Maybe for you, the phrase “gospel choir” conjures images of Christian liturgy on Sunday mornings. But for John L. Nash, Jr. that’s not the case.
“The Monterey Peninsula Gospel Community Choir is not religious,” the conductor says. “It’s a community choir, so there is no church affiliation. But we definitely do sing gospel.”
With conviction, focus and surrender.
Nash is a Fort Ord-born, Greater Victory Temple Church-bred, Monterey High School and Monterey Peninsula College graduate who founded the choir as a one-time-only shot-in-the-arm for what was then the fledgling Monterey Gospel Festival in 2007. But it wouldn’t go away.
This weekend’s outing marks the ensemble’s 12th anniversary of celebrating September Gospel History Month in concert.
Nash credits Monterey Peninsula College linguistics professor Peter Silzer with helping to keep the choir alive.
“Peter just loved the music,” Nash says. “It swept him away and us with it. He’s still with us today.”
Like many masters, music came early to Nash, first with piano and followed by sax lessons at Highland Elementary School, plus early immersion in church choir. His mom, a gospel singer, led him to conduct a youth choir – when Nash was just 9.
“I was born into gospel,” Nash says. “My mom, Rosa Nash, was a well-known singer around the Peninsula. They used to call her ‘the Aretha Franklin of Seaside.’
“This is what I was put here on this planet to do. I feel blessed to be here to do this work.”
Nash says he remembers how natural conducting felt even the first time, at age 9, and then again at 13, when he directed a teen choir. And he cites all of the expected musical influences, such as the father of gospel music, Thomas Dorsey; the late Mattie Moss Clark of the world-renowned group the Clark Sisters; and the venerable Andre Crouch, whose soundtrack credits include The Color Purple, and who more broadly is credited with bringing black church music into the white church.
But Nash’s transformative moment came when he was 14.
“It was Edwin Hawkins’ gospel classic ‘Oh Happy Day,’” Nash says. “That did it for me. That was the first time I understood that you can infuse two sounds together into one.”
Hawkins combined jazz chords with gospel vocals, and it was a revelation.
At the same time, Nash came to a realization that was less about music and more about his place on the stage – that the conductor wasn’t the focus. Rather, it was about the music and how the performance resonated with the audience. Not that that detracted from his love of standing up in front of an ensemble, helping extract that revelatory sound.
“Conducting itself was a calling, a gift,” Nash says.
The gospel genre is in the middle of a resurgence these days, mostly fueled by renewed international interest.
“We’re going to London and Copenhagen in 2020,” Nash says. “Gospel is huge over there right now.”
For this weekend’s jaunt, Nash hosts two guest choirs – the Gospel Music Workshop of America’s acclaimed NorCal Chapter Choir led by James Cleveland and Terrance Kelly’s Oakland Interfaith Community Choir – along with two guest soloists. Those are Chicago baritone Martin Wood, who Nash says “is not your typical baritone.” Wood is classically trained and fuses that skill set with gospel. And they’ll also be joined by Houston-based alto Erica Edwards, who’s “an old-school country gal,” according to Nash, referring to both her music and her style – “She probably won’t even wear heels.”
The program also gives a special nod to the music of the late, great gospel icon Thomas Whitfield who, like Edwin Hawkins and Andre Crouch, merged jazz chords with gospel melodies. But unlike Hawkins and Crouch, Whitfield never crossed over into the mainstream, remaining legendary primarily only within the black church.
“Whitfield’s genre, his style, was very unique,” Nash says. “He never got the recognition he deserved, yet he had a very distinctive, instantly recognizable style. Snoop Dogg, Patti LaBelle and Aretha all sat up and took notice.”
Nash also brings an all-star, five-piece band to Monterey this weekend, including longtime musical director/organist/multi-keyboardist Derek Hall; keyboardist Brian Oliver; drummer Jordan Garnett; Oakland’s Calvin Brown on bass; and multi-stringist Antoine Cameron.
Over the years, the choir has become a true community chorus, welcoming all comers – musically trained or not, believers or not, black or not.
“The choir is actually a school of gospel,” Nash says. “Our membership is constantly changing, and many of our members are not singers, they are students of the musical genre. It’s more about me giving them an education within the art form than anything else.
“I’m not a preacher or a disciple, just an informer. You don’t need to take sand to the beach.”
MONTEREY PENINSULA GOSPEL COMMUNITY CHOIR 4pm Saturday, Sept. 28. Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $20-$30. 649-1070, goldenstatetheatre.com.