A life immersed in music

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Saturday mornings were different for the Rev. Cynthia A. Wilson growing up in New Orleans, compared to what her friends experienced. While they played in the park or watched cartoons, she sang with her family — she’s one of six children of a pastor — on a local radio show.

“We were standing in front of a microphone in a radio station,” Wilson recalled, “and this radio station had this great big glass window.

“Well, people would come and stand outside to watch whoever it was on the radio.”

After the show, people would treat them like stars, telling them how they were inspired by the music or a particular song.

“We also had pastors who would come and sit around the radio station to listen to what we were doing, and then they would try to duplicate that in their churches,” she said.

Decades later, as the founder and director of the new Junius B. Dotson Institute for Music and Worship in the Black Church and Beyond, she has again taken on the role of influencing church music programs to continually innovate and improve.

“It’s kind of like all my life I’ve been doing something that helped others see what’s possible, especially when it comes to music,” she said.

The Dotson Institute, established in partnership with Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and named after the late Rev. Junius Dotson, will provide training for musicians and worship leaders in the sacred music of Africana church traditions. Wilson describes it as “an experience, rather than a location,” with educational events popping up in different cities. Wilson took in a lot more than Gospel music growing up in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz and a center of rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues.

“So jazz, blues, contemporary and traditional Gospel, Mahalia Jackson—those are the folks who I grew up with in my ear,” Wilson said. “Bourbon Street was a part of that.

“My oldest brother and I would sneak down to Bourbon Street and sometimes sit in on sets by people like Thelonious Monk and Carmen McRae and Al Hirt,” Wilson said. “We would pray to God that we wouldn’t run into any of my father’s members down there.”

There were similarities between Gospel and secular music, she noted.

“In fact, there wasn’t really much difference,” she said. “The participation of the audience, the call and the response, all of those things have really played a major part in what I remember about what music is doing in the body of Christ. So I was inspired by those experiences.”

Wilson earned a degree in music education from Dillard University in New Orleans.

“It was at Dillard University (that) the late and great and amazing Dr. Frederick D. Hall, a composer and conductor, was one of the major influences in terms of my understanding of choral music and particularly classical music,” Wilson said. “Then, of course, I had the joy of matriculating to Perkins School of Theology, sitting at the knee of the late Roger Deschner (longtime professor of sacred music at Perkins) and understanding how it is that the Vienna Boys Choir was able to make this sound, this piercing vibratoless sound.”

Wilson most recently served as executive director of worship resources and director of liturgical resources at United Methodist Discipleship Ministries, and her lengthy resume also includes serving as director of music at the 2000 General Conference and working on the task forces that produced the “Songs of Zion” and the “Zion Still Sings! For Every Generation” songbooks.

An acclaimed singer, Wilson was the “Best Female Vocalist” at the 1998 Gospel Choice Awards and a Grammy nominee. She has shared the stage with Edwin Hawkins, Nancy Wilson, Patti LaBelle, Shirley Caesar, Cissy Houston, Lionel Hampton and the Rev. James Cleveland.

All of her experiences have led to what she calls her “primary calling” with the Junius B. Dotson Institute for Music and Worship in the Black Church and Beyond.

“It’s important to keep in mind this idea of beyond, she said. “It isn’t just the one genre. It isn’t just the one approach. They serve to enrich each other.

“I get so excited about incorporating these various ways in which we can create.”

Return to main story, ‘It’s an experience’: Kickoff for Dotson institute


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