At Downs Memorial United Methodist Church
Oakland California, February 10, 2013
Night Beat ventures out into the daylight for a Sunday afternoon concert in Oakland featuring Janice Maxiie Reid and Jeanie Tracy.
In my younger days, I participated in Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was August 28 1963 and, although there was some anxiety, among the marchers, that we might be attacked, a sense of brotherhood and solidarity was in the air.
When we heard Dr. King’s words, all our anxieties melted away. It was visible on the faces all around me. The worried frowns gave way to smiles and quite a few tears of joy.
There was something else quite unique about the day’s proceedings that I’ll never forget; Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson both gave moving performances. The records I had heard of them didn’t prepare me for the power of the real thing and those performances have stuck in my mind ever since.
When I heard recently that two Bay Area songstresses were to perform a tribute concert of “Marian & Mahalia Together!,” my mind rushed back to that day almost 50 years ago when I was a young man who bummed a ride to Washington and took part in making history.
Janice Maxie Reid and Jeanie Tracy conceived the performance as a sort of musical story-telling show with an introduction by Gale Bell and narrated by Abbie Rhone who also designed the staging.
Before the concert began, we were treated by Belva Davis who told her inspiring story of working her way through the ranks of the television news industry, eventually becoming anchor and host of the popular “This week In Northern California” on KQED.
After Davis’ interesting remarks, the divas sang a medley of beautiful spirituals with Esther Harris on piano. The audience chimed in throughout this segment in humble harmony that gave me shivers.
Janice Maxie Reid then took the stage as Marian Anderson dressed in a stunning silvery outfit that would have been in vogue around 1950. In a gold hat with a large ornamental star, she certainly looked the part.
With her high, rich soprano voice, she seems to match Marian Anderson note for note through seven sublime pieces. Most moving to me was “Deep River,” the anonymous spiritual revered in many cultures throughout the world.
Marian Anderson was most famous as an opera singer though and covering her is a tall order. There are some unbelievably high notes in these selections that Ms. Reid delivers with ease. Sensational is the only way to describe it.
For the Mahalia Jackson segment, Ms. Reid takes over the piano while Esther Harris assists on organ.
When Jeanie Tracy comes on as Mahalia Jackson, she is also dressed impeccably for the part. Her most overriding feature is her voice which feels as if it’s made of some solid material. Somewhere in the tenor/alto range, the notes rumble in your chest and linger for a moment while your senses adjust.
The six songs she performed are among the most powerful of the entire gospel codex. Most outstanding was “How I Got Over,” which was performed by Mahalia at Dr. King’s march and must have been one of her favorites.
Closing with “Precious Lord,” by the great Thomas A. Dorsey, there was a great murmur of voices in the audience that resonated in the sanctuary and tingled our spines.
It’s not often that performances like this come along. This story, in words and songs gives a review of the era that is gone but not forgotten. I would compare it with Jon Hendrick’s, “Evolution of the Blues,” where, through similar features, the history of the blues is laid out.
It seems only natural for Reid and Tracy to export this marvelous show to other places and times. I’ll be on the lookout for future developments. And, if you see “Marian & Mahalia Together!” playing in your area, by all means, make the date. You won’t regret it.