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‘Gospel Jazz Experience’ will make joyful noise, artists predict

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Imagine Indianapolis church folks heading downtown to a jazz venue, while the jazzy set get their worship on.

Sound like a cultural collision?

It’s really more of a family reunion, says Owl Studios record label head and jazz drummer Kenny Phelps, who will again present a “Gospel Jazz Experience” at the Jazz Kitchen on April 14.

“Gospel spreads the good news of hope and faith,” said Phelps. “Gospel is good news, and jazz has also been inspiring as well. I consider jazz like a gumbo, it’s got so many sources.”

Phelps, who has toured with vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, and numerous other top talents, pointed out that many jazz musicians came of age in the African-American church.

“My parents took me to church probably eight days a week,” joked Phelps. “I’d come home and bang on pots and pans, my parents finally bought me a set of drums.”

Phelps said he traces the early development of his career through the local churches he attended: Christ Temple and Grace Apostolic. Today, Phelps said, his parents Russell and Carol Phelps attend New Wineskins Ministries. 

Performer Jay Thomas, one of the featured musicians for the Monday night event at 5377 N. College Ave., said he considers church folks a friendly audience for young, upcoming musicians. “My father, Jeffery Thomas, is a local pastor, and I began playing the drums at 4 or 5,” said Thomas. “I’m grateful for these (church) experiences and I’m grateful for the times they suffered through it!”

Both jazz and gospel reflect the rich heritage of the Black community, Thomas said. “I think these types of music, a lot of music, has been rooted in the Black community from our experience – what we’ve been through,” he said.

As Indianapolis faces the tragedy of violence, both those who love jazz and those who love gospel can find common cause in a musical message of healing and hope, said Thomas.

And performing gospel music in a jazz venue makes that message more accessible, says A.C. McClendon III of the family gospel group Soul Purpose, which includes his sisters, Angela McClendon, an alto, and Glynis Yowell, soprano.

“This will be my third Jazz Gospel experience and I think that whole R&B, rhythm and blues, gospel music has always connected with each other,” McClendon said.  “The Jazz Kitchen is not a church, but for people that would not normally go, this is kind of their church.”

McClendon, who is a minister of music at his father’s church, Breeding Tabernacle CME Church at 3760 N. Leland Ave., said he began playing the piano when he was 5 or 6. Soul Purpose will offer their CD for sale at the Monday evening event. 

McClendon said he knows some in the church community are scandalized by jazz, but said he just can’t relate. “If it bothers you, that’s a personal thing, it doesn’t bother me. That’s how we were brought up – we’re a real lively family!”

Other performers slated for the 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. shows include Deron Bell, Pam Westbrook, Brian Reeves, Cynthia Layne, The Williams Singers, Steve Allee, Brian Kelly, Rob Dixon, Lizz and Frank Mann, Will Amos, Valerie Phelps, Brian Kelly, Jessie Whittman and Shannon Lancaster.

For more information, call (317) 253-4900.

Leslie L. Fuller is a former managing editor of the Indianapolis Recorder and a member of the Jazz Journalists Association.

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