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Chicago Gospel Festival brings glorious sounds to Bronzeville

The Rev. Tyrone R. Jordan Pilgrim Baptist Church talks about Chicago Gospel Music Fest which will be held Bronzeville neighborhood

The Rev. Tyrone R. Jordan of the Pilgrim Baptist Church talks about the Chicago Gospel Music Fest, which will be held in the Bronzeville neighborhood for the first time in the event's history. | John H. White~Sun-Times Media

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♦ June 22
♦ Chicago Cultural Center,
78 E. Washington

♦ June 23-24

♦ Ellis Park, 37th and Cottage Grove

♦ Visit

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Updated: June 21, 2012 9:26PM

The 27th Chicago Gospel Music Festival will rock in the cradle of American gospel music.

For the first in the event’s history, festival headliners leave downtown for a weekend of free music at Ellis Park, 37th and Cottage Grove. The music will be in the shadow of Pilgrim Baptist Church at 33rd and State Street. The historic church is the home base of Thomas A. Dorsey, the “Father of Gospel Music.” He died in January 1993 at the age of 93. In his lifetime, Dorsey wrote more than 3,000 blues and gospel songs including “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” (1932), recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley to Mavis Staples.

This is like a roots rock festival being held near Sun Records in Memphis, or a traditional country festival in Bristol, Tenn.

This is sourcing your soul.

Dorsey mentored the great Mahalia Jackson, the Barrett Sisters and James Cleveland at Pilgrim Baptist. Albertina Walker sang at Pilgrim Baptist as well as at West Point Missionary Baptist Church, adjacent to Ellis Park.

In January, 2006 Pilgrim Baptist was consumed by fire. It is being rebuilt, although there is no timetable for when the church will re-open. “We’re receiving bids,” Pilgrim Baptist pastor Tyrone R. Jordan said last week during an interview at the auxiliary 600-seat space across the street at 3301 S. Indiana. “We believe the church is where the people are, not the building,” he says. “But we are on our way.”

Find time to break away from the festival and check out the site. The hallway to the 3301 S. Indiana second floor features a Hall of Fame photo gallery.

Festival headliners include Fred Hammond (6:30 p.m. June 23 on the Ellis Park main stage), the Blind Boys of Alabama (5:45 p.m. June 24 on the main stage) and reality TV stars Mary Mary (6:45 p.m. June 24 on the main stage). Look for Mary Mary to cover material from their latest “Go Get It” CD, including “God Bless,” flavored with theJackson 5’s “I Want You Back” guitar riff.

The June 22 segment of the festival takes place in Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall, 77 E. Randolph. It runs between noon and 2:30 p.m. and features Chicago baritone Martin Woods at 1:30 p.m. in the Randolph Street Cafe, followed by the Silent Mime Workshop at 2 p.m. in the cafe. The gospel film “Say Amen, Somebody” will be screened for free at 5:30 p.m. June 22 in the Claudia Cassidy Theatre at the Cultural Center that will include a discussion with director George T. Nierenberg. The festival runs until 8 p.m. June 23 and 24 in Ellis Park. Seating will be on the lawn and picnic benches, although people are encouraged to bring lawn chairs. Festival organizers expect between 5,000 and 10,000 people daily atthe park.

Is it safe?

“Safety is a concern around the whole city, not just the South Side,” answered Ivy Hall, Gospel Music Festival Program Manager. “We’ve been working with the alderman’s office and the police. We have designated spots for extra police officers to be with two to three teams of officers spread throughout the park.

“Gospel music was born in Bronzeville. The mayor and the commissioner are dedicated into bringing more cultural programming into our neighborhoods. We thought this was a perfect tie-in with the 80th anniversary of Thomas Dorsey coining ‘gospel’ music.”

So don’t miss the 80-voice Pilgrim Baptist Church choir, which will lead a Dorsey tribute at 3:30 p.m. June 24 on the Day Stage. The group will cover “Precious Lord” as well as Dorsey’s “I’ve Got Shoes.”

Pilgrim Baptist was built in 1890 as a synagogue. It was designed by renowned Chicago architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler.

Jordan, 50, has ministered at Pilgrim Baptist for two years. When he took over Pilgrim Baptist the congregation was down to 75 people. Today it is at 300.

“Kids like activity,” Pastor Jordan said during a recent conversation at the church. “We did ‘Precious Lord’ in rehearsal with a beat and the kids loved it. The way it was traditionally done in 3/4 time was attractive for that era, kind of like swing. Now we have a stronger, solid beat. Singing is just one thing. We’re trying to bring in younger people in several ways. We brought in Cornell Friar (organist, director) and Arnold Seviar (composer-pianist). In September we’re going to start the Thomas A. Dorsey Workshop piano class. These guys have come aboard for free to share with young people.”

Prior to attending Pilgrim Baptist Church, Pastor Jordan was a Minister of Music at Shiloh Baptist Church. His daughter Courtney Jordan, 15, is an alto in the Pilgrim choir, as is Sydney Armstead, 16. They know the storyline behind “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Dorsey wrote the song after his first wife died in childbirth. His infant son died a day later. Armstead and Jordan applied the message to a Pillgrim Baptist two-year-old who recently died. Courtney Jordan added, “But we also like (the hip-hop influenced) Mary Mary. The beat is the same (as in gospel)”

Never underestimate the ability to connect the dots in gospel music.

Chicago public high school teacher Lena McLin’s uncle was Thomas A. Dorsey. And McLin’s prize music student was R. Kelly.

Mamie Grady has been attending Pilgrim Baptist since she was three weeks old. Her father, a railroad worker, delivered her into the church in 1945.

“You would have to get to church early to find a seat,” she said during a conversation inone of the church’s pews. “People would be sitting on chairs in the aisles and the kids would sit on the floor of the balcony. The church had three choirs. People came from all over.”

And they will again.

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