God’s Trombones: The Shout Band Tradition in
the United House of Prayer for All People
By Tom Hanchett
Praise Him with trumpet sound; … praise, him with timbrel and dance; praise him with sounding cymbals; …. Praise the Lord! –Psalm 150
It’s eight o’clock on a Monday night, at the Mother House of the United House of Prayer for All People in Charlotte, North Carolina. Opening devotions are already going on as musicians drift in, setting up drums and unpacking trombones. Several church elders in their fifties and sixties, dressed in dark suits, take turns at the microphone. As they exhort the crowd, half a dozen young players, most in their teens and early twenties, arrange themselves at the front of the room in a rough semicircle around the drummer.
At the mike now, a teenaged junior elder, dressed in a sharp, gray, single-breasted suit, takes charge. Two keyboard players echo the ends of his phrases as he drives home his message. “Let us give thanks for this gathering! Let this worship keep our young people away from drugs, away from the street!”
As he speaks, the drummer comes in under his words, setting up an insistent rhythm. As the last syllables ring out, the band leader rears back an opening note, his trombone slide reaching for the ceiling. With a mighty chord, the massed trombones swing into action. The Monday night shout band service at the United House of Prayer is underway.
… my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts …. — Isaiah 56:8
Hear it once, and your soul will never forget shout band music. It’s a tradition found only in the United House of Prayer for All People, an African-American urban Pentecostal denomination concentrated in the southeastern U.S. The massed trombones, anchored by drums, a sousaphone and often a baritone horn, create a high-energy driving sound that is very different from New Orleans jazz, perhaps its closest cousin. Roots of shout band music stretch back to Africa, with important input from the gospel quartet singing of the mid-twentieth century, all passed down person-to-person’ without written notes. Shout bands seldom perform outside the House of Prayer, but rather use their music as an integral part of church services, improvising on the spot to catch the emotions of the congregation and bring listeners into the Spirit.
To explore the shout band tradition, perhaps the best place to begin is with the Pentecostal Holiness movement, a powerful religious force starting in the early years of the twentieth century. In 1906, at an inter-racial revival on Azuza Street in Los Angeles, worshippers began speaking in tongues and moving uncontrollably as they felt possessed by the spirit of God. This emotion-charged form of worship swept the nation, catching on especially with African Americans. It recalled spiritual practices brought over from Africa during slavery times, especially the “ring shout.”
The United House of Prayer for All People grew out of the Pentecostal Holiness movement during the 1910s and 1920s, led by a charismatic evangelist named Charles Manuel “Sweet Daddy” Grace. Born in the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa, he immigrated to New England, then traveled nationwide spreading his message. On June 26, 1926, Grace launched a revival meeting in a tent pitched on a vacant lot in Charlotte’s black Second Ward neighborhood. The revival stretched on for the entire summer. Newspapers estimated that on some of the hot summer evenings “in excess of 20,000 persons … not only completely filled every available inch of space on the lot at Third and Caldwell streets, but overflowed into nearby streets and alleys.”
Daddy Grace eventually planted his church’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., but Charlotte remains the second most active center of the denomination. Over a dozen Houses are peppered throughout the metro area, and the large complex on Beatties Ford Road serves as the Mother House for all of North Carolina. For its congregants, the United House of Prayer offers activities to fill all waking hours outside of work. For young men in the United House of Prayer, a most exciting form of involvement is the shout band.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord! –Psalm 98
No one seems to know when the trombone shout band tradition began. Instrumental music is a hallmark of Pentecostal Holiness churches, and photos of House of Prayer baptisms in the 1920s show brass bands, but featuring a full range of instruments rather than massed trombones. Brass band music was popular throughout America, among-both blacks and whites, in the decades around 1900 — the era of the great brass band composer John Philip Sousa. The House of Prayer’s unique contribution to that music seems to have evolved around the 1940s. One story suggests that the music started in Houses in the vicinity of Newport News, Virginia. Another says that Daddy Grace’s sister originated the style. In any case, the fact that Bishop Grace and his core followers moved from Mother House to Mother House each fall, conducting annual Convocations, quickly spread the new sound. By Daddy Grace’s death in 1960, trombone shout bands had become a signature of the United House of Prayer for All People.
The structure of shout band music backs up the claim that it dates from the 1940s — and that structure also marks it as quite distinct from New Orleans Dixieland jazz. In the New Orleans tradition, the instruments join together to play the melody once through, then repeat the basic chord structure while each instrument takes a turn improvising a solo on top of the chords, and finally all come together for a last playing of the melody. A shout band song is structured more like the gospel quartet singing of the 1940s and 1950s. First the band plays the melody, supported by chords in quartet-like four-part harmony. This may be repeated several times with changes in ornamentation. Then the players shift into what quartet singers sometimes call “the drive,” a short rhythmic figure that is repeated again and again as the lead singer improvises exhortations. Shout band players call this repeated pattern “back-timing.” Over the back-timing, two trombonists called “run men” improvise call-and-response cries. Once the peak is passed, the band may return to the original melody or move seamlessly into another song.
Young men (and a very few young women) enter the shout band tradition early, often as soon as they can hold an instrument. Cedric Mangum, past leader of Charlotte’s Clouds of Heaven band, tells of making his own trombone from a funnel and a length of garden hose when he was less than six. Young players learn from the oldest members of the band, typically in their twenties, or from a “professor” who may offer instruction to several bands. The newest players simply blow the root of each chord, something that changes seldom during a song. As they become more adept, they move up to playing harmony notes, and may eventually become run men.
The heart of the shout band sound is the emotional power of the slide trombone, with its ability to sing or preach almost like the human voice. “You can hear somebody, when he’s playing his trombone, he’s trying to sing what he’s trying to play,” said shout band player Tim Brown in a 1989 interview. “[You’ve] you heard me lead a song by myself, ‘We’re Not Ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ'” (sings first line) ” … I played it on trombone just like somebody singing it” (hums line, using identical phrasing). “You’re trying to make the melody part really touch somebody.”
In a United House of Prayer church service, music forms an integral part of the worship in a way that seems extraordinary to listeners raised outside of the Holiness movement. During a three-hour service the band plays almost constantly, never stopping to announce a new piece. At first hearing the music seems less to be discrete tunes than an ever-changing kaleidoscope of musical patterns.
The shout band leader takes the responsibility for assembling the “collage” of segments in performance. “It really takes the leader to know,” according to Brown. “Let’s say it’s a full house, a packed house. It’s a big program. Somebody says something about their, umm, their child was sick and they prayed and the child felt better. And a lot of people start speaking in tongues, feeling good, wanting to shout. O.K., now you start off with a song …. Nobody starts off with a drive; you always start off with a song.” Sometimes the song alone will reach the audience, but usually it just begins to warm them up. “But you play ’em the shout-all of a sudden you go into that back-timing … and pull in those … run men playing that drive — and you clean the house! Everybody’s shouting!”
The way a shout band performance comes together is rooted deep in African American heritage. Indeed, scholars trace these ideas about music back to Africa itself. One characteristic is that music tends not to be so much “composed” as “collaged,” made up on the spot out of phrases that members of the community know or improvise. Another is the call-and-response pattern, as one member sings or plays a phrase and is answered by other members. Yet another African practice is that music is not set apart, but is “socially integrated” into every sort of event. Song, speech and movement are viewed as interchangeable expressive elements. The instruments most highly prized are those that have the capacity for speech-like communication, and the music must possess a propulsive rhythmic drive. There is little distinction between performer and audience; rather, all are involved in the “co-creation” of an event. Africans who came to the United States as slaves in chains could not bring musical instruments. But they carried these ideas with them and melded them with the new sounds they found in America, creating some of the world’s most vibrant music.
Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy …
The Monday night service begins about 8 p.m. with a half hour of prayer and song. Accompanied by two musicians at electronic keyboards, elders trade places praying and singing at the microphone as the Spirit moves them. The audience adds its part, with amens and comments at the ends of phrases, and particularly inspired members may rush forward for a turn at the microphone. The congregation on this night is fairly small, perhaps fifty or sixty people ranging from adults dressed in suits to teens in sweat suits to grandmothers clad in work clothes. All, except for two white visitors, are black. Some members listen closely, some talk and move about, tuning in only when the proceedings become most emotional. The casual atmosphere makes all feel welcome, encouraging everyone to make the evening service part of their life, no matter what their level of commitment.
Around 8:30 the shout band begins to play. No grandly-robed pastor stands at the front of the room, no printed program outlines the order of worship. Instead, one of the keyboard players walks to the microphone and takes charge as the evening’s leading speaker. At around 9 p.m., the band halts while two collections are taken. A second halt comes around 9:30 p.m., as a half dozen “Pentecostal Singers” in their early twenties rise to sing a series of well-rehearsed gospel songs with keyboard accompaniment. Sometime after 10 p.m., three youthful first-time preachers get their chance to try four-minute sermons on the crowd. Soon, though, the band is back. More and more church members spring up, shaking uncontrollably, speaking in tongues, or dancing hypnotically in the aisles and at the front of the room.
Toward 11 p.m., after the leader anoints the foreheads of those who desire it with holy oil, the crowd melts away. Nearly everyone in attendance has spent time front of the congregation, singing or testifying or simply possessed by the Spirit. The shout band packs up its instruments, tired but glowing from work well done. With their music, the players have helped the worshippers tonight make contact with God.
God has gone up with a shout, the Lord has gone up with the sound of trumpets.
— Psalm 47
Helping focus listeners on God, so as to invite visitation by the spirit, is the guiding purpose of the shout band tradition in the United House of Prayer. This purpose informs every aspect of the band’s sound, from the employment of trombones, to the use of harmony and driving rhythm, to the way that music is put together on the spot to catch the congregation’s emotions. “It all means one thing,” says Clouds of Heaven leader Cedric Mangum. “They’re all playing giving God’s praise.”
Published in Making Notes, Music of the Carolinas, Ann Wicker, editor, Novello Festival Press, Charlotte, NC 2008