Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972), Queen of Gospel Music
In 1993, the New Orleans City Council voted to rename the city’s theater for opera, dance, and musical performances to the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts in honor of the famed and beloved New Orleans gospel singer. This landmark venue in Armstrong Park itself is a sort of document of the past.
The overall park in which it sits was once a part of Congo Square, where slaves were allowed to sing and dance and have a Sunday market, not far from the once-famed Storyville district, and much later, where the first Jazz and Heritage Festival was held. Today it is named for jazz musician Louis Armstrong. The Mahalia Jackson Theater is a testament to a woman whose powerful voice is long remembered and who herself performed at the first Jazz and Heritage Festival. By then, she was an internationally known singer, as well known as Louis Armstrong, and like him more than a musician. She was a leader, a conscience.
Jackson was born and grew up in the Uptown neighborhood of Carrollton, in a section called Black Pearl, far from this location where the theater now sits. As a very young child she began singing in neighborhood churches. Religious songs would be her lifelong specialty but she also recalled being moved by the blues, especially by the voice of Bessie Smith. As Jackson would recall, Bessie Smith’s voice “had soul…Her music haunted you even when she stopped singing…I don't sing the blues myself…But you've got to know what the blues meant to us then…The Negroes all over the South kept those blues playing to give us relief from our burdens and to give us courage…" At age 16, she moved to Chicago where she found work as a laundress, waitress, and eventually as a singer. One classically trained teacher there once asked her “to stop hollering” when she sang, but she refused.
Her career was one of a steady climb to fame, with initial recordings coming in the 1930s. In the 1940s, she worked extensively with Thomas A. Dorsey, a gospel music pioneer. By the 1950s and 1960s, she was well known across the United States through radio and television appearances. Her part in the film Imitation of Life (1959) is still also recalled as one of the most important moments in the memories of generations of movie-goers. In 1963, she sang at the Great March on Washington, and in 1968, she sang at the funeral of Martin Luther King. She rarely returned to her hometown and was not afraid to say that it was because of the discrimination African Americans faced in the city of New Orleans.
In terms of an exploration of her archival record, one can trace the places and people mentioned in Movin On Up, her autobiography (1966), and can search traces of interviews and other materials at the Chicago History Museum, the Library of Congress, Tulane University, and the Historic New Orleans Collection. One can read about the way she was remembered for the 100th anniversary of her birth in 2011, can view images and performances available online, through images in the Library of Congress (digital holdings as well as others in their collections, such as that of the NAACP), and, through newspapers, find how she was written about in her lifetime. Her funerals-one in Chicago and one in New Orleans-are worthy of study. In New Orleans thousands of mourners joined the mayor and governor in the Rivergate Convention Center. There was a funeral cortege of 24 limousines, which made their way past her childhood home where loudspeakers played her songs.
Her voice still evokes something beyond power and emotion, some amazing touch to conscience, but her archival record is more elusive, thus also wonderfully challenging.