Dr. Jimmie Abbington not only has a finger on the pulse of black church music in America, but likely has several fingers in place.
Abbington is associate professor of church music and worship at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta and has written extensively on the subject, including a recently released book, “Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, Vol. 2.”
Abbington frequently leads GIA Publications’ “Sing to the Rafters” seminars in such urban centers as Chicago; Brooklyn; New York; Cleveland; Washington D.C.; Philadelphia; and Atlanta.
He was on the team that spent eight years creating the “African American Heritage Hymnal” with its more than 500 hymns, anthems, spirituals and gospel songs. He frequently writes and arranges church music. Abbington has served as national music director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
He has led choirs across the country and — whenever he’s at home in Atlanta — directs the choir at his home church, Atlanta’s historic Friendship Baptist Church.
And if there’s a message about black sacred music that he’d like to deliver at this week’s “Marching to Zion” symposium at Baylor University, it’s this: Black church music is as diverse and varied as black churches. It’s much more than spirituals and gospel songs.
Abbington will lead music at the symposium’s Thursday and Friday night sessions, which are open to the public, and aims to use that time to prove his point.
He’s one of the leaders at Thursday’s informal musical “conversation” on black sacred music, where musicians will sing, play and interact with both the audience and each other.
“We sit and talk and play things from our own memory banks and our tradition. It’s like the Gaither Gatherings — informal, but instructive,” he said, referring to more free-form concerts organized and led by gospel music composer Bill Gaither. “If anything, we’ll feed off each other’s music. It certainly will be a wonderful time.”
On Friday night, Abbington will lead a choir composed of singers from Waco’s Toliver Chapel Missionary Baptist Church and other Waco-area churches, Baylor University and the Texas Mass Choir affiliated with the Gospel Music Workshop of America.
The choir will sing four numbers that Abbington chose to illustrate the range of black sacred music in a short 30-minute concert. After the performance, civil rights leader, musician and scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon will give the symposium’s keynote address.
Friday’s singers represent more of a combined choir than a mass choir, he said. The term “mass choir” came from churches with multiple choirs — men, women, children, youth, seniors — that regularly came together.
“On one Sunday, all the choirs would get together and sing,” he said. But it evolved to cover times where choirs from several churches, whether from a similar denomination or differing ones, would join together.
The unity, strength and power of singing together often reinforced the larger message of such mass choirs, such as interracial or ecumenical cooperation, he said.
This week’s symposium features many of Abbington’s academic and religious colleagues, whose varied talks on black sacred music and women, hip-hop music, history, film and television, black megachurches and the civil rights movement underline his point on its diversity.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to revisit traditional church music,” he said.
He’s seeing a trend in black churches that mirrors that in many white churches: a growing gap between church members for whom traditional hymns and songs carry the most meaning and those who want their inspirational music to sound like the contemporary music they enjoy.
Compounding that gap, or perhaps a consequence of it, is a shift toward professional musicians or worship leaders to do church music while some church choirs shrink from lack of participation.
“It’s been said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America, but I think it’s by generations,” he said.
The choir director and scholar worries that a rich musical heritage may be endangered through inattention or under appreciation. The GIA Publications’ “Sing to the Rafters” workshops that he often leads not only serve to remind participants of black church music’s diversity, but to introduce new music that keeps a beloved tradition alive.
“We’re getting that music out to the people,” he said.
“Marching to Zion: Celebrating and Preserving Black Sacred Music”
2014 Pruit Symposium, Baylor University
7 p.m. Thursday — Gospel sing with Dr. Jimmie Abbington and others, Baylor University’s Roxy Grove Hall
7 p.m. Friday — Combined choirs led by Abbington, Seventh & James Baptist Church, 602 James Ave.
10 a.m. Saturday — Gospel brunch with the Jones Family Singers, McLane Stadium
All events are free and open to the public, except for a $10 admission to the Saturday brunch.