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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the November 29,

2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Westminster’s Jubilee Singers

There is a dramatic contrast between the emotionally

chilly surroundings in which J. Donald Dumpson’s Jubilee Singers


and the ardor of their performance. The group goes through its paces

in a windowless basement classroom below the library on the campus

of Westminster Choir College. Fluorescent ceiling lights illuminate

the empty blackboards on the whitewashed cinder block walls. The harsh

acoustic space is not kind to high-pitched sounds. Yet conductor


grooms the group for a performance where the hearts of singers and

audience will be warmly linked.

Directing 16 of 20 members of the group, he stands at the grand piano

dressed in navy blue shirt and trousers, having removed a navy blue

Ghanaian scarf. He stamps his foot and picks out selected voices as

he stands at the piano, leading the singers to a florid,


Confronting an ensemble of black, white, Asian, and Hispanic singers,

he clarifies the connection of the Jubilee Singers to sacred music.

"If you don’t feel it, you can’t expect the audience to,"

he tells them. "This music is a package. The chorus is the


In a sold out performance scheduled for Friday, December 1, in


Bristol Chapel, the Jubilee Singers presents a program called "The

Colors of Christmas." Dumpson conducts and accompanies at the

piano. Guest soloists are Rochelle Ellis, soprano, and Brian LeNair

Williams, saxophone. Ellis, who has a diverse background performing

with orchestra, is an adjunct assistant professor of voice at


Williams, who performs both jazz and sacred music, has appeared


with Westminster’s Jubilee Singers. The preparation of Jubilee’s first

CD is now in its final phases. The release of the as yet unnamed album

is slated for Black History Month, February, 2001.

The Westminster group takes its name from the Jubilee Singers of Fisk

University in Nashville, Tennessee. Singing Negro spirituals and


works in the United States and Europe, the Fisk group had a major

cultural impact on understanding between blacks and whites.

Westminster’s Jubilee Singers was founded by Dumpson about six years

ago. "I don’t remember exactly when," he says. "There’s

so much going on."

"The stereotype is that only black students would be part of


Dumpson says. "I’m very excited about the diversity. It’s one

of the things that makes the ensemble special. We talk about


We live in a society that continues to have issues around race. When

we bring together people to sing this [primarily African-American]

music they develop a profound respect for its creators, for the


of slaves, and the slave experience. This choir, they love each


"The Jubilee students explore the inner workings behind the


says Dumpson, who insists that movement accompany vocal performance.

"The work on movement translates into stage presence. Ultimately,

I want to move people. There’s a double meaning here. Movement is

really the soul of music."

"It’s essential to move to communicate," Dumpson tells his

singers in rehearsal. "You don’t just stand and look at the


Then he ups the pressure further. "You have to command the sound

that you want," he adds. "Tonight might be the only


you have."

"When Jubilee goes into a concert," he says, "we want

to make a difference in people’s lives. Our goal is not to perform

for, but to communicate with audiences, using this wonderful music

to expose them to alternatives."

The rudiments of the music that is the specialty of the ensemble are

taught in a freshman class called "Introduction to Jubilee."

Participants in the ensemble are selected by an audition process that

includes sight reading and musicianship. They are asked to perform

both a spiritual or hymn familiar in the black church experience and

to sing an operatic aria. "Auditioning is an experience of what

the real world is like," Dumpson says. "You have to audition

or interview if you want to get anyplace.".

Dumpson is on campus only one day a week, and for his Jubilee


he is supported by Elisabeth Olewinski, a second year graduate


who acts as his assistant, and Evelyn Thomas, director of


academic support services and coordinator of the educational


program. Both women sat in on the Jubilee training class, as well

as the rehearsal the night I was there. Olewinski was armed with class

rosters and music scores. Thomas sat nearby, motherly; she recruits

students who might otherwise not pursue higher education, and keeps

an eye on them once they arrive at Westminster.

Dumpson, 41, was born in Philadelphia, the middle child of a


family. He is the only child to have become a musician. The


with which his name begins stands for James. "But they always

called me Donald." He says. His mother worked for the city; his

father was a baker.

Dumpson’s mother sang in a church choir. "She had a lyrical voice

and was my first reference point for a choral sound," he says.

"She became the template for my beginning thoughts about vocal


While still in first or second grade in Philadelphia, Dumpson decided

on music as his future. He says that his teacher was the key factor.

"The kids would sit at an upright piano. We had to create sounds.

It was just exploring. But I started playing the melody of the song

we had been singing. It was `Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’ The


phoned my mother and told her I had talent."

Dumpson began studying piano at Philadelphia’s


Music School, and played for churches from the time he was in junior

high school. At Philadelphia’s Temple University he majored in piano

with a focus on music education. His Temple master’s degree is in

piano pedagogy. Dumpson spent his summers at various institutions

soaking up additional training — Maryland’s Peabody Conservatory

and Morgan State University, New York University, Philadelphia


of the Arts, and UCLA. "As a child I dreamed of traveling,"

he says, "and in my college vacations I lived in different


The musical mentors in Dumpson’s life are too numerous to mention,

he says, though he adds, "I believe in the value of mentors. It’s

part of the African-American church tradition." Dumpson singles

out one person as an outstanding mentor, and it is a non-musical


his uncle James R. Dumpson, now 91, who, along with astronaut John

Glenn, was featured in a recent PBS show about older people who are

still active. The elder Dumpson, whose field is social welfare, is

now a senior advisor for New York Trust. He holds a doctorate from

the University of Pennsylvania and was New York City’s Commissioner

for Welfare under Mayor David Dinkins. James Dumpson was recently

named a "Nana," an honorary post awarded by the Ashanti tribe

in Ghana. "I got to know him as a teenager," Dumpson says.

"He’s an inspiration and an example. It shows how, in our society,

one can get ahead and rise to prominence."

Both uncle and nephew have a connection to Pennsylvania’s Cheyney

University, founded in 1837 and the oldest black college in the


Uncle graduated from Cheyney in 1931. Nephew conducted the Concert

Choir there and keeps up his ties with that ensemble.

After his formal education Dumpson performed as a solo keyboard


"Everybody goes through that phase," he says. "But that’s

not the real performing element for me." Dumpson moved into


vocal coaching, conducting, and arranging. "I always had a knack

for getting vocals out of people," he says.

Single, Dumpson lives in Kintnersville, Pennsylvania, about 25 miles

north of Doylestown, where he pursues his interest in food. "I

love cooking. Italian," he says. "I can do soul food and I

love pastas. I also love going to the gym. That’s what keeps all that

pasta from going to my belly."

Dumpson is president of an entertainment production company, J. Donald

Dumpson Productions, a one-man company that "shows that dreams

can come true if we do the things we love." Simultaneously,


is aware of his evolution in the non-material world: "I think

of myself as a religious person becoming much more spiritual as he


— Elaine Strauss

Christmas at Westminster, Westminster Choir College,

Bristol Chapel, 609-921-2663. "The Colors of Christmas" by

the Westminster Jubilee Singers. $18. Friday, December 1, 8 p.m.

A Gospel Christmas with Melba Moore, New Jersey


Orchestra , War Memorial, Trenton, 800-ALLEGRO. Melba Moore is


artist when J. Donald Dumpson leads the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

and Community Chorus. $10 to $40. Friday, December 8, 8 p.m.

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