Sacred Brass: Mangum & Co. present the frequently ecstatic tradition of trombone shout band music in Greensboro
Cedric Mangum took the do-ityourself approach to making music when he got started as a kid. Raised in a church where energetic praise music was a central part of the services, but without an instrument of his own, Mangum set out to build one.
“For one of my first sousaphones I used a water hose and funnel,” says Mangum. “I had to be creative. I got a sound of it.”
Mangum, 55, has been playing music in the United House of Prayer for All People since he was eight years old. He’s been a band leader in the church since he was a boy. The United House of Prayer is famous for, among other things, the ecstatic brass bands, known as shout bands, which generally feature several trombone players â€” sometimes more than 10 â€” in addition to sousaphone, tuba, drums, cymbals, washboards and other instruments.
“They can get as large as 40,” says Mangum.
If you’ve ever heard three dozen horns in close proximity along with percussion, you know that’s a lot of air moving, making a lot of powerful sound.
Mangum will bring his group, Mangum & Co., which is a sort of all-star group of shout band players from the Charlotte area, to the National Folk Festival on Saturday, Sept. 10. The group plays two shows at the free festival.
Charlotte is a hot bed of shout band activity, and has been for over 50 years. The city was the site of many tent revivals by the United House of Prayer founder Charles Manuel Grace, also known as “Sweet Daddy” by followers.
Mangum says the shout band culture has only continued to blossom, with more and more groups at different congregations putting their own spin on this instrumental gospel music.
“It’s grown tremendously,” says Mangum. “There’s more bands now than we have ever had.”
His son and his grandson now play the music as well, and Mangum says he’s seen the tradition evolve over the years.
“It’s hard to believe how far we have come with the music,” says Mangum. “Each round went higher and higher.”
If the music has grown more powerful in its ability to convey the spirit and touch the soul of believers, shout band music hasn’t necessarily grown more prominent. It’s still not terribly easy to hear it and see it outside of a United House of Prayer service or baptism. You can’t just go to Spotify and type in “trombone shout band” and expect a flood of results. In fact, don’t expect any. But you can go on YouTube and find hours of jubilant brass music from services where the congregants seem as energized by the music as the players do. With all those trombones with their slide bars getting jabbed back and forth, it’s a wonder somebody doesn’t get hurt.
Part of the reason for the lower profile of shout bands is that those making the music are adamant about retaining its sacred power.
“I don’t perform any and everywhere,” says Mangum. Certain venues can potentially “neutralize” the spiritual force of the music, and he doesn’t want to see that. “Our music, I wouldn’t take it to the club and play it. It’s God’s music and you try to keep it as sacred as possible.”
When I spoke to Mangum last week, he was driving back from a United House of Prayer convocation in Virginia. Late summer is the season when many of the United House of Prayer congregations have large baptisms. In recent weeks he’s been up and down the northeast attending those events â€” in Buffalo, New York City, New Haven, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere â€” and playing at some. He’ll be at a United House of Prayer convocation in Greensboro the day after Mangum & Co. perform at the folk festival.
Mangum and the Clouds of Heaven, the group he has led for years, and some other ensembles from Charlotte, Virginia, New York and elsewhere were featured on Saints’ Paradise, a collection of trombone shout band music from the United House of Prayer, released in 1999 on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the first anthology of its kind.
In the liner notes to that release Mangum described coming home in the afternoon from school with a friend who lived across the street and who also played trombone in the church. The two would play and answer each other from their front porches facing each other, drawing a crowd on the street.
If you’ve never heard trombone shout music, it’s easy to make the connection to New Orleans brass band music. But shout band music is a little more like a gospel quartet â€” like the Dixie Hummingbirds, or the Golden Gate Quartet, though the music of Sun Ra and Duke Ellington might come to mind too â€” with the parts played on groups of horns. With all of those stacks of brass, the harmonies can be gleaming and bright, and when a shout band wants to get somber, it’s a lovely and sad thing, but when the groups play exuberant and ecstatic, the effect is roiling, with the kind of energy that makes sitting still and keeping silent seem like an affront.
“When we perform, our music it touches your heart. It’s very spiritual,” says Mangum. “If we hit it right, in the right spirit, people are gonna join in and start singing.”
“It feeds the soul. I’m the first partaker. If I don’t feel it, won’t nobody else feel it. I make sure that song touches me first, and then it spreads out and touches others.”
Mangum says the shout band music has moved his soul and shaped his life. He sees himself as the first quality-control expert testing the music’s ability to touch the spirit.
“Our music is designed for the soul,” he says. “It feeds the soul. I’m the first partaker. If I don’t feel it, won’t nobody else feel it. I make sure that song touches me first, and then it spreads out and touches others.”
As a band leader, Mangum picks apart the lines of a song â€” many of them hymns â€” and assigns them to the various horn voices in the groups. The bands don’t use sheet music, and so Mangum assembles the harmonies and leads the groups through the structures, with solo sections, and repeated verses depending on how the spirit is moving them. There’s a build to shout band music, often to climactic highs. But the fervor in the playing is something that Mangum says can’t really be imparted by the leader; it’s a feeling that’s picked up by the congregants.
“The spirit’s what brings the song alive,” says Mangum. “Playing in the spirit â€” you can’t teach it, you have to have it.”
Mangum reveres the trombone shout band music that he plays and the tradition that it comes from. His involvement leading bands and playing music has been about more than simply entertaining people.
“I learned to be disciplined in life,” says Mangum. “How you keep things in order with a band and music, it taught me how to keep things in order in my life.” !
JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
Mangum & Co. perform twice at the National Folk Festival in Downtown Greensboro, on Saturday, Sept. 10, once at 2:30 p.m. and again at 6:15 p.m. For festival runs Friday, Sept. 9 through Sunday, Sept. 11. The festival is free. For more information visit nationalfolkfestival.com.