Black chorus celebrates family, community through 50th anniversary concert

Choir+director+Dr.+Ollie+Watts+Davis+sings+with+the+Black+Chorus+at+Krannert+Center+for+the+Performing+Arts+on+Sunday%2C+Oct.+1.

Ben Tschetter

Choir director Dr. Ollie Watts Davis sings with the Black Chorus at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday, Oct. 1.

By John O'Brien, Contributing writer

Dr. Ollie Watts Davis stood behind a podium in front of a passionate audience at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. A small army of robed vocalists clapped behind her and sang in harmony.

Davis guided the University of Illinois Black Chorus and the audience in song, as she has done now for 37 years. Davis, the fifth and longest-serving director, is leading the chorus into its 50th year at the University.

Davis and the chorus kicked off their year-long 50th anniversary celebration this Sunday at Krannert with their annual fall concert, this year titled “Jubilee (The Acceptable Year).”

Under her tutelage, the Black Chorus has gained a reputation as a premier vocal ensemble and has been invited to perform across the world, from Orchestra Hall in Chicago to La Ciudad Quesada Cathedral in Santa Clara, Costa Rica.

“It’s a big year of celebration,” Davis said.

The Black Chorus was founded by four African-American students on the University’s campus during a period of great racial tension in America, according to Davis.

“Many choirs started in 1968 across the nation, just as the Black Chorus did,” Davis said. “There was a lot of unrest on college campuses with different things that were happening in society, and so there were lots of strong requests for opening up (a) curriculum for cultural studies, but a lot of the choirs weren’t sustained.”

The longevity of the Black Chorus is a point of pride for Davis.

Over the past 50 years, the Black Chorus has blossomed from being a student-run organization with just four members to having its own course offered within the College of Music, with a consistent membership of more than 50 students.

The chorus is open to students from all musical backgrounds, but it focuses on singing both traditional and contemporary African-American music, as well as studying its history. The Black Chorus aims to unite its diverse membership and its audience through the music of black America.

The Black Chorus’s ability to create a sense of community is not lost on Davis.

“The demographics of the choir — the composition of the choir, so to speak, has changed,” Davis said. “So it’s not just a choir of African-American students; it’s a choir of all students who are here at Illinois.”

Davis said the chorus also comprises white students, Asian students and international students.

“I am excited about this opportunity for the world to come together, and they come together around the singing of the music of black Americans. I am thrilled with that,” Davis said.

Anna Burton, senior in Music, agreed that the Black Chorus’s music has a unifying effect.

“This ensemble is just so close to my heart because you come in and everyone is just so nice to you,” Burton said. “Everyone is so supportive and accepting, and I think a lot of it has to do with the music that we sing. It has such a positive, uplifting message.”

“Everyone is so supportive and accepting, and I think a lot of it has to do with the music that we sing. It has such a positive, uplifting message.”

The Black Chorus’s function as a melting pot for its students is a unique aspect of it that is vital to many of its members, like Immanuel Campbell.

Campbell is in his second semester as a part of the Black Chorus and a senior in ACES. He said he views the Black Chorus as more than just a choir. He initially joined the Black Chorus as a way to stay connected to the gospel music from his home, but he found that it also gave him access to a loving community in its own right.

“It’s not just a class,” Campbell said. “It’s not just a choir, either. According to the University, we’re about three or four entities in one, but in my opinion, the main thing that isn’t written down on paper is, I would say, a family.”

At the concert, students sang hand in hand, swaying as one to the music and applauding when their fellow vocalists took solos. The crowd joined in at every possible opportunity, blurring the lines between performer and spectator.

Starting with “Anthems and Spiritual Songs,” and eventually moving to “Testimonies, Triumphs and Thanksgiving,” the songs of the Jubilee concert also focused on community.

“Spirituals contain messages that are transcendent and have the ability to transport and elevate the human condition,” Davis wrote in the concert program. “In every hearing of this music, we experience a sense of community and its sustaining power.”

In keeping with the community spirit that was prevalent throughout the 50th anniversary Jubilee concert, many alumni of the Black Chorus were in attendance, both sitting in the crowd and performing on stage.

Larry Stribling, University alumnus, was a member of the Black Chorus for six years. He drove from Indianapolis to be at the Jubilee concert.

“It’s like a family reunion,” Stribling said. “The family connections, which I’ve made with many people here — it’s long-lasting.”

The Jubilee concert closed with the gospel song “All In His Hands,” which prompted members of the audience to rise to their feet, singing along and applauding, until the last choir member left the stage.

“Black Chorus, it’s more than just a choir, it’s an experience,” Davis said.

Davis said she believes that anyone who has been a member over the past 50 years is an inseparable part of the Black Chorus community.

“We’re all a part of the same thing,” she said. “We just were there at different times.”

Rashaad Young, University and Black Chorus alumnus, said the chorus is something that feels like home.

“When it’s 50 years  — you don’t want to miss out on something like that,” Young said. “You only get one 50-year anniversary.”

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