Material Spirits 

Local gospel legend Larry Bland says today's young musicians could learn more about their roots.

click to enlarge J.R. DAVIS
  • J.r. Davis

Many of today's music legends trace their roots to the church, performing sacred music for friends and family and finding their voice along the way.

Elder statesman of gospel Larry Bland has performed with Larry Bland and the Volunteer Choir for more than 40 years and has directed many other choirs in Richmond and Washington. He's also remembered for directing June Jubilee, the local arts festival popular in the 1980s.

Bland, who holds a degree in vocal music education, talks about the role of the African-American church in introducing young people to music and why Richmond could still use some jubilee.

Style Weekly: How would you characterize the role the African-American church plays in exposing young people to music?

Bland: Well, I know that, especially as it applies to the black church experience, music plays an integral part in the daily worship services and most of the new and emerging artists, in R&B, jazz, what have you ... that has been the platform to hone their skills.

In the past, young people interested in music might have been attracted to the church for its resources, instruments, an audience, etc. Now, with technology, they can make music at home and find an audience on the Internet. Does that old platform still exist?

I think that in terms of their first experience with public performance, with a live audience, that still holds true. I certainly agree that with now with the availability of the Internet, YouTube and Twitter, and all the other kinds of electronic- and media-related resources, young people certainly have a much wider platform, in terms of pursuing development of their skills and what have you. But, by and large, a lot of them still depend greatly on the contact that they initially have in the church, where most of them are brought up, for the most part.

Any advice to young people who are finding their voice in the church?

I think a lot of young folks now are more concerned with the contemporary gospel music, which certainly has merit. But to really look into the history of gospel music, in terms of Negro spirituals, hymns of the church ... and also just basic music theory, I think a lot of that is being overlooked in terms of some of what the young folks are doing now. They're thinking that their brand is the only brand of gospel music, but you have of course, sounds of the quartets, sounds of large gospel choirs, as well as individual soloists. But I think too much is being placed on their desire to get branding, rather than looking at what the true ministry of gospel music and the history of it is.

As the former director of the June Jubilee, do you think it's time to bring it back?

I would love to see the June Jubilee Festival brought back. You know, in the days that I directed it, it was such a beautiful celebration of the city. It was also a celebration of the arts. It was very comprehensive in celebrating performing arts, visual arts, culinary arts, demonstrating artists and also celebrating the city and animating certain sections and areas of the city that were up and coming.

I know that when I was directing it, our major focus was on bringing the community together through the arts and celebrating the city. And since that time it seems as though that there have been so many ventures that have just really not been as inclusive of the whole city. But June Jubilee celebrated all of the arts. It was very comprehensive in its vision. ... I would love to see that sort of festival put on again in the city.

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