The House of Prayer (THE original i-HoP) has always been about living large – a help and self-help positive force since the twenties. The Church was founded by Sweet Daddy Grace (Bishop Charles Manuel Grace, born Marcelino Manoel da Graca in Cape Verde) in the early 1920s in New Bedford, Mass. Sweet Daddy was raised Catholic, became a Methodist, then a Nazarene who eventually created his own variation on Pentecostal Christianity, officially titled, “United House of Prayer for All People, the Church on the Rock of the Apostolic Faith”. Sweet Daddy was an original charismatic spiritual leader, who sported custom made purple suits, shoulder length wavy hair, wide brimmed hats, 8” long curling fingernails (to show he did not need to do manual labor) and a military uniformed entourage of body guards and church workers. At one time he rivaled Father Divine for the hearts and minds of Harlem’s faithful, regularly drawing 20,000 to hear him preach. He also created controversy through a line of commercial ‘products’ that were guaranteed to have healing powers and prosecuted for letting Black and White parishioners worship together in a segregated America.
The HoP experienced tremendous growth during the depression, with Daddy Grace offering free food, jobs, housing – physical as well as spiritual comfort. Then as now, every church (currently 110) has a cafeteria attached where a low cost (or free) meal can be had by all. By the 1940s the sect was at it’s peak and the New York church the flagship location, called “Sweet Honey, Heaven Harlem” by the faithful.
One of the things you notice in Heaven Harlem is the central portrait of Sweet Daddy, the only Jesus image a headshot off to the extreme right. No bloody carcass or towering rugged cross, the focus here is on a white overstuffed office chair (with casters, covered in plastic) waiting for sweet Daddy’s return. Evoked in sermons as the herald (possible Messiah?) of the second coming, in his own lifetime (d: 1960) Sweet Daddy sought to eclipse Christian orthodoxy with lines like, “If you sin against God, Grace can forgive you, but if you sin against Grace, God cannot save you.”
What the HoP does share with every and all religion of Middle Eastern origin is a strong belief in the Holy Spirit. Only here, so palpable that the congregation is expected to become infused, to surrender the self, during a service. In the Harlem Church the only image on the floor to ceiling stained glass window is a dove – the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit – symbolizing knowledge of God, the freed soul and the breath of life. Here the spirit, “spiritus” or “breath” is manifest in the words of the preacher, the shouts of the congregation, sanctified song, holy babbling, and at tonight’s event, the air expelled from the bell of the trombone. As the Spirit enters the body and takes over, the host often speaks in tongues, flails about, faints or unknowingly performs a trance-like dance. This unstructured and uncontrollable body-rocking is called, “dancing with the Spirit.” For this reason all early HoP churches had padded walls! Nowadays a series of handlers take note of the possessed, following them around to catch them if they fall.
From the very beginning Sweet Daddy wanted the music at services to match his flamboyant style and powerful message. He took his cue from Psalm 150 : “Praise ye the Lord. Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet. Praise Him with psaltery and harp. Praise Him with timbrel and dance. Praise Him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise ye the Lord”. This was interpreted as license to use any and every instrument. His “Daddy Grace Bands” took on the jazzy brash character of the hot dance bands of the late 20s, featuring a variety of horns, drum kits, tambourines and washboards.
“Shouting” is an African-American Protestant practice rooted in West African praise singing and the unique end-of-the-year ‘ring shouts’ that evolved on America’s rural Eastern Seaboard, in South Carolina’s Low Country and the Georgia Sea Islands. Here the participants were both source and sounding board for prayer, song, expostulation and spinning dance in the service of ecstatic praise. As such practices entered formalized Black Christian worship, the looseness and spontaneity was in marked contrast to European tradition. Expostulation and encouragement to ‘catch the spirit’ come from preacher, singers and musicians all.
Perhaps because the brass did such a good job of raising the moment to fever pitch the sound became known as “Shout Gospel.” We do know that the late George Williams of the Newport News HoP was recognized as an early trombone virtuoso and attracted large crowds. Obscure now, the trombone was the leading instrument in Medieval Christian churches preceded the organ. Its popularity stemmed from the ability to wordlessly mimic the human voice in its emotive range, only louder. James Weldon Johnson, a writer of the “Harlem Renaissance, titled his 1927 collection of sermons as poetry, God’s Trombones, linking the booming tones of an inspired preacher with the fleshy trombone. By the 1960s the “Shout Gospel” bands were dominated by trombones, and three great leaders emerged; George Holland and the Happyland Band (Newport News, Virginia), Norvus Miller and the Kings of Harmony (Washington DC) and Edward Babb and the McCollough Sons of Thunder (Harlem, New York City). Known as “The Three Stars of the Kingdom”, under their leadership the bands grew quite large, with as many as 20 horns. While the bands still prosper, only Edward Babb survives into the 21st century.
Elder “Trip” Babb led the McCollough Sons of Thunder at the concert we saw. Babb is an accomplished musician central to preserving a unique form, justly awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 1997. A retired insurance salesman in his late 50s, Babb first entered the ‘junior’ band in 1957 when he was just 13. Then they were known as the “Heaven Band.” In ’62 the name was changed in honor of their late Bishop, Daddy McCollough, Sweet Daddy Grace’s successor. A “Son of Thunder”, (also mentioned by Johnson), refers to a fiery African-American circuit preacher. Their nickname is the “Thunderbirds”, implying soaring spirits, sonic booms and fighter planes in the service of the Lord. “Thundering” also describes the overwhelming, repetitious, unison drone a shout band aspires to towards the end of a composition, a peak that triggers release and communion, termed, “one accord”. Babb describes the sound; “It’s like fire shut up in the bones!”
I find this internal-external by-play – the abandoned inhabited self seeking communion with fellow parishioners, reconciling this feeling of well being while releasing an emotional wellspring – the source of my interest in ecstatic practice and religious musical worship. Approaching the music made by the Sons of Thunder as performance, while satisfying, leads to misplaced aesthetic criticism. Thoughts of “they could do this and make that better,” or “I wish they would play longer” or “they had us, why did they stop?” pop up. Here the playing is a form of worship, only meant to create a sonic environment conducive to the infusion of spirit. The chances of two songs in a row are slim. If the playing is sincere, the musicians are easily spent.
Saturday’s event was a service much like what I had seen before at the HoP on a typically Saturday or Sunday. Certainly the focus was on the longevity and importance of the band, but tonight the vocal outbursts, speaking in tongues, inspired dancers, preaching and money collecting occurred as always. Nothing was changed to make the outsiders (us) feel more comfortable. There was no show.
But I digress. Since he was 18 Babb has remained both bandleader and out-front trombonist. As orchestrator and composer he, more in the tradition of Sufi than Protestant, fasts and prays for inspiration, admitting that many of the melodies come to him during meditation or unconscious humming. Recognizable Gospel tunes and hymns are little more than the underpinning for the extended improvisatory vamping called ‘turns’ and climactic ‘thundering.’
The musical part of the evening began with a shuffle procession into the church by the tuxedo clad Sons of Thunder. Arranged in a row along the front of the church, the oldest members seemingly held together by their cummerbunds. Eight original members are still a part of the band after all these years and it was rare to see the entire 19 strong ensemble in attendance. The first piece, like most in the canon, begins with a slow introductory theme or melody, played primarily by a solo trombone with minimal accompaniment. Tonight the only trumpet also had a solo. Gradually a four square beat is established by bass drum, snare, cymbal and sousaphone (tuba). While musicologists often describe the backbeat as “booming,” it sounds more like a strip band at it’s best, a la Sam Butera and (appropriately enough) The Witnesses.
As in Islamic religious musical traditions, as in most Shout Gospel, the tempo gradually increased as the composition progressed, the effect intended to aid worshipers in receiving the spirit. As any hint of melody faded, Babb’s trombone took on the role of lead voice, offering short, powerful bursts over blocks of sound created by the chorus of alto and tenor ‘voices.” Babb would spin and cue the band to take it down a notch, to begin the slowly accelerating series of chord progressions that would increase in volume, then begin again with his next spin. Eventually the piece moved into the unison blare of “thundering.” They stopped, we decompressed.
The evening moved ahead with long pauses, starts, stops, testimonials, awards, choirs, people wandering about and a few female vocalists. Three other bands were in attendance, to both honor the Thunderbirds and learn from them. While the assembly was asked to refrain from photographing and recording, the other bands kept their recorders on whenever the Sons played. Younger bands are called “copy bands,” in deference to the “Three Stars,” referring to their following in the footsteps of the originals rather than any lack of innovative abilities. The best, from Augusta, GA, nearly outshone the “Stars” with a song of such drive and power, that their youthful offering could only be described as the “headbanging version.”
The highlight of the evening came at around 1:30 am when the McCollough Sons of Thunder were joined by 10 or so former member who were here tonight to be honored along with current bandmembers. Borrowing instruments from the other bands there were now three large bell sousaphones and at least 6 more trombones in the mix. A very big, very rare grouping. Again they formed a wall facing the congregation. As the playing moved towards its inevitably, rolling, ‘thundering’ conclusion, Babb caught the spirit. He moved from outfront lead player, occasional exhortation and trademark running in place to full cheerleader role. He seemed amazed that more people could not let go. Handing one person his horn and a small boy his glasses, Babb moving up and down the aisle, dancing, calling out praise, clearly lost in the moment. One of his sons took over the role of lead trombone. Soon he and Babb were trading riffs, the chorus of instruments behind them loose enough to keep it interesting, tight enough to keep it moving. This is not the Birth of Cool, musical theory was years and miles away from Harlem tonight. Nor did it recall the other, more familiar brass sound of a New Orleans band, who’s funkiness in its regularity, in its loping pace, keeps you firmly earthbound. Eventually the piece moved to the cacophonous “thundering,” – intense, deafening, with tumbling chunks of humid, sound-saturated air bouncing off you in waves.
Collapse, hot, moist, lottery drawing, a nice acknowledgement from Babb thanking Mr. George’s group from the pulpit for coming (he said I ‘almost got the spirit”) and goodnight. My only regret that we didn’t join everyone in the cafeteria for a communal meal.
B sez: Harlem visit details :DATED info so please re-check b-4 U go!
Trombone Church: United House of Prayer for All People
2320 Eighth Ave.(Frederick Douglas Blvd) @ 125th 212-864-8795
CALL and make sure Babb is playing, and ask WHEN!!!!
But even if he isn’t THIS is a small sincere un-touristy glimps into a living church.
Great Refugee Temple.
One block east of 8th Ave, south of 125th
Frederico went 7/30/2000 and saw an all male choir. Henry and I went and saw mixed male and female choir.
This is a big time / big production / big hat place. Most white people are Eurotrash.
We like Copeland’s – see walking tour/list below CLOSED
Book : God’s Trombones
James Weldon Johnson, God’s Trombones, 1927. This is hard to find, hardcover.
Also avail: Penguin USA (Paper); ISBN: 0140184031, 1990
Record: Saints’ Paradise, Smithsonian Folkways, SFWCD 40117, CD, 1999.
Remember : dress nice, gals wear hats. Take a fan if going in summer.
From B’s Harlem DB: walkin’ tour
2294 1/2 Adam Clayton Powell Jr, Blvd. “The Hottest Spot in Harlem”. Southwest corner of West 135 Street. Ground floor, 1920s and 30s, one of Harlem’s largest dance clubs. 1500 at the grand opening in 1925. Integrated. Orchestra led by pianist Charlie Johnson. In 60 Wilt Chamberlain tried to save it, called “Big Wilt’s Small’s Paradise.”
Florence Mills House
220 West 135 St Mills (1896 -1927) lived here 1910 til death. Most famous performer of the Harlem Renaissance, a singer and dancer who appeared in Eubie Blake’s “Shuffle Along”, the first Black review to play on Broadway. Made white people want to visit Harlem to hear more, hear the real thing. She was also a hit in London. Died at 31, 150,000 attending her funeral.
Renaissance Theater and Renaissance Ballroom and Casino
2341-2359 Adam Claytom Powell Jr. Blvd Bet West 137 & 138. Major venue from the 1920s to the 50s, hosting dances, cabaret acts, jazz combos, big bands and the first professional black basketball team, the Rens. Major bands who set up residence here, Vernon Andrade, Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, Edgar Hays and Al Sears.
- C. Handy House
232 West 139 Street Handy (1873-1958) called the “Father of the Blues.” Began as coronet player with traveling minstrel shows, then collector of folk music (notating oral traditions) and composer of rags and blues. Lived here 1919-1922.
Black Swan Record Company
257 West 138 St Home of Harry Pace between 1919 – 1925, who founded BS in 1921in the basement. Began with 12 records a month, they recorded black artists and music when few others did. They were successful and others stole their acts and they vanished.
Eubie Blake House
236 West 138 St Pianist and songwriter (1883-1983) lived here 1921-1945. Wrote songs w/ partner Noble Sissle in the 20s & 30s. They began as vaudvillians as “The Dixie Due” In 1921 composed their first musical, Shuffle Along. Probably best known song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”
Mary Lou Williams Apartment
63 Hamilton Terrace . Pianist, composer & arranger Williams (1910-1981) moved here in 1936 from Kansas City where she worked w/ Andy Kirk’s (beg 1928) Clouds of Joy when they all moved here. Best known work, Zodiac Suite.
Paul Robeson House
16 Jumel Terrace Robeson (1898-1976) moved here in the 1950s on and off until 1967.
206-210 West 118 St Ground floor of the Cecil Hotel, jazz club home of the bebop movement in the 1940s.
Duke Ellington Apartment
935 St. Nicholas Ave., 4 A Ellington (1899-1974) lived here bet. 1939 – 1961. Took over house band at Cotton Club 1923 where he worked for 12 years.