They're coming in now, elegant in their dark suits.
Three dozen musicians, ages 8 to 81, toting inside their trombone cases a bright, loud, joyous Charlotte tradition: shout music.
An all-star band spanning three generations, they join us from across the city for a one-of-a-kind gathering. They're going to play a little and tell us about the community of music at the United House of Prayer.
Shout music is like NASCAR: They have it all over the country, but we do it right.
“When people ask, ‘What's special about Charlotte culture?' one of the answers is shout band music,” says Tom Hanchett, staff historian of the Levine Museum of the New South. Like the church, the music has done much of its growing up in Charlotte.
Have a seat. We're here in the United House of Prayer temple at Ninth and Davidson streets, where the men are settling into folding chairs and pews. The afternoon sun streams in the windows.
What is shout music?
“It's a gumbo,” says Gregory Patton, 52, a former Charlotte bandleader.
A mix of gospel and jazz, shout music began in United House of Prayer parades in the 1920s. A band is mostly trombones – often a dozen – reaching up to heaven and pulling down inspiration. Pounding around them are a tuba or two, a bass drum, snare drum and other percussion instruments. The band can take an old-fashioned hymn and fill it with a lively holy spirit.
The musicians show us. First they play a straight version of a hymn, “Ease My Troubled Mind.” Even, smooth, plodding.
Then they play the song as a shout, and they blow the roof off the place.
With the first note, a small boy darts across the room and snatches up a tambourine. The bandleader blurts out a melody line on his trombone, and the band blares back support, riffing off his riff.
Everyone is moving, stomping feet, rocking in their seats. The old men shout. “Give it to God!” The tambourine rattles. And it's loud. It feels like a marching band and a gospel choir are ganging up on you. And God is rooting for them.
Who loves this music?
“Our music draws people to church,” says Cedric Mangum, 47, one of Charlotte's top bandleaders.
“United House of Prayer temples are built in the lowest neighborhoods, so people have a refuge. So they don't have far to go. They follow that music.”
Patton nods. “We're a drawing card.”
You might see House of Prayer bands uptown on weekend nights, or at ballgames. With a box set out for donations and a circle of appreciative listeners, a dozen musicians young and old blow through hymns.
But if mainstream America now appreciates shout music, that hasn't always been true. In 1938, the S.C. Supreme Court closed a United House of Prayer temple in Columbia, ruling it was a public nuisance because of “unearthly sounds, use of drums, trombones, horns, and scrubbing boards.”
“When I was a boy, other churches said our music didn't belong in church,” says Fred Alexander, 71. “But we point to Psalm 150: ‘Praise ye the Lord. Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet.'”
Is it written down?
“The way we play it, you can't write it,” says Mangum. “When we're in church, we go off spirit. We go the way the Lord wants us to go. Every time, it's different.”
“We improvise so much,” says Patton. “There are great secular musicians, and we could play with them. But they couldn't play with us.”
The bands push each other further with improvised fury. In a service, two bands will often face off. As one blares to the heavens, the other sits stone-faced, sizing them up.
How do you learn?
“No one teaches you,” says Rodrick Mangum, 25, Cedric's son. “It starts when you're a baby.”
In the United House of Prayer, tiny boys play air trombone with their fists. Then they proudly lug a battered old horn, longer than they are tall.
“You don't even realize you're taking it in,” says Patton.
“I got my first horn when I was very small,” says Alexander. “It cost $3, and was a metal clarinet – all one piece. I was so ashamed. But an older man told me, ‘Just as long as you can fill that horn, son.'”
What was it like in the old days?
“We went to California every year,” says “Poor Sammie” Bolden, 81. In the '50s and '60s, his band traveled to other temples and national gatherings.
“We took the Southern route, and there was lots of segregation then. Before we left town, the women would load us up with pies and fruit in the car. We had to know the places where we could stop, to eat or use the restroom. We had to go in the back door. But we saw the country because of those bands. We wouldn't have traveled like that otherwise.”
Patton's dad would often go on such trips.
“They used to put us up in the window of the car for those long rides,” he says. “Us little fellahs. We'd go, too.”
The greatest shout musician?
“Abe Miles,” says Cedric Mangum. “Abe Miles could walk down the street playing his trombone, and the people who were drunk would somehow sober up and follow him into church.”
Miles is a legend from the 1930s, like a Negro Leagues baseball player whose greatness is remembered only by a few.
“He would walk along Third Street at dawn, playing,” says Clifford Young, 70. “And he would lead folks into sunrise services.”
“He had a drawing power,” says Alexander. “A charisma. People would say, ‘He can make that trombone talk.'”
What about the best bands?
Around the room, men throw out names:
The Sons of Thunder.
The Kings of Harmony.
The Lively Stones.
The Bumble Bees.
Here in Charlotte, the best band is usually considered to be The Clouds of Heaven, which has been led by Cedric Mangum for 34 years – since he was 13.
“The Baby Band might've been the greatest of them all,” says Alexander. “Because it combined structured musical theory with great improvisation.”
The Baby Band rolled through the '60s as the first with a name and a reputation – the Beatles of shout music.
Who here was in The Baby Band? A half-dozen hands of older men go up.
Why do men join the bands?
“In the United House of Prayer, if you're a man, and you're not a musician, you're just below the salt and pepper shakers,” says J.C. Crawford, 69.
“Everyone asks you, ‘What band were you in?'” says Bolden, the eldest.
“As a boy, you sit around the edges, and then they have you sit in. You're a bench-warmer,” says Patton.
Then a young man belongs to something, and gains some discipline.
“The bandleader tries to teach them how to live,” says Alexander.
Why are you musicians?
“We play for our salvation,” says Cedric Mangum, whose band has been recorded and sought by event organizers. Yet he works as a barber.
“We've never tried to make money off our music.”
“The reason you play is to be of one accord with the congregation, and the spirit. With God,” says Patton.
“There is no tangible benefit,” says Bolden. “We don't get paid. We get blessed.”