The Gospel According to Dennis
At a young age, Assistant Professor Dennis Montgomery III, director of Berklee's Reverence Gospel Choir and other gospel ensembles, believed that gospel music would be his calling. He grew up singing and playing organ in Baptist churches in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, and cites his parents as his main musical influences. "My father was the minister of music at Stonewall Baptist Church in Shreveport," Montgomery said. "I used to love watching him play the Hammond B3, and, as a matter of fact, I still do. He plays hardcore gospel and r&b—mainly by ear. My mother also played the organ, but due to her training, she was more classically oriented."
By the time he was nine years old, Dennis, was proficient enough on the B3 to get hired to work alongside his father at Stonewall and also at nearby St. Mary Baptist Church. "The experience I got at those churches gave me a solid foundation to build my musical career on. As well, bringing home $100 a month seemed like a pretty good chunk of change for a nine-year old in Louisiana in the 1970s."
Montgomery came to Berklee in 1983, declared piano as his principal instrument and majored in Music Education. "As soon as I got here," he said, "I joined the Gospel Choir; it was still in its embryonic stages. At that time, the choir was only two years old and was an extra curricular activity, not a course you could take for credit." Montgomery jumped in alongside former faculty member Orville Wright, who was then directing the choir, and became a student director and accompanist.
The next year, the gospel choir was formally added to the curriculum as a two-credit class which Montgomery sees as an important addition to Berklee's course offerings. "I think it was significant because of the jazz emphasis here at Berklee," said Montgomery. "We know that jazz has its roots in the Negro Spiritual, which is gospel music. Gospel is also the mother of a lot of other secular music that America has produced. I am thankful that the administration of the college—Lee Berk in particular—wanted to make it part of the curriculum. I don't think a lot of other college presidents back then would have been as open as he was. Lee saw the potential for where this group could go."
In fact, under Montgomery's leadership, Berklee's Reverence Gospel Choir has become one of the best-known ensembles at the college and beyond. Its appeal crosses boundaries of musical style as well as ethnicity. Over the years, the choir has included students from Japan, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Taiwan, Australia, Canada, and a number of European and Scandinavian nations among its members. When the choir entered a New York gospel music competition sponsored by the Black Music Caucus, there was skepticism among the audence members as they watched the multi-ethnic group from Berklee take the stage. Nonetheless, their singing soon brought the audience to their feet, and the group placed second among the college ensembles in the competition that year.
Montgomery's thorough knowledge of gospel music traditions is a major reason why the choir's music sounds authentic and has the effect that it does on so many different people. Montgomery has his own theories about the the broad appeal of the group. "In a biblical context, the word gospel means 'good news.' Whether people come to listen or to join in and sing, people naturally want to spread good news. This brings people of all races, creeds, and colors together. It's something that seems to happen automatically with gospel music."
He sees the Reverence Gospel Choir as a vital color in the spectrum of the Berklee experience and in the larger American experience for the international students who come here. "When I was young," he said, "I had to learn European musical styles. So when foreign students come to Berklee, I think it is important to educate them in a true form of American music."
Montgomery has witnssed a change it attitude among other Boston-based gospel choirs who now feature singers of various races and ethnic backgrounds. Having worked with the choir for more than 18 years, Montgomery has seen the fruits of his labors in the careers of those who have sung with the choir. Among those who have passed through and gone on to successful careers are Paula Cole '90, Lalah Hathaway '90, and Susan Tedeschi '91. Guitarist Mark Whitfield '87 who has recorded for the Warner, Polygram, and Transparent labels, used to play with the choir when he was a student. Another, Rob Lewis 86, went on to become music director for Brian McKnight and has toured with several other name artists.
Montgomery has also accepted overseas bookings for the nine-piece gospel vocal ensemble Overjoyed. In 1997 they played in Fukuoka and Osaka, Japan. He recently returned from Aarau, Switzerland, where Overjoyed premiered a new work for big band and chorus titled Proverbs. Montgomery views these sojourns as opportunities that give his students valuable experience and give him a chance to expand the legacy of gospel music. "The Bible says, 'Go ye therefore and teach all nations,'" he said. "I take that in a musical sense. The whole world has become my classroom, and I like that."