[UPDATED] In 2001, Marty Kirkman, a California native with a long-running connection to New Orleans music, was wandering around the racetrack at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, making his way to the next performance on his fest itinerary. Like many, he held a crumpled map with mark-ups scattered top-to-bottom creating a makeshift to-do list, but it became long forgotten when he passed the Gospel Tent and, lured by the spirited music, found himself fixed there for nearly three hours.
Ten years later, Kirkman, a former manager of Dwayne Dopsie & the Hellraisers who works as a freelance event manager out of Germany, is leading a gospel camp called “Getting the Spirit” that will bring twelve European gospel enthusiasts to New Orleans. The camp, which will be held at the Center of Jesus the Lord in the French Quarter, begins this weekend and ends next Sunday, October 23 with a closing church service at Navigators Christian Fellowship on the Westbank in which participants will partner with members of Shades of Praise Gospel Choir to showcase the fruits of their labor during the camp. The traveling group, a mixture of Dutch and German residents, are of various ages and come from an array of religious backgrounds, but are equally passionate about music and intrigued by the gospel culture in New Orleans.
“New Orleans is unique on the planet in that from birth to death you can see gospel music in all facets of life,” says Kirkman. “I mean the whole jazz funeral tradition, for example, is steeped in gospel.”
As a professional in the music industry who grew up listening to R&B and jazz greats like Louis Prima, Kirkman has a lengthy relationship with Louisiana music, New Orleans in particular.
“That music has been in my soul for a long time. Although I didn’t know a lot about it at the time, I learned later in life,” says Kirkman.
Kirkman had his first bout of enthusiasm for Louisiana music while working in a cassette and 8-track factory when he was younger. Out of curiosity, he would occasionally grab an unlabeled sample and pop it into the cassette player. One day he stumbled upon a recording that intrigued him. “It just totally wigged me out,” says Kirkman. “And I thought, ‘I’ve got to know what this is. I’ve never heard anything like this.’” The album was zydeco king Clifton Chenier live, and a short time later Kirkman stood in the front row at his concert in Santa Cruz, California clad in a homemade t-shirt spelling “zydeco” across his chest. This marked the beginning of his romance with Louisiana music.
He finally made his way to the motherland in 1984 when he was offered a position at a booking agency specializing in Louisiana music. Since then he has traveled to New Orleans over 60 times and has had the opportunity to work with artists like Earl King, Johnny Adams, and Rebirth Brass Band.
Kirkman’s quasi-hypnotic experience at Jazz Fest, however, was about the extent of his gospel music experience when, after moving to Germany in 2002 to accompany his German wife, he was asked to join a gospel music choir called “Gospel and More.” Although skeptical of his amateur abilities, having never sung beyond the privacy of his shower doors, Kirkman was enthusiastic about this music he had so thoroughly enjoyed in the past. In the choir, however, he didn’t experience that same momentum that filled the Gospel Tent at Jazz Fest.
“They looked like a handful of pencils on the stage,” says Kirkman. “Nobody was moving. Everyone was still, not smiling, and I thought, ‘Is anybody getting it?’ It was very different from what I was used to, and I’m not a person who usually complains like that. If I see something that needs to change, I work to change it.”
In 2005, Kirkman decided to take his choir leader Brigitte Stumpf-Gieselmann, now the camp’s Musical Coordinator, and four other Germans to Jazz Fest to experience his notion of gospel music.
“Brigitte started noticing that there was more to it than just the notes on the page, and when we returned it really changed the spirit of our choir,” says Kirkman.
While in New Orleans, the six also attended Jazz and Heritage Foundation’s Gospel Is Alive concert at the Mahalia Jackson Theater, where, according to Kirkman, the idea for a gospel camp started brewing.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got to bring education to connect the words with the spirit because that’s truly gospel,” says Kirkman. “If their spirit is not connected, it’s just music. When gospel music was introduced to them, the German people loved it, but it didn’t speak to their tradition too much, so people weren’t really getting the deeper meaning—they weren’t getting the spirit.
“Being able to proclaim your belief, to shout your belief, to sing your belief is somewhat of a strange concept in Germany,” Kirkman adds. “It’s not a part of the tradition in Europe like it is in America. I want to show them how gospel connects to everyday life, how people live gospel, how you can hear it everywhere you go, says Kirkman. “[In New Orleans] you can be sitting in a bar and hear gospel, and that’s something you don’t have in Europe.”
Concerts given by touring American gospel choirs have also become a part of German popular culture. These professional ensembles often produce glitzy, high-quality choreographed performances that commercialize and distort the authentic quality of grassroots gospel music.
“When it was announced that there was an American gospel band coming to the city, I immediately bought tickets,” says Kirkman, “but it was just a show, like a Broadway show, with the same old repertoire and choreographed moves.”
“That connection between the music and the spirituality is missing,” he says, “but there is a motivation to learn and understand the deeper meaning of the music. That’s the whole purpose of the camp—it’s a chance to connect people, to take them to a church and show them that gospel isn’t something you have to buy tickets to see at the theater.”
Hurricane Katrina put Kirkman’s camp concept on hold, until he made another visit to New Orleans in 2007 for his 50th birthday celebration. His inspiration, dampened by the sight of Katrina’s devastation, was rejuvenated by Clyde Lawrence and his Singing Mustangs, after he watched their riveting performance at that year’s Gospel is Alive concert.
“Clyde epitomized everything that I wanted to project about living Gospel,” says Kirkman, and after a difficult process of tracking him down, the two discussed Kirkman’s desire to bring a group of European gospel musicians to New Orleans to listen to and learn from Southern gospel music at its roots. Lawrence was in. “Now that you’ve found me, you’re not going to be able to get rid of me,” he told Kirkman. Lawrence will now serve as the Collaboration Choir Director of the camp.
Next, Kirkman pursued Al Bemiss after he was recommended by several of his musical colleagues in New Orleans. Al Bemiss, the director of the multi-cultural New Orleans gospel choir Shades of Praise, will serve as the camp’s choir leader.
Completing the staff is Barbara Frazier, the mother of Rebirth Brass Band’s founders, Keith and Phil Frazier, and a “second mother” to Kirkman. Kirkman fostered a friendship with Frazier while working with Rebirth. He spent two months in New Orleans traveling with the band as a consultant, exploring neighborhood clubs, and becoming a part of the musicians’ inner circle during the time that “Do Whatcha Wanna” was first becoming a hit.
Because of Frazier, Kirkman says, “I always feel that I’m home when I’m in New Orleans.” As the camp’s pianist and organist, Frazier, tenderly dubbed “Mama Rebirth,” will share her musical wisdom and affectionate aura with the participants.
And so with a hand-selected staff in tow and after a year of bureaucratic hurdles, (it takes three kinds of insurance to become a “travel promoter” in Germany), Kirkman’s camp concept advances from imagination to reality this weekend.
During the camp, travelers will meet with prominent members of the city’s gospel community, from choir leaders to music promoters, learn about the history and spiritual elements of gospel in New Orleans, collaborate with a local choir to rehearse popular songs, witness an authentic Southern Baptist church service, and finally, perform at a service with the Shades of Praise choir.
“It’s a lot of Europeans’ dream to come to New Orleans in the first place, and if they like singing gospel music, to attend a church service,” says Kirkman. “Having a chance to sing in [one] with an American partner choir, that’s very special for Europeans. It’s something I hope to be free enough to do on this adventure, as it’s a dream of mine as well.”
Of course Kirkman also plans to give participants’ stomachs a tour of the culinary paradise that is New Orleans and allow their ears to browse the various genres that comprise the city’s rich musical catalog. He has cultural programs planned to get them acquainted with the many dimensions of the city. He also hopes to give something back to the New Orleans community, by exposing their partner choir to European culture and even performing and teaching them a few European songs. “I’m really hoping for a cultural exchange,” says Kirkman. “I’m hoping that the partner choir can also experience a little of what each person has to offer. Each of the twelve participants has their own experiences, unique in their own right, and they’re bringing something special to the table. Two are choir leaders themselves.”
With the pilot year underway, Kirkman aspires to make the camp an annual tradition.
“We’ve already got dates for the next year,” he says. I hope we can get the second year rolling as soon as I get back from the first.”
When he first conceived the idea for a gospel camp, he questioned whether he should set it in New Orleans or Chicago, often said to be the site of gospel’s start.
“But when I looked at the two cultures, it was really clear,” says Kirkman. “When you walk around the city, no matter what you’re doing in New Orleans, you’re connected to that gospel music—you really are.”
Updated November 3, 2011, 11:45 a.m.
Kirkman was identified as a current manager of Dwayne Dopsie. He ended his association with Dopsie last year.