PROFILE: Organist Gumbs blends worlds through declining art

Courtesy of Nathaniel Gumbs

When Nathaniel Gumbs first sat down at the keyboard, he was dwarfed by the cavernous dimensions of Woolsey Hall – a solitary spotlight shone on the solitary figure below an empty stage, his back turned to the audience.

But the moment his hands braved the opening chord of Alfred Hollins’ C minor overture, Gumbs and the sound of the Newberry organ exploded through the room, the walls vibrating with the resonance of the organ.

Nathaniel Gumbs has been director of chapel music at Yale for the past five years. As Director of Chapel Music, Gumbs coordinates music for Yale University Church, Marquand Chapel, and Berkeley Divinity School.

On September 18 at Woolsey Hall – in the first concert of the Great Organ Music At Yale series – Gumbs traversed a diverse and imaginative program, covering staples of the European organ repertoire, classical music by African-American composers and gospel music, even including a steel pan and a dancer.

“People don’t think of the organ working together with a dancer and a steel pan,” said Leo Davis, a minister at Mississippi Boulevard Church and a friend of Gumbs who attended his concert at the Woolsey. Hall on September 18. . “[Gumbs] expands the spectrum – it shows people the different ways the organ can be experienced. It creates a trend with the instrument.

Gumbs’ foundation in music began in the church, he said. Growing up in Trinity Baptist Church, a black Baptist church in the Bronx, Gumbs was surrounded by music. This eventually led him to tell his mother that he wanted to learn the piano.

Gumbs began teaching himself the piano on a keyboard his mother bought him for Christmas, using church hymns to teach him to read music. It matched the notes with the keys in the “tutorial books that came with the keyboard”.

At age 11, he began learning from church musicians. James Abbington – Gumbs’ longtime mentor and current professor of theology and church worship at the Candler School of Theology – remembers the time well.

“Every time I came, [Gumbs] would always be right next to the organ. [Gumbs’] name is Nat, and he was like a little gnat that hovered around the organ bench and everything I did,” Abbington said. “When I turned around, he was there. If I played the organ, he was there to try to see what I pull on the organ, what I play, how my feet move.

During Gumbs’ junior year of high school, Abbington referred him to a piano teacher who exposed him to the Western European canon and a more classical approach to music to further develop him as a musician. .

Abbington emphasized how supportive the church is of his musical endeavours, fondly describing Gumbs’ main recital turnout as “the equivalent of coming to Easter Sunday morning service.”

After high school, Gumbs entered the Shenandoah Conservatory as a piano specialist, where he took his first formal organ lesson outside of playing in church and high school. He then turned to studying the organ in his second year, where he spent “endless, sleepless nights in the practice rooms until the sun came up”.

“I became really good friends with the security guard,” he said.

After his undergraduate studies, Gumbs went to Yale University, where he earned his master’s degree in music studying with Martin Jean, a professor at the Institute of Sacred Music and Music.

He then became music and arts director at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of the largest black Baptist churches in the South. After three years, he went to the Eastman School of Music to earn his doctorate, after which he was appointed Director of Chapel Music at Yale.

As a concert organist, according to his organicGumbs has performed in the United States and abroad and was recognized by “The Diapason” magazine in 2017 as one of the 20 Outstanding Organists Under 30 for Achievements in Organ Performance and Music. church music.

But these successes have not come without obstacles. Gumbs faced challenges as a black musician in a traditionally white-dominated field.

“In the field of classical organ, there are very few African Americans,” he said. “I can actually count on one hand, maybe two hands, of black concert performers, and I struggled with that – when I was going to conventions or browsing organ magazine, I’ve always only seen white faces or white or white organists so I would sometimes think that maybe this is just not a domain for a black person.

He cited Martin Luther King Jr. as an inspiration, telling the News that while there weren’t many black artists in the field when he entered, he hoped to help inspire others by being “the dark face” of organ playing.

Gumbs thinks he can bring his unique experience of growing up in a black community in a black church and studying at a conservatory where he learned Western European literature.

“I have both worlds and both sounds in my head,” he said.

He also considers it important to promote black composers and other voices that are not part of the typical classical canon, especially in an area of ​​classical organ that is “known as dying” – the departments of organ represent some of the smallest music departments, and many churches that used to feature organ music are doing so less and less.

Abbington said the arrogance and elitism of the field are factors in the “decline” of organ music, lamenting “the drying up of churches with some of the best acoustics and instruments”.

People like Gumbs can help save organ music, Abbington said, pointing to Gumbs’ exploration of new repertoire and his “reimagining” of works that would otherwise be considered “outdated, boring or irrelevant.” the sounds and pleasures of today”.

He believes that Gumbs’ accomplishments are just the beginning of his contributions to the music field.

“To quote the scriptures, eyes have not seen and ears have not heard what God truly has in store for him,” he said.

There are currently six organs on the Yale campus.

Tobias Liu | [email protected]

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