ALBERT McNEIL early found the thing he does best - interpreting black music. And he's carved out a unique niche for himself, as the founder and conductor of the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers, a choir dedicated to presenting the rich and vital music of the black experience, with emphasis on spirituals. It's work the singers do with great intensity, virtuosity, sincerity and joy, as a worldwide host of fans will attest.
The McNeil Jubilee Singers will fulfill several engagements in Utah this weekend, beginning with a formal concert at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Brigham Young University's Harris Fine Arts Center, as a feature of the BYU Performance Series. At 8 p.m. Saturday they will sing in Kingsbury Hall, as a highlight of Martin Luther King Jr. events at the University of Utah (Jan. 10-14).Climaxing their Utah visit will be a joint appearance with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on its broadcast of Jan. 15, at 9:30 a.m. The Salt Lake events are free, and those wishing to attend the broadcast should be in their seats by 9:15 a.m. on Sunday.
The Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers usually tour with 13 singers, but will come to Utah with 18. "We want to be at our fullest, for this great opportunity to sing in the Tabernacle," said McNeil.
The McNeil Jubilee Singers have performed in 59 nations during the past 20 years, including five U.S. State Department tours - in Africa, the Middle and Far East, South America and the Orient. Entertainment venues, recording studios and Hollywood films, the great concert stages and cathedrals of the world, all have re-echoed to their inspired brand of singing.
"Every other year we tour from 13 to 15 weeks, and on alternate years we do run-out concerts and recordings," explained McNeil from his Southern California home. "This is our tour year, so we will be on the road Jan. 12 to April 25. We first do 35 concerts in 21 states, ending in Philadelphia on March 5. We then go to Europe for dates in London, Amsterdam, East Berlin and other East German cities, Italy, France and Spain, for a total of 60-70 concerts this season. In off years, we do about 35 concerts."
McNeil is a native Californian, trained at the University of California in Los Angeles, Princeton's Westminster Choir College, and in Lausanne, Switzerland. He holds a doctor of music degree from the University of Southern California. At present he heads the department of music education and the choral program at the University of California in Davis.
"I began working in church music when I was 18, at the People's Independent Church of Christ in Los Angeles, an independent Methodist Church," he said. "As fast as I learned things in my studies I would bring them to the church, which had 5,000 members and four choirs.
"We were the first church in the black community to present a complete `Messiah.' Then we went on to `Elijah' and the other great sacred choral literature." Very shortly the choirs of the People's Independent Church were heard of in the entertainment industry and began to be in demand for motion pictures.
"Calls came in so frequently that I decided to organize the Albert McNeil Singers, which was at first a double quartet," he said. "By 1964 we began to call ourselves the McNeil Jubilee Singers, patterned after the Fisk Jubilee Singers. (This group was the earliest of black gospel choirs, coming from Fisk University, founded in 1865. They toured England in 1870 and so impressed Queen Victoria that she had a life-sized mural of the 11 singers made. It now hangs in Windsor Palace, and a copy is at Fisk University in Nashville.)
"Jubilee singing is a cappella, in a joyous style. There are choirs and there are choirs, but maintaining a tradition is extremely important; and even though we are in the last of the 20th century, I aim to maintain the (Negro) spiritual style, with late 19th century and contemporary arrangements by such composers as Hall Johnson, Roland Carter, Larry Farrow and Jester Hairston," McNeil explained. He himself does many arrangements.
"We are a concert group, not just traditional singers, and we sing full concert arrangements. We want to show students and other interested listeners what a great musical form came from illiterate (but by no means ignorant) people, devoted to Christian principles."
McNeil is proud of his individual singers, both as musicians and Christians. "In Germany a man walked up and asked, are these singers Christians? I replied, I don't see how you can sing about God's goodness and omnipotence without Christian commitment."
The group's average age is 30, and they stay with the Singers an average of 10 to 15 years. The newest member has been in three years, the most senior for 24 years. "Some of our young singers have never really encountered black forms, and it's educational for them to go with us," McNeil said.
He mentioned a few of the accomplished and highly trained vocalists who sing with him, "unique" people like Lisa Gray-Ashley, with a degree from Curtis Institute. Tenor Darryl Taylor, 23 years old and a graduate in music from USC, has been accepted into the graduate school of Michigan State. The most senior member is Virginia White ("We call her the `O Happy Day' girl because she solos on that number," McNeil laughed), who is also a choir director, teacher of voice, and co-administrator of the Singers.
One thing almost inseparable from a great black voice is the ability to seemingly invent fantastic improvisations that go high, low, loud and soft, to the amazement of listeners. Are these abilities inherent or learned, and do they take a toll of the voice?
"There are different vocal techniques that go with every style," McNeil responded. "Most people have the idea that a black choir opens up and you can hear them for 20 miles, and that's basically true. But there's no way singers can belt their way through 65 concerts in a row, they must be well trained so they know how to protect their voices.
"My singers are versatile, they sing lieder, French art song, madrigals, Bach, Brahms or Mozart. I tell them, versatility is the key to using your mechanism for many, many years.
"It's really difficult to separate the secular and sacred in black music, which all has an inherently bluesy sound. Sometimes only the text differentiates. We don't sing blues as such, but we do many things in a jazzy style. I love `Porgy and Bess,' and we will sing excerpts in Utah. The genius Gershwin gave a great example of black secular music, and preserved it for all time in this opera, and his lovely melodies - `Bess you is my woman,' `Summertime,' `I'm on my way,' - all have the stamp of blackness on them."
Other McNeil interests reflected in the tour's programs are the folk music of West Africa and music of black composers. "I find the work of Duke Ellington very vibrant and exciting," he said. "Also we present black gospel music, as heard in the contemporary black church." McNeil likes to use a "choreographic movement scheme," in which he's assisted by Harry Johnson, who teaches dramatic arts at Cal-Davis. The two have worked together for 20 years and try to arrange their sabbaticals to coincide.
Though McNeil is now on sabbatical leave, on an "ordinary" school week (Monday-Wednesday-Friday) he commutes by plane 400 miles to his job near Sacramento, leaving home at 6 a.m. and returning at 9 p.m.
He was raised in the Watts-Willowbrook area of Los Angeles. "Though it was very much urban, we had five acres of land," he recalled. "My father and mother were in show business for 25 years, and they told me not to be a vaudevillian. I was going to be a doctor, and I did pre-med. But I don't regret the change to music."