The American Spiritual Ensemble performs on stage

Storytelling through music has been such an impact on many different generations. I was very inspired after talking to Dr. Everett McCovey, Founder, and Director of the American Spiritual Ensemble. He has experienced powerful storytelling through the civil rights movement and had a dream of preserving that music for all to hear.

In 1995, Dr. McCorvey founded the ensemble because he wanted to keep spirituals alive. “I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement, and the spirituals were really front and center during my childhood.” His father being a Deacon at First Baptist Church, McCorvey was able to experience that atmosphere we see in many of the iconic photos of Civil Rights Meetings. Early in his life, he was introduced to spirituals, hymns, and anthems. These being tokens from history that Dr. Martin Luther King enjoyed as well, he would quote them during his speeches and in his sermons. Dr. McCorvey knew that when he graduated from college and started singing professionally he wanted to ensure that the spirituals would not be lost since they meant so much to him. “I wanted to make sure they had a place in the American Musical Repertory.”

Voice was not Dr. McCorvey’s first hand in music. “When I was in the third grade, I learned about playing the trumpet, and [when] started playing the trumpet, I really found my life’s passion… I knew that I wanted to be in music.” He went on to say “I played trumpet from the third grade until the eighth grade, and I changed to the baritone horn and played that through my first year of college.” Attending the University of Alabama, Dr. McCorvey started off wanting to be a band director. During his audition the university’s voice teacher, Bill Stevens encouraged him to consider going into singing. “That’s when my journey started as a singer. My professors kept telling me that I have the potential for a career and so I thought, ok, well, I love singing, I love music, and I just didn’t know which door would be the door that would open to a career. So I pursued both that first year being in the band and then decided to pursue singing.”

“Music represented a way out. If you think about the fact that African Americans were going through so many difficulties in Montgomery, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement… when I experienced music, it made me feel in a way that I had never felt before.” As he continued to practice he noticed that he only got better and better. Then learning that he had the chance to make a career out of something he loved, he couldn’t forget to find a way to give back and share. “I realized that I wanted to be able to give back to students as his teachers gave back to him. When I’m not on the road, I’m on the faculty at the University of Kentucky in Lexington as the Director of the Opera Program.” Dr. McCorvey’s goal of being able to work with talented students and share all types of music throughout the country was achieved.

Although Spirituals are what drove the Ensemble to its birth, there are other types of music that are incorporated into their performances. “I call spirituals the mother music, the music that got it all started. This is music that was born in the United States… from these Spirituals, we have Jazz, Blues, and Gospel. All of these have roots in the Spirituals and so what I try to do is show that lineage.” When American Spiritual Ensemble takes the Opera House stage, Dr. McCorvey said it himself “Expect to hear some amazing singing… these are just amazing God-given voices who have perfected their talents and work very hard to create an experience when they sing.” This group has a passion for telling the story of these spirituals and a commitment to the mission.

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Jalyn Dockery