Preserving African American spirituals: Brazeal Dennard Chorale reaching people in Detroit and around the world

Posted at 5:06 AM, Feb 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-18 11:13:29-05

DETROIT (WXYZ) — It's a journey that started back in 1972 when Brazeal Dennard, a choral director and music arranger in Detroit, found that while attending conferences for the National Association of Negro Musicians, he'd see and hear choral music by Black composers; something he noticed was lacking in Michigan.

So, Dennard founded the Brazeal Dennard Chorale seeking to change that, while also promoting African American spirituals and bringing the music to a wider audience.

Dennard passed away in 2010.

Now, his vision for the chorale is carried on by Artistic Director Alice McAllister Tillman and others, making sure the music is not only passed on, but understood and appreciated.

“We tell the story and we make sure that the young ones coming up are introduced to the music but also that we perform it at a level that is authentic and is with the utmost care," said Tillman, a former educator.

The group performs music of many genres but has a special focus on music by African American composers and African American spirituals, whose true composers are hard to know exactly due to hundreds of the years of the slave trade.

Spirituals are now arranged and performed all over the world, and their roots can still be found in many popular pieces of music today, Tillman said.

They are songs of joy and hope and also of horror and pain; all part of a unique musical tradition.

“Starting with the middle passage and what those first enslaved Africans in 1619 brought across the Atlantic ocean with them," Tillman said.

With 30 plus members in the Chorale, the pandemic has made singing together a little different.

“There definitely was some trial and error when we started doing rehearsals over Zoom," said Dr. Theodore Jones, also sings in the Chorale.

“I’ve never had to work this hard to make sure that I know what I’m doing, that I know when the sopranos come in, the altos, the tenors, and the bass," said Chorale member Yvonne Turner.

“I don’t have the other voices in my head or even near me. So it’s only me," she said.

But with the help of Zoom and other modern technologies, the group is making it work; even bringing their music to the masses virtually during a holiday concert.

“It’s almost a bonding experience for us as we sing and as we bring that music to the audience," Jones said. He started in the group's community choir after years singing in church and in college, and later joined the Chorale.

“The music lives in so many places but had it’s beginnings here, so it’s just touched folks all over the world," Tillman told Action News.

The Chorale competed in the World Choir Games in 2012 in the Spirituals category.

For now their performances are still virtual due to the pandemic. Their next performance will be streamed Saturday March 6 at 7:30 p.m.

Click here for details.