Malcolm in the middle
A chat with Chico State Gospel Choir director Malcolm Jackson
If you like music, and you like to feel happy, go listen to the Chico State Gospel Choir. Really, it’s that simple. There’s nothing revolutionary going on, just a wall of passionate voices harmonizing lively hymns and pop songs to a hot, funky beat.
The man behind gospel music at Chico State is 37-year-old Malcolm Jackson. Talk to anyone who’s seen the Gospel Choir and they’ll invariably first mention the energetic leader who dances, shouts and works up the choir, band and crowd.
Jackson was born in Chicago and was raised singing and playing in the choir of his Baptist church. From there he moved to Florida and Portland, Ore., and along the way tried his hand at being a dreadlocked rock singer, a blues bassist and a hip-hop producer. Five years ago, he says God told him to present the idea of starting a gospel choir to Chico State, and after wowing Choral Director Jeffrey Gemmell with an impromptu and spirited rendition of “The Storm is Passing Over” ("I just sat down and ripped it.") he created a job for himself.
After a recent rehearsal (and a lot of hugs from members of the choir), the CN&R sat down for coffee and let Jackson do the talking.
You seem very well-suited to the job—part coach, part manager, part cheerleader and on top of every single thing going on in the room.
It’s a trip for me. I don’t have a degree. I didn’t go to college. I was never in the university setting. In the five years I’ve been here I’ve had to learn about academia, people management.
For such hard work, it looks pretty fun.
My concern is really about teaching. I grew up in a black church. We didn’t have to do breathing exercises, and nobody had to tell us what chord, and I took all this stuff for granted. So the first three years I was here, trying to teach all these white people about singing gospel music. They just didn’t get it. And so I had to learn how to teach gospel music.
How do you teach gospel music?
Generally, it’s breathing. Gospel music is a lot different from European music. European tones are [in a high-pitch] “Ooooooh.” Really “head” tones, but we sing from here [motions to mid-torso]. It’s all about the diaphragm, filling your lungs with air. We were really having a hard time a couple weeks ago, because I have a lot of new people. And what I try to teach them is, it’s like in sports, if you just learn the fundamentals and if you apply those in the game you’ll be cool. Forming your words, breathing properly, paying attention to your director—that’s paramount right there.
Is it safe to say that not many in Chico are familiar with gospel music?
I don’t think they are, but that’s what school’s about: inspiring. That’s what life is about.
Is religion brought into the teaching?
I don’t purposely try to water down anything, [but] I definitely don’t bring the church aspect into it. It’s a gospel choir at the university. We sing about Jesus and God, but there are people in there that don’t go to church. I had an atheist in that choir, and that guy was there on time every week.
You say you’re giving people something to hold on to for the week. How are local audiences reacting to gospel music?
This is just one example. This happens all the time. My iPod got stolen, so I went to campus police. I walked up to the window and I was talking to the lady for awhile, and she said, “You look really familiar. Do you direct the Gospel Choir?” I was like, “Yeah,” and she goes, “You know what? I just want to tell you, I went to your show last semester, and I was going through some really bad stuff. The songs you guys were singing just really uplifted me, and I walked out of there and I felt really good and I just want to thank you.” And this lady was dead serious, man. It lets you know that, yeah you’re teaching people that don’t have the experience of gospel music, [and] that you are teaching them gospel music. The performance culminates in a good performance, but also something that people can take with them. People don’t forget that.