Pittsburgh Gospel Choir growing into a musical gem

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by Maryam Abdul-Qawiyy

The Pittsburgh Gospel Choir was simply a vision; a hopeful concept. But with the leadership of Herbert V.R.P. Jones, it has become one of Pittsburgh’s musical gems.

Jones became the director in 2006, founded by visionary and friend, the late Ralph Murray. He believed that there was a need for a strong, professional, gospel choir and presence in Pittsburgh. Jones was more than qualified so he was appointed as director. His story is not only extraordinary but also permeates with spiritual and musical destiny.

HerbertJones
HERBERT V.R.P. JONES

“We pray for God to give us the spirit of excellence!”

This proclamation commenced the end of a three-hour choir rehearsal Sept. 19 at East Liberty Presbyterian Church. “I dare you to praise him, I dare you,” said Jones. His voice echoed, touching every person, every corner, in the place of worship. “All minds clear? Ok. Let us pray.” He closed his eyes, bowed his head, as all choir members dutifully followed suit. The ambiance, both calm and still, was filled with the ritual of prayer, until in unison a resonating, “Amen!” hummed within the sanctuary.

Jones was born with music in his spirit. As a Mississippi native, his passion for the art started as early as second grade when he learned to read music. His ability was noticeable as he skipped fourth and fifth grades and went on to enroll in an accelerated music program. By the age of 14, he had graduated high school. When asked about his early successes, he lends them to his second grade teacher, he called Mrs. Green and his high school teacher Celia Williams Carr; these women coached and encouraged him within strong choral programs.

“I promised God that if he let me go to college that I would, one day, give it all back to him.” Jones continued to pursue music during his college career and attained a B.S. in Music, M.S. in Counseling Psychology, Choral Conducting/Music Education, Sacred Music, Dance and Drama. He also was honored with awards from Who’s Who Among American Teachers, Distinguished Church Musicians In America and Outstanding Personalities of the South. Even with the many accolades, Jones simply responded, “I am giving it back and I absolutely love what I do. This is not a job for me.”

He leads the 105 members of The Pittsburgh Gospel Choir in rehearsals on Monday evenings, and this also includes the ensemble. Auditions for both the choir and ensemble are held twice a year, during the fall and winter months at East Liberty Presbyterian Church. The choir serves not only as a sanctum for music and worship to take place, but it also serves as a family to its members.

“Ralph Murray wanted the choir to represent the community,” Rose Loker, president of the Pittsburgh Gospel Choir, said. “Which meant everyone. Not just one ethnic group, he wanted it to be diverse and for it to truly represent the city of Pittsburgh. And the Pittsburgh Gospel Choir is truly diverse, not just culturally and ethnically, but just based on our various religious backgrounds. We’re like a family.”

Cynthia Davis, vice president of The Pittsburgh Gospel Choir, agreed, “It’s not just a choir. We’re a family, a family that is growing. The vision for the choir was for 300 members. And we’re almost halfway there.”

“That is one of the things that I love about this choir.” Jones stated. “I love watching people from all musical levels and all walks of life learn and appreciate the music together. And in doing so, strive for excellence and build a strong bond.”

The gospel songs are encouraging, inspirational and emotionally moving and to have a group of people dedicated to its preservation is admirable, Jones said.

When asked about the vision for the choir, and its future, He said, “Our mission is to maintain choral integrity and share it not only locally but nationally and internationally. To continue to perpetuate the African-American sacred art that is at a level of excellence and led by God and the Holy Spirit.”

As the rehearsal concluded and the members rose from the pews, they embraced one another and dispersed in a leisurely fashion; wishing one another well and saying goodbyes with a promise of prayers. Amy Cribbs, a section leader for the second sopranos, commented, “Dr. Jones is dedicated to The Pittsburgh Gospel Choir and has a combination of technique, skill and strong spirituality. His strong leadership and presence allows us to deliver the message powerfully. We are lucky to have him.”

The choir is rehearsing meticulously for its fall concert. Save the date, Saturday, Nov. 19, 4 p.m., at the East ­Liberty Presbyterian Church. For more information on the choir, visit http://www.pitts­burgh­gospelchoir.org.

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