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Queen of the World

[whitespace] Queen Esther Marrow
Photograph by Nacho Arias

Queen Esther Marrow and her gospel singers return to conquer San Francisco

By Jessica Ylvisaker

As a teenager, she moved from her home in Newport News, Va., to New York City and landed a job in the garment district. She had no aspirations to musical stardom, but her undeniable, irrepressible talent was soon discovered. Her singing career kicked off soon thereafter with the two memorable years she spent as the only woman traveling and performing across the United States with Duke Ellington and his orchestra. She has since performed with such musical greats as Mahalia Jackson, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea and Bob Dylan. Now she herself is a musical great. For the past eight years, Queen Esther Marrow has been the innovator, star and mastermind of the Harlem Gospel Singers. After a wildly successful European tour, the Harlem Gospel Singers have returned to the States to perform their new show, Higher and Higher.

In a world in which musical boundaries have been pushed past the horizon, Queen Esther Marrow finds a thrilling challenge in her efforts to maintain a sound firmly rooted in traditional gospel music. Her goal is to reach her audiences through the purity and raw force of her inspirational music. And according to the 27 stellar reviews in the wake of Higher and Higher's recent run in Washington, D.C., she is doing exactly that.

How has gospel music changed since you first performed with Duke Ellington?

That was back in the '60s. I did a concert with Duke Ellington here in San Francisco, actually, at Grace Cathedral Church. I thought I had died and gone to heaven! It was a Saturday evening, the sun was still up, and it was coming through the stained glass windows. It made this ray that came down! The church was packed and I stood there and I sang "Come Sunday" with Mr. Ellington's orchestra. My God! . . . and Johnny Hodges playing that saxophone--Whew! It was unbelievable. I started here. Now, being back here in San Francisco, it's like coming full circle. And for me, the music has held on to the traditional. I do think I have ventured out because of working with other great musicians and artists--you grow, you know, as a person and musically. And so what has happened is that I have--besides keeping the traditional music alive--I have intertwined some of the jazz and the blues, in particular, into gospel. But not to the point that it's so far removed that you don't recognize that it's gospel. Gospel music today, with the young people, I would say that it's going to sound very pop, sometimes even hip-hop. And that's fine for the young people--as long as they keep sincerity there and alive. My goal is not going to be to "hip-hop" it so much that you don't know what it is. And I don't approve of dancing to gospel music. You will find gospel music in clubs and that is something I don't quite approve of. I think that we've got to have respect somewhere. And God is what we're singing about. The music is going to evolve, of course, but myself and the Harlem Gospel Singers are trying to keep it from going too far. I'm not knocking the young kids, but I want them to hear what I'm doing, too, so they know where their music comes from.

There are a lot of young people going to the churches and sitting in the churches because they're spicing up the music, gospel music. The more they get involved with the creation of the music, the more you'll see them coming.

Do you approve of people going to a gospel concert and treating it the same way they would any concert?

That's fine. But I believe there's something . . . mysterious that happens. When you go there to watch it as a concert, but you are moved in a way that you wouldn't ordinarily be moved--that's what I like. That's all the joy there is for me--and I can feel it--when my audience has been touched, when they have been moved.

How do you think your experience would be different if you were growing up today with your talent and passion for gospel music?

I don't think I would like it too much. The business has changed a great deal. And musically, a lot of the time, anyway, I don't like what's happening in the studios. When I get down to recording, I go into the studio with a live band, I stand right there, and I mean, everything is right there. I go back to the studio afterward to lay my voice down, but initially it starts out with me being there so I can feel the presence of what's going on.

Now people do it differently--like "I'm going to lay the bass part from a synthesizer, and I'm going to lay the horns from a synthesizer, and I'm going to lay the drums from a drum machine," and it's just cold. You know, a friend of mine was helping me with my piano--I have an electronic one--and he was showing me some things. I have 12 tracks on that machine, and I can lay my voice--12 tracks!--I can overdub, I can mix, put my voice in there and then it's all there ... and I can't play piano! I can't play! But it's all there: you've got all of your layers in your rhythm, you know, you lay your bass drums, then your snare, then your cymbals, and you put all of this together, and then you go to the next track and you lay something else ... I was enjoying it, but when I'm working with my band, the music jumps off and we can feel each other. Of course, you follow how many bars there are supposed to be, and there's a beginning, middle and end. You follow all of that, but in the middle of that mix, there's something that's happening between the musicians and myself.

How did your group start?

We got some of our singers from the churches, and then some other theater people I knew. We put it together. It grew much more than we thought it was going to. We thought it was going to be an eight-week experience, and that was almost now eight years ago. We started out with four musicians and eight singers, and the backdrop on the stage was a sheet. Now we've got this incredible set, and projectors, and a full band--actually, about 30 people tour with us, not just performers but technical people. It's a whole different thing.

What are your future musical goals?

I'd really like to keep getting together with musicians that I work well with and taking a song, taking it apart, and finding the different avenues into it and how we can treat it ... that's really exciting. You take something that's really very simple and straightforward and you make it into something else. I would like to continue to grow in my music.

Musically, there's just so much you can do. And that's excitement. I want to find more things to do and still keep my roots going and that in and of itself is a challenge. I look forward to doing that. I look forward to doing some more recording. I look forward to continuing to find inspiration in music .

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From the August 16, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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