubilee Band are under the direction of Reverend Dr. Elgin Joseph Taylor. Sr., pastor of Sweet Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. It will be comprised of singers and musicians from various churches in the Capital Region.
Special musical guest, gospel artist, Lorraine Stancil-Lawson has recorded and performed with gospel greats such as Kurt Carr and The Kurt Carr Singers, Hezekiah Walker, Donnie McClurkin, Walter Hawkins, Le’Andria Johnson, Karen Clark-Sheard, Kirk Franklin and Tamela Mann.
Special recognition will be given to community leaders and past trailblazers like Dr. Georgetta Dix, Rev. Dr. Minnie L. Burns, Annette De Lavallade, Margaret Cunningham, and Artis Kitchen, as well as Wes Holloway, and Reverend Albert J. Holman, to name a few.
There will be a special salute to the late Regina “Gina” Parsons (member of Refreshing Springs Church, Schenectady, NY daughter of the late Paster Elder Eugene W. Dix and Georgetta Dix who founded Refreshing Springs Church of God and Christ in Schenectady) and Antonia “Toni” Brown(member of Metropolitan New Testament Mission Baptist Church, Albany, NY active in theater community). Both women were the Capital District’s legendary voices and members of the Gospel Jubilee Mass Choir.