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With Her Feature 'Come Sunday,' Lezlie Harrison Explores Music of the Spirit

Lezlie Harrison
Janis Wilkins

Come Sunday, which broadcasts weekly from 6 to 8 a.m., began this spring as a mode of spiritual expression for Lezlie Harrison, whose on-air career at WBGO dovetails with her life as a singer and bandleader.

For Harrison, who was also among the founders of The Jazz Gallery, this focus on matters of the spirit goes back to her musical foundation. We recently had an email exchange about the show, talking about how it came about Come Sunday, which broadcasts weekly from 6 to 8 a.m., and how it's been going.

Where did you get the idea for Come Sunday as a special feature at WBGO?

Growing up in New York City, Winston-Salem, N.C. and Boston, Mass, I listened to a lot of radio — especially Black AM stations. In each of these markets, there would be at least an hour of gospel/inspirational music, and in Winston Salem, all day on Sunday.

What is your own history with the gospel and/or praise and worship tradition — and, more broadly, with spiritual music?

My maternal grandfather, Rev. R.L. Brown, was a founder and pastor of St. John's CME Church in Winston-Salem. It was in that sanctuary, with an all-African American congregation, where I learned spirituals, set in motion with feet tapping strong beats on the wood floor and hand claps on the 2 & 4 (the back beat). It was in the young adult choir, my musical roots, where I learned to sing gospel and hymns. Covering songs made popular by mass choirs under the direction of musicians like the Rev. James Cleveland and Edwin Hawkins. It was during my college years, at UMASS Amherst, that I was introduced to the spiritual jazz music of Alice Coltrane, and Pharoah Sanders and Yusef Lateef.

Could you name a personal favorite album or two that fits within this framework? (And what makes it so?)

One of my favorite songs on Shirley Ceasar's Golden Gospel Classics album is "Teach Me Master." This music reminds me of my grandparents, who grew up in the Jim Crow south, and the hope, hard work and sacrifice they made to give us the best life possible, rooted in a deep Christian faith.

Teach Me Master

In addition to Hall of Fame picks like Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, which you’re featuring, there’s a whole subcategory of so-called “spiritual jazz” today that builds on the legacies of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. What are your thoughts there, and does this music also have a place on the program?

Absolutely! I was introduced to Spiritual jazz in the late 1970s, around the time I began exploring world religions. As a freshman in college, I was turned on the music of Lonnie Liston Smith via the 1974 album Expansions, and I wore out Pharoah Sanders’ 1971 album Thembi - especially my favorite track, “Morning Prayer.”

Finally, the title “Come Sunday” naturally has layers of meaning. What can you say about the original context — Mahalia Jackson with Duke Ellington, from Black, Brown and Beige?

I recently featured the revised 1958 version of BB&B, Duke Ellington's three-part suite musically conveying the history and the journey of Negroes in America. What a powerful move to invite Mahalia Jackson, the most influential vocalist of gospel music, with her beautiful and bluesy contralto, to take the lead on "Come Sunday." When she sings "Lord, dear Lord I've loved, God Almighty, God of love, please look down and see my people through," it made for a powerful and passionate prayer for lives of Black folk, then and now.

Come Sunday broadcasts every Sunday from 6 to 8 a.m. at WBGO.