Stereotypical musicians stay up late Saturday, jamming 'til the wee hours in some smoky club with velvet drapes. (Never mind that Boston banned smoking in clubs several years ago.) They're night owls, not early birds.
Yet every Sunday morning, a contingent of Berklee students, faculty, staff, and alumni wake up to play. The college community is deeply entrenched in Boston's churches and gospel music world.
Berklee has a gospel choir, led by associate professor Dennis Montgomery III, that has lots of fans. But the genre doesn't stay in the classroom.
A number of popular area churches are rife with Berklee musicians, said Sean Skeete, assistant chair of the Ensemble Department, and Otto Gross II, a student. Their lists include the Jubilee Christian Center, New Life, Morning Star Baptist, Abundant Life, Kingdom Builders, and Greater Life Tabernacle.
Participation is high. Gross estimated that as high as "85 to 90 percent of African-Americans" in the student body are involved with gospel, as are a few people of other races.
As with any other kind of music, casual connections are key for landing a spot. "First, you network here," Gross said. "You'll branch out somewhere and find a church."
Gospel musicians also have jam sessions, called "sheds," which tend to be heavy on drummers and piano players, Gross said. One he attended in Washington, D.C. drew 120 to 130 people.
The music you'll find in a church varies. At a church with an older congregation, Gross played "a lot of hymns and old spirituals." Younger parishioners wanted contemporary gospel. The members of student Matthew Williams's home church love tinges of Caribbean soca, and he adds a dose of jazz.
Gross appreciated the opportunity to play the older material. "You get to learn your roots—when you're 19 years old and you're playing old gospel."
The importance of these musicians became clear at the Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan on a December Sunday. Jerome Kyles, an assistant professor in the Voice Department, has been the musical director for the 2,500-member congregation for almost a decade.
Music carries most of Morning Star's Sunday service—so much so that a singer-minister warned the congregation, "This is not a show!" Instead, she said, "This is our chance to stand on our feet and raise our hands."
Justin Claiborne, a Berklee student, kicked off the service as the lead in the five-person Praise and Worship vocal team. He alternated between singing in a light, smooth tenor and preaching about his experiences growing up African-American. He attends Berklee on a full-ride scholarship thanks to his participation in the college's youth outreach program City Music Boston.
The first half-hour of the service consisted entirely of music—contemporary gospel flecked with jazz and r&b, high-energy and very loud. The congregation, many dressed in red and black, stood up and sang or clapped along. A woman on the pulpit interpreted the lyrics into American Sign Language. About 25 minutes of preaching followed, with Kyles playing softly on the organ. After that, the children's choir sang, and a vocal ensemble performed.
The band consisted largely of Berklee-ites: Gregory Huegel, a student, on keyboard; alumni Gerald and Dave Langford on bass and keyboard; alumnus Anthony Speele on drums; and Kyles, who alternated between singing and playing the electric organ.
"A lot of students have come through here," Kyles said. (Some also sing from the stands; the church sends a van to pick up students from various colleges.)
Their efforts certainly were appreciated. "I love the music," said parishioner Karen Cedant, 17. A dancer, Cedant especially appreciated the band's rhythmic chops. "I guess 'cause they go to Berklee they have a lot of experience changing the beat," she said.
Money does come into the picture; many churches pay their musicians, Gross said: "I know certain people that just want to go for the money." However, for him the experience is much more than that. "I want to make sure the pastor is where I want him or her to be spiritually," he said.
Morning Star is more than a gig for Huegel, a second-semester keyboard principal who used to play gospel in Connecticut. "I just love the church and I love being here," he said.
"I have grown up playing and singing gospel music my entire life," Kyles said. "I have a really great love for it."
That emotion came through like a clarion call when Kyles stood up, festive in his red vest, to give the "musical offering" after the preaching. He sang his heart out.