Three years ago, psychologist and theologian Mike Cowen, along with jazz singer Phillip Manuel, founded the interracial gospel choir Shades of Praise with the goal of creating a shared space where people from different backgrounds could come together to work toward a common goal. Shades of Praise had its first official performance at Trinity Episcopal Church on Sept. 12, 2001 -- a timing that added a poignant urgency to its message.
The group is now 60 members strong with a CD (There's a Blessing on the Way) and a Big Easy nomination for "Best Gospel Choir." When Mayor Ray Nagin launched the city's "Care Again" campaign last year, Shades of Praise was selected to perform a series of five concerts to promote the message.
Keyboard player Al Bemiss, who had worked with Manuel as music director of Cornerstone United Methodist Church, is musical director of Shades of Praise. "Shades of Praise is getting the sum of my experience of all my years," says Bemiss, who also has worked as the music director for the touring company of the musical One Mo' Time, and has played keyboards for Clarence "Frogman" Henry's band for the past 27 years.
Shades of Praise performs a variety of both contemporary and traditional gospel, but Bemiss says he puts his deep gospel roots into each song. "My father was a Baptist preacher, so I've been hearing gospel all my life," he says. "But I try to do a wide range of things to accommodate all the different voices, so obviously, it's multi-faceted music. It's a mix of finesse and gutbucket, hard-core gospel." Among the choir members, there's a diversity of both cultural and musical backgrounds -- half the members have sung in choirs all their lives, while the other half is embracing the music for the first time. Bemiss has leveled the playing field by teaching everyone to learn their parts by ear, which seems an apt metaphor for the lesson Shades of Praise tries to teach its members as well as its audiences: In order to create perfect harmony, you must first learn to hear one another.