In a music capital with limited resources, churches support their communities with vibrant arts and music programming.
Memphis is considered a music capital, but like other cities across the country, music and arts
programs are drastically cut each year from school budgets and programming.
Churches in Memphis respond to that need through hiring professional musicians and hosting youth-oriented arts programming.
There are over 2,000 churches in Memphis and Shelby County. Icons like Aretha Franklin, Al Green and Mavis Staples got their start in the church, a well known gem to find raw and real talent.
While the city is on the cusp of a reviving music and artistic district with developments such as Overton Square, New Ballet Ensemble & School, Hattiloo Theatre and Memphis Slim House, one ubiquitous community staple has invested in the arts and musicians.
The New Olivet Worship Center in Cordova boasts a congregation of almost 2,000. Led by pastor Dr. Kenneth Whalum Jr., the church founded a K-3 charter school with an emphasis on arts programming. Located in Orange Mound, the Arrow Academy of Excellence offers extracurricular programs in dance fitness, theatre, drama and violin.
New Olivet’s music ministry program is a key pillar in worship at the non-denominational church.
“An effective music ministry must have a willing congregation who expects excellence but who can also be excellent despite the shortcomings of the music,” Whalum explained. “Then you need a musical pastor or leader, not necessarily a musician, but one who knows the importance of good music, and one who is always dissatisfied with the status quo and is always striving to improve.”
Preston Clark (L) and Kennith Shephard are members of New Olivet's house band.
How does this translate for Memphis? An effective music program must have a music leader or administration that knows the importance of music and the effects it has on their students as well as their families, school boards that desire for students to not simply be talented, but educated in music theory and discipline and the support of families and communities.
“What I notice about church musicians is that some of them never achieve freedom because of the absence of music education like theory, how to read music,” said Whalum. “If you know how to read music, you can write music and leave music for other musicians to learn.”
Music runs in Whalum’s family in addition to the halls of his church. Whalum’s three sons, Kenneth III, Kortland, and Kameron, are world-renowned musicians and artists who have worked with superstars such as Maxwell, Wynton Marsalis and Bruno Mars.
Pastor Kenneth Whalum said that music is an integral part of his church.
And Whalum’s younger brother, Kirk Whalum, is not a stranger to jazz and R&B either as he’s played for legends from Whitney Houston to Lalah Hathaway.
Timothy Moore, keyboardist, has been playing for the church for 11 years. At 33, he’s only had two formal lessons since picking up an instrument at 11-years-old, learning to play on his grandmother’s piano.
For many, playing in church is a way to be a professional musician without technical training.
While Moore has had other jobs, he says the church has provided an atmosphere that most of his side employers never offered: A stable income and a state of mental wellness.
“It provides me with the strength to cope with the normal stresses of life and work productively and fruitfully,” said Moore.
Even in the absence of a formal education, Moore give credit to his direct supervisor, Dr. Allen Todd, the church’s minister of music and Harris’ professor at Lane College. He says Dr. Todd showed him “ a new world of music.”
Todd oversees the church’s sanctuary choir which is composed of adults over 18 as well as a youth choir, a male chorus and a female chorus and a six-piece band. He also serves as choreographer for special events such as the church’s annual black history program.
“What I notice about church musicians is that some of them never achieve freedom because of the absence of music education like theory, how to read music."
Todd latched on to music when he first heard the work of Beethoven when he was five years old and living in California. He recalls a childhood spent pretending to be a music director in the privacy of his room. At the time, schools in the state had limited music and arts programs.
Todd would first play sports in high school and later join the spring musical. Yet, his formal training came from the church through vigorous practice and playing by ear like most church musicians. Todd moved to Memphis in 1998 to work for New Olivet.
In his experience, he has seen musicians use their gift to overcome personal obstacles and hardship in a way that, sometimes, a sermon could not.
“I’ve tried to help however I can with my musicians, and there has even been butting of the heads, but that’s because of the discipline that I and music requires,” he said.
Thomas Jones is a member of New Olivet's house band.
The discipline required of musical training and the community support that comes from a church environment could be a bulwark against youth crime in Memphis.
Roslyn Brewer is an adult and child therapist who works with guidance counselors in many schools, primarily in West Memphis. In her experience, she’s seen her clients improve their behavior when they’re able to concentrate on self-expression through art and music.
“I have clients who are very involved in churches and whose guardians are their grandparents. Those kids are usually in the choirs, and it’s noticeable how much those activities benefit them,” said Brewer.
Brewer has an 18-year-old client who enjoys rapping but has had some behavioral problems in the past. The young man had a history with gang activity and was heavily involved in sports. Brewer sees how music has allowed him to control his emotions.
Dr. Allen Todd directs the Sunday choir at New Olivet Worship Center.
“It’s helpful for him because he’s able to recognize what he feels especially with the grieving of his grandmother. He’s able to relax and emote in a safe space,” said Brewer.
Shelby County Schools has a history of making drastic cuts to music programs even with research linking arts education to a child’s growth, development and success.
SCS board commissioner Kevin Woods said that the school district, while in good financial standing, needs additional support from state and local governments to allow SCS to sustain or expand arts programming.
“In order to build well rounded citizens, school districts must expose students to an education experience that will give them multiple options for enrichment and academic advancement,” he said, adding that his priority is to prevent additional cuts to art funding.
Like Whalum’s sons, Memphis children are born into music and the arts from Stax Records in South Memphis to Sun Studios. As another Memphis institution, churches can provide the artistic discipline and resources to shape the next generation of Memphis musicians.