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PROFILE: Organist Gumbs blends worlds through a declining art



Courtesy of Nathaniel Gumbs

When Nathaniel Gumbs first sat down at the keyboard, he was dwarfed by the cavernous dimensions of Woolsey Hall — a lone spotlight shone on the solitary figure below an empty stage, back turned to the audience.

But the instant his hands braved the opening chord of Alfred Hollins’ Overture in C minor, Gumbs and the sound of the Newberry Organ exploded through the hall, the walls vibrating with the resonance of the organ.

Nathaniel Gumbs has served as Yale’s director of chapel music for the last five years. As the Director of Chapel Music, Gumbs coordinates music for the University Church at Yale, the Marquand Chapel and the Berkeley Divinity School. 

On Sept. 18 in Woolsey Hall — in the first concert of the Great Organ Music At Yale series — Gumbs flowed through a diverse and imaginative program, spanning staples of European organ repertoire, classical music by African American composers and gospel music, even including a steel pan and a dancer.

“People don’t think about the organ working in concert with a dancer and a steel pan,” said Leo Davis, the minister of worship at the Mississippi Boulevard Church and a friend of Gumbs who attended his concert in Woolsey Hall on Sep. 18.  “[Gumbs] is widening the spectrum — he’s showing people the different ways the organ can be experienced. He’s setting a trend with the instrument.” 

Gumbs’ foundation in music began in the church, he said. Growing up attending Trinity Baptist Church, a Black Baptist church in the Bronx, Gumbs was surrounded by music. This eventually led him to tell his mother he wanted to learn piano. 

Gumbs began to teach himself piano on a keyboard his mother bought him for Christmas, using church hymnals to teach himself how to read music. He would match the notes with the keys from the “tutorial books that came with the keyboard.” 

At 11 years old, he began to learn from the church musicians. James Abbington — longtime mentor of Gumbs and current professor of Church Theology and Worship at Candler School of Theology — remembers the time well.

“Whenever I would come, [Gumbs] would always be right by the organ. [Gumbs’] name is Nat, and he was like a little gnat that was soaring around the organ bench and everything I did,” Abbington said.  “When I turned around, there he was. If I was playing the organ, he was there trying to see what I am pulling on the organ, what am I playing, how my feet are moving.”

In Gumbs’ junior year of high school, Abbington referred him to a piano teacher who exposed him to the Western European canon and a more classical approach towards music to further develop him as a musician.

Abbington emphasized how much the church supported his musical efforts, fondly describing the turnout for Gumbs’ senior recital as “equivalent to coming to Easter Sunday morning service.”

After high school, Gumbs entered Shenandoah Conservatory as a piano performance major, where he took his first formal organ lesson outside of playing in church and high school. He then switched to studying organ performance his sophomore year, where he spent “endless, sleepless nights in the practice rooms practicing until the sun came up.”

“I became really good friends with the security guard,” he said.

After his undergraduate education, Gumbs went to Yale University, where he obtained his Master of Music degree studying with Martin Jean, a professor in the Institute of Sacred Music and of Music. 

He then became the director of Music and Arts at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC, one of the largest Black Baptist churches in the South. After three years, he went to Eastman School of Music to obtain his doctorate, after which he was appointed Director of Chapel Music at Yale.

As a concert organist, per his bio, Gumbs has performed throughout the United States and abroad and was recognized by “The Diapason” magazine in 2017 as one of the 20 outstanding organists under 30 years old for his achievements in organ performance and church music.

But these successes didn’t come without obstacles. Gumbs faced struggles as a Black musician in a field traditionally dominated by white people.

“In the classical organ field, there are very few African Americans,” he said. “I can actually count on one hand, maybe two hands, of Black concert artists, and I struggled with that — when I would go to conventions or go through the organ magazine, I’ve always only seen white faces or white people or white organists, so I would think sometimes that maybe that’s just not a field for a Black person.”

He cited Martin Luther King Jr. as an inspiration, telling the News that while there weren’t many Black artists in the field when he entered, he hoped to help inspire others by being “ the Black face” of organ playing.

Gumbs believes that he can contribute his unique experience of both growing up in a Black community in a Black church and studying in a conservatory where he learned the Western European literature. 

“I have both worlds and both sounds in my head,” he said.

He also considers it important to promote Black composers and other voices that don’t make it onto the typical classical canon, especially in a classical organ field which is “known as dying” — organ departments represent some of the smallest music departments, and many churches that used to feature organ music do so less and less.

Abbington said that the arrogance and elitism of the field are factors in the “decline” of organ music, lamenting the “drying up of churches with some of the finest acoustics and instruments.” 

People like Gumbs can help save organ music, Abbington said, pointing to Gumbs’ exploration of new repertoire and his “reimagination” of works that would otherwise be considered “outdated, boring or irrelevant to the sounds and the pleasures of today.” 

He believes that Gumbs’ accomplishments are only the beginning of his contributions to the field of music. 

“To quote Scripture, eyes have not seen and ears have not heard what God really has in store for him,” he said.

There are currently six organs on the Yale Campus.

Tobias Liu | [email protected]

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