- Photo by Sheleria Cushman
On this Sunday morning, the sun shines brightly through the stained-glass windows of the United House of Prayer for All People in Durham. Several elderly women sit in church pews, a few making small talk, fixing their hats. Today's service starts around 11:00 a.m. More people trickle in during the first fifteen minutes, a gathering of a dozen building steadily into more than 50. Many of them come bearing instruments.
The next three hours are a blur: Like most church services, this one comes with a sermon, scripture readings and announcements. The things that really set this church apart are those instruments and this music. When the band starts to play—it calls itself the Bailey Elites, a "shout band" that sounds like a New Orleans jazz choir that's in love with Jesus, not women and drinking—people in the pews stand up, clap, shake their tambourines and dance in praise of God. When it's over, everyone is invited to lunch. I'm just left perplexed, dealing with the odd feeling that I just attended a three-hour church service and loved it.
The music "is one of the aspects that sets the United House of Prayer apart from other churches," agrees bandleader Dwight Baptist. It draws people into church for worship. His grandfather, for instance, discovered the music while working at a metal shop in Baltimore. Hearing the music flow in through an open window, he followed it to a church down the block that had a PA system blaring outside.
The Bailey Elites plays services every Wednesday and Sunday at the church on Holloway Street, situated midway between North Roxboro and Alston streets since 1975. The band takes its name from Bishop C.M. Bailey, the current leader of the United House of Prayer. Until April, the Elites, which formed in 1994, called itself The Madison Elites, for Bishop S.C. Madison, who passed this April. The bishop is the head of about 140 places of worship that identify with the church, founded in 1919.
Comprised of about 15 people between 15 and 45 years old, the Elites develops its own talent. Children, often armed with trombones, crowd the band during services, occasionally joining in. "Their mothers will send them up there so they can learn from us," explains Baptist. His father was the pastor of the church for 22 years, and Baptist got his first trombone when he was 3. Now, 32, he's the band's soloist, and his own young son sits with him as he plays.
The members learn old hymns and contemporary gospel tunes by ear. These numbers come in two main parts: They begin with the praise portion, which is played strictly to an arrangement. Then, the rhythms veer, and a soloist improvises over the band while three leaders decide which pre-arranged grooves the rest of them will play. This all happens on the fly: "It becomes more of a feeling thing than just playing," Baptist explains.
That feeling is strong: Snare, bass, cymbals and washboard create a driving, urgent boom-chuck beat, as the sousaphone dances out a bass line. Trombones sing like a choir at the precipice of restraint, expressing community through harmony. Cheeks puff out on musicians without formal training. Sweat beads swell on foreheads. Music comes crashing forth in waves of emotion.
In church, the music causes people to lift from their pews, and that's the entire point. "You're not just supposed to be playing," reasons Baptist, "you're supposed to be ministering to the people." The Bailey Elites certainly does that, playing music to console those in troubled times. Baptist fondly recalls an elderly woman at a music festival. She sat quietly in the back, behind all of the dancing and celebration and outward worshipping. At the end of the performance, she approached him and said, "I've been really sick these last few days. I feel like I got healed through your playing."
The Bailey Elites plays the final show of Duke Garden's Summer Series Sunday, Aug. 3, at 7 p.m. $5-$10 will grant you access to a trombone choir that swings hard and worships harder. Says Baptist, "Anytime we play ... it's to worship the Lord."