Mará Rose Williams | History will ring out as gospel

Mará Rose Williams
Mará Rose Williams

Not all education takes place in a classroom.

Sometimes a history lesson plays out on stage, as will be the case during a gospel concert Saturday at Community Christian Church.

True, gospel music rings out every Sunday morning in hundreds of churches across Missouri and Kansas. But this concert will bring to one stage performers with deep roots in Kansas City’s musical history — singers who got their musical chops in church tents and chapels on the edge of Kansas City’s jazz district.

Singers like Genetter Bradley, who in the ’60s traveled with a group called the Melody Airs. But she had been singing in Kansas City since the ’50s and cut several records that today are collector’s items. The leader of the group was Mildred Clark, who died a few years ago. Folks who were around will remember the Melody Airs sang at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and blew the crowd away.

And another pioneer: Alma Whitney, performing with the Whitney Singers. Whitney started singing as a little girl, learning to play the piano in the homes of the wealthy white families her mother worked for as a domestic. She’s been a gospel singer more than 53 years, traveling through the Midwest with her group, which is still making CDs.

Whitney, who eventually sang with James Brown, became a mentor to many of Kansas City’s gospel singers.

Bradley and Whitney will be joined by about a dozen more gospel-singing groups and individuals.

Concert organizers plan to record the event and include it as part of a documentary about gospel music in the Kansas City area. The music contributed to the social fabric of the city’s African-American community, even before blues and jazz.

The groundwork for this concert started several years ago when Michael Charles, longtime music director at St. James United Methodist Church, got the ball rolling. He died last year before he could see all the planning pay off.

“What makes this concert special is that unfortunately not a lot of people in Kansas City know this part of Kansas City’s music history,” said Chuck Haddix, who manages the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“There is a long history of gospel in Kansas City,” Haddix said. “The foundation of American music is the call and response when the preacher calls and the congregation responds.

“Kansas City is known for jazz, blues and country, but it all grew out of gospel.”