Obituary: Sherman Washington (1925-2011)

Sherman Washington of the Zion Harmonizers. Photo by Kim Welsh.

Sherman Washington. Photo courtesy of the Zion Harmonizers.

For 70 years, Sherman Washington, Jr. led the Zion Harmonizers, helping bring gospel music out of the churches and into the larger music community. Washington, who passed away on March 14 at the age of 85, joined the Zion Harmonizers shortly after they were organized in 1939 by the late Pastor Benjamin Maxon. Within two years, Washington had taken the group to the center of the city’s dynamic gospel music community.

New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Founder and Producer Quint Davis worked with Washington to start the Gospel Tent. “You had Mahalia Jackson, who was sort of the Louis Armstrong of the gospel world,” he says. “What Sherman did was bring the entire gospel community and the whole range of styles to the attention of the world.

“I don’t think, going back into the ’70s, and ’80s, that there was any other festival that was featuring in a central role traditional gospel music out of the church,” Davis says. “We helped to produce the tent, but Sherman got the music.”

But for Washington, the music always served a higher purpose. Brazella Briscoe, his successor as President of the Zion Harmonizers, said his mentor had limitless energy when it came to spreading the good news through the music. “On his way into church or whatever function we attended, everything stopped and the people greeted him,” Briscoe says.

Washington would play four or five shows per week with the Zion Harmonizers and put on church functions every weekend, Briscoe said, all while holding down a day job with Boh Brothers Construction for 36 years. Washington, who was born in Thibodeaux on December 13, 1925, is survived by his wife Shirley Mae Washington, and his children Sherman Washington, Byron Washington, Myron Boyd, Avery Boyd, Denise Washington Jolly, JaNice Scott and Ardine Boyd. He also leaves behind 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

The Zion Harmonizers are celebrating their 72nd anniversary this year. “I decided not to cancel anything or postpone anything,” Briscoe says. “We’re going to go straight on through, and the people will be able to enjoy his life in some form or another.”