On a recent Saturday night at First Baptist Church in the unincorporated Mississippi River community of Vacherie, The Zion Harmonizers and five more gospel groups sang, played and praised The Lord. When the venerable Zion Harmonizers took their places to perform “I’ll Rise Again,” people rose up, clapped and swayed in perfect time to the feel-good gospel beat. During the comparatively subdued “I Want to be at the Meeting,” many in the audience stayed seated, moving gently as they raised hands toward heaven.
Zion Harmonizers leader Brazella E. Briscoe Sr., looking more than a decade younger than his 68 years, sang emphatic lead vocals. For his traditional gospel group’s final song this night in Vacherie, the smiling Briscoe strolled two-thirds down the aisle, pressing hands all the way.
Briscoe believes vocalists must truly believe every word they sing.
“If you don’t feel what you’re singing, then it’s to no avail,” he said before the Vacherie performance. “The Bible talks about sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. That is nothing. Just noise. Jesus said, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’ ”
Briscoe joined The Zion Harmonizers in 1988, the year before the group’s 50th anniversary. Current members of the group also include baritone Franklin D. Smith Sr.; first tenor Marion H. Chambers Jr., second tenor Benjamin Francois III; instructor, director, keyboardist, guitarist and vocalist Joseph B. Warrick. Guitarists Lloyd Smith and William Walker and drummer Brandon Woods also participate.
In 1939, a teenager named Benjamin Maxon founded The Zion Harmonizers in New Orleans’ Zion City community. When Maxon answered the call to preach in 1943, an apprehensive Sherman Washington assumed leadership of the group.
“I was scared,” Washington said in 2002. “I felt like I wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s a lot of responsibility.” Despite that, Washington would lead The Zion Harmonizers for 63 years, until 2006, when illness compelled him to hand the reins to Briscoe. Even after Washington’s death at 85 in 2011, his influence endures.
During The Zion Harmonizers’ 77 years, the group made many recordings, performed in Europe for decades and sang at House of Blues’ gospel brunch for 20 years. Most remarkable of all, The Zion Harmonizers have appeared at every New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival since the first Jazz Fest. The group will make its 47th appearance at the Jazz Fest Gospel Tent on Sunday, April 24.
A Zion Harmonizers performance at Jazz Fest is always a special occasion.
“If you don’t feel what you’re singing, then it’s to no avail." -Brazella E. Briscoe Sr.
“For us it is,” Briscoe said. “I think for people, too. A lot of people check the schedule to find out when we’re singing and, man, the crowd just swells. Whenever we sing, we have a packed house.”
For many years, secular singing star Aaron Neville joined The Zion Harmonizers at the Gospel Tent.
“The place was already packed, but it became more packed,” Briscoe said. “And Aaron was always humble and courteous. He loved us and we loved him.”
While Neville made The Zion Harmonizers’ Gospel Tent appearances even more special, for many gospel fans Jazz Fest wouldn’t be Jazz Fest without The Harmonizers. The group’s association with festival dates to the first Jazz Fest, held in Armstrong Park in 1970. The original, 15-by-20-foot Gospel Tent featured an upright piano but no stage or sound system.
When Jazz Fest moved the Fair Grounds Race Course in 1972, Jazz Fest producer-director Quint Davis asked Zion Harmonizers leader Washington to run the Gospel Tent. Davis later credited Washington for exposing gospel music to a vastly larger audience. Washington’s stewardship of the Gospel Tent served both the Jazz Fest and gospel music, Davis added. The Gospel Tent continues to be an enormously popular festival attraction, a rock standing strong for 47 years.
“Mr. Sherman Washington,” Briscoe said, “did wondrous things for all the gospel groups. Whomever he could help, he would help. Now, he was a little gruff, but he was just as kindhearted as he could be. He roared like a lion, but was gentle as a lamb.”
Washington managed the Gospel Tent for 42 years. The illness that caused him to relinquish leadership of The Zion Harmonizers also forced him to surrender management of the Gospel Tent.
“He was the godfather, the founder of that,” Briscoe said. “By the grace of God, we, the current Zion Harmonizers, feel like we do a good job, so I think that keeps us in the Jazz Fest. But being associated with Mr. Sherman Washington doesn’t hurt!”
Briscoe, now in his 10th year as Zion Harmonizers president, joined the group unexpectedly in 1988. The group was booked for a performance in Rome that year. Briscoe, then a member of The Gospel Chords, jokingly told Washington’s brother and fellow Zion Harmonizer, Nolan, that he’d like to be the group’s new tenor vocalist.
“I said, ‘Hey, man. Why don’t y’all take me to Italy and leave Howard Bowie home,’ ” Briscoe recalled. “Well, Howard Bowie was a masterful tenor. I was just kidding. Nolan laughed about it. But then when I went outside, he was there waiting for me. He said, ‘We’d like you to come and sing with us.’ ”
Tragedy struck during the trip to Rome when a member of the group died.
“So they really needed somebody then,” Briscoe said. “And I was there. I’ve been there ever since.”
As it turned out, Bowie, The Zion Harmonizer whom Briscoe had joked about replacing, become the new member’s mentor.
“Howard,” Briscoe said, “always told me, ‘Never settle for good enough. If you do settle for good enough, you’re finished.’ I keep that to heart. We always do our best and make it as perfect as we possibly can.”
Of course, Washington was a mentor, too.
“Sherman was tough on me,” Briscoe remembered. “Because he was so strict on me, I thought he didn’t like me. But I found out he really loved me. He was grooming me.”
About seven years before Washington’s death, his wife, Shirley, shocked Briscoe. “This is your group!” she said. “Sherman can’t do it anymore.” Briscoe hesitated, stumbling over his words. Mrs. Washington once more made herself perfectly clear. “From now on, you’re in control,” she said.
Briscoe humbly accepted his new role as Zion Harmonizers president.
“And I always went to Sherman for direction and instruction,” he said. “I was in control, but I still felt like he was the man. Even now, I don’t try to be big. But when you’re in charge, you do have to be in charge. You have to say ‘yes’ and you have to say ‘no.’ By the grace of God. I’m able to do that, but I like to let my yeas outweigh my nays.”
In the two years before Washington’s death, the ill former leader of The Zion Harmonizers often asked Briscoe to promise that the group would continue after his passing.
“He asked me to promise that I would not let it die. I said, ‘If God will lead me and guide me, I’ll do just that.’ And He certainly has.”