Jazz Fest: Yolanda Adams Delivers Musical Gospel Lesson

In addition to her Fair Grounds performance Sunday, the singer traced gospel's history at a Monday workshop.

[Editor's Note: A crew of sonicnet.com writers and photographers

was in New Orleans to provide daily coverage of this year's Jazz &

Heritage Festival, which began April 28 and concluded May 7. Our staff was on the Fair Grounds, in the clubs and on the streets to capture what's unique about one of the world's great musical and cultural extravaganzas. Click here to access our complete coverage of the event.] >

Correspondent Elita Bradley reports:

NEW ORLEANS — Gospel singer Yolanda Adams knows how to fill a space with the holy spirit, whether she's beatifying the Fair Grounds at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival or sanctifying an auditorium near the city's notorious French Quarter.

This year's Grammy winner for Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album, for Mountain High Valley Low, attracted huge crowds for her two festival appearances — a late Sunday afternoon set at the Fair Grounds and a Monday morning gospel workshop at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts.

"If 'Showtime at the Apollo' were in heaven, Yolanda Adams would be there, and God would be the only judge," fan Jackie Hoffman, 39, of New York said.

Even with Sting headlining at a nearby stage at the festival, the turnout for Adams overflowed past the cover of the tent — which Adams practically turned into a sanctuary as she gave glory to God in song. People stood and raised their hands in testimony as Adams performed hits such as "Still I Rise" and "The Battle Is the Lord's."

The next day, the Houston native wowed another crowd at the festival-sponsored "Gospel Is Alive!" workshop. In addition to Adams, the event featured two local groups, the Mahalia Jackson Mass Choir, made up of high school students from several New Orleans schools, and the six-member Zion Harmonizers, a senior men's chorus that's existed for more than 60 years.

Taking note of the different gospel styles represented by the day's performers — mass youth choir, harmonized traditional gospel and Adams' contemporary style — Adams began her appearance at the workshop with a talk about the history and evolution of gospel.

The former elementary school teacher dramatically recounted gospel's roots in slavery and traced its development through traditional hymns, which later were influenced by blues and jazz — also referring to contemporary gospel artists, such as Kirk Franklin.

She illustrated her talk with snatches of songs that represented each step, including "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "I'm Never Alone," the latter a traditional hymn that she rearranged as a jazzy tune. She also performed a rendition of "Precious Lord (Take My Hand)" that brought the jam-packed house to its feet.

"Gospel music didn't start with the Winans or Yolanda Adams or even Mahalia Jackson," she told the crowd, which ranged in age from elementary school students to the most senior of citizens.

"What music we think of as traditional gospel music now was thought of as very radical in its day. 'Precious Lord' was even banned in certain churches, because it was thought to have too much blues in it."

Adams then talked about a current controversy in gospel music circles over the influence of hip-hop and R&B on contemporary gospel music.

"It's true you should never forget where you came from, but you can't sing a song the way it was sung in the 1920s and expect our young people to be touched by it," she said. She then started in a chorus of Franklin's melodic gospel ballad "Why We Sing" (RealAudio excerpt of Franklin version), which the audience eagerly sang with her.

"It is totally amazing how everybody in here knew that song," she said. "But had Kirk Franklin not jumped all over the stage huffin', 'Whatcha lookin' for? Whatcha lookin' for,' he would never have gotten your attention. That's why I cannot condemn Kirk Franklin, because he's getting your attention."

Adams acknowledges she can't keep up with Franklin's energetic style but said she's happy with "my version of hip-hop" as she launched into her hit song "Yeah."

"I think that all music has to evolve, even gospel music, and I especially like what she does," said Akbar Bnafa, 57, of New Orleans. Bnafa, who has seen Adams perform several times before, said "I'm not even a Christian, but her music touches me. She's really inspirational."