Corrections or additions?
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
"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
Bristol Chapel, 609-921-2663. "The Colors of Christmas" by
the Westminster Jubilee Singers. $18. Friday, December 1, 8 p.m.
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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