Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: The Sacred Music of the African American Diaspora

Gospel Roots: African American Churches in Los Angeles

Hear music from the choirs of Second Baptist, Grant AME, and Holman United Methodist.

The church has been a center of African American life since the earliest congregations were established in the 1700s. Its role has always extended beyond worship to include education, business, and social action. It has also often been the center of the community’s musical traditions. This legacy was brought to California by African Americans who arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from states that had strong African-American communities steeped with the musical culture of the African diaspora. They found new outlets in the music of the church; their migration transformed the spiritual, gospel music, blues, and jazz in California.

The first African American church to be established in Los Angeles was First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME) which was organized in 1872 in the home of Biddy Mason, a former slave who won her freedom after her master brought her to California. In the years that followed, more churches were founded, including Second Baptist Church (1885), Grant African Methodist Episcopal (1906), St. Paul Baptist (1907), and People's Independent Church of Christ (1910).

During the first Great Migration the number of churches swelled dramatically as émigrés sought out community and cultural centers in their new home. By 1920 there were over 30 African American churches in Los Angeles. These churches had choirs often led by highly educated musicians who had moved to the area seeking something new. The musicians of these churches, once separated by geography and limited in their exposure to each other, were now able to collaborate, building a flourishing music community and discovering new paths in sacred music. Their churches became concert halls, hosting both local performances and touring ensembles from across the country.

The Azusa Street Revival, hosted by Pastor William Seymour in 1906, was a musical turning point. Many found the music of the traditional church too sedate for revivals and camp meetings, and created new music to match the passion they felt. New genres of African American sacred music were born, most notably “the Holy Blues,” which combined sacred lyrics with secular musical style and was one of the precursors to the gospel movement in Los Angeles.

Gospel music was born out of a unique confluence of African American religion, politics, and culture in the 1930s. The holy blues evolved into gospel through the work of composer Thomas A. Dorsey and rapidly spread across the country, driven by the Second Great Migration. As the population and the demand for gospel music in California grew, the music took on new forms. In cities like Chicago, the expression of gospel focused on soloists, duets, and small groups like the Sallie Martin Singers or Roberta Martin Singers. Los Angeles gospel was rooted in the choir and its conductors and composer-arrangers. Los Angeles churches such as St. Paul Baptist Church, Mount Moriah Baptist Church, Grant AME Church, and Victory Baptist Church attracted and supported many up-and-coming musicians who migrated to Los Angeles, introduced gospel music, and sought to cultivate the talents of local artists.

One such innovator was Reverend James Cleveland. Cleveland moved to Los Angeles from Chicago in 1962. Like other artists before him, Cleveland found that Los Angeles was the perfect place to experiment. He fused gospel with soul, jazz, and pop and developed what is known as “the big choir sound” for mass choirs, including his own Southern California Community Choir. In 1968, Cleveland launched the Gospel Music Workshop of America to teach contemporary gospel, nurture the artistry of gospel musicians, and preserve the music’s legacy. In 1972, he brought Aretha Franklin to the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in South L.A. to record the live album “Amazing Grace,” a Grammy winner that captured the voices and experience of South Central coming together to create a new gospel sound.

Inevitably, as the popularity of African American sacred music grew, Hollywood came to call. In 1936, Jester Hairston came to Los Angeles with the Hall Johnson Choir to perform in the movie “Green Pastures,” and decided to make L.A. his home. His prolific work, both in Hollywood and the church. had a major impact on many talented African American musicians. Andraé Crouch, already an influential choir director and composer, arranged and performed music in the pop culture arena. When singers like Michael Jackson and Madonna and movies such as “The Lion King” recorded songs that required a choir, they turned to Crouch. Musicians like Hairston and Crouch helped bridge the gap between sacred and secular and increase exposure to gospel music.


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