Each Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., the basement of the Alice Millar Chapel fills with booming harmonies, dancing, clapping and gospel music. For three hours, this typically somber space completely transforms, morphing into the temporary home of the Northwestern Community Ensemble (NCE), the only gospel choir on campus.
“There aren’t a lot of Christian singing groups on campus that sing spiritual music other than the Sheil chamber choir,” said NCE member and SESP junior Qunsia Daniel. “But we sing gospel, soul.”
The choir is student-run and audition-only. According to the group’s website, NCE’s mission is to serve the Northwestern and local community through spiritual music. For 43 years, the Northwestern Community Ensemble has provided an outlet for students to join together in song and to share their passion for music and spirituality with fellow students as well as with the residents of Evanston and Chicago.
In the spring of 1971, undergraduate students Eileen Cherry-Chandler, Clifton Gerrying III and Lurell Stanley Davis started NCE in partnership with Northwestern’s Black student alliance, For Members Only.
When Cherry-Chandler began her undergraduate studies in 1969, there were fewer than 200 African American students on campus, and they lacked many of the resources that other students enjoyed, especially in the performing arts sector. “There weren’t any opportunities,” Cherry-Chandler said. So, FMO created different performance groups, including Black/Folks Theater, a jazz ensemble, a dance troupe and, of course, the gospel choir NCE.
“This was the beginning of the Black choir movement throughout the country,” Cherry-Chandler said. “They sang a lot of negro spirituals. We wanted to do that.”
NCE started during a time of social revolution in the United States. “Music was as much a part — or was an important part — of the civil rights movement and of our liberation as anything,” Cherry-Chandler said. Music played a central role among African American students on college campuses across the country during the 1960s and 1970s. Students who grew up singing in choirs in their home communities looked to the Northwestern Community Ensemble “for spiritual uplift, for support, for encouragement,” according to Cherry-Chandler.
Cherry-Chandler said that the choir also served as a way for members to connect to their roots. NCE provided a space for choir members to rehearse and perform the music that they and their families had grown up singing. But the group has made clear from the beginning its invitation to the public, regardless of race or religion.
“We opened it up to everyone,” Cherry-Chandler explained. “We never kicked anybody out or subjected them to, ‘You’re not Christian enough.’”
The founders of the choir also decided not to restrict their repertoire solely to gospel music.
“We wanted to be able to please whatever audiences that we were met with,” Cherry-Chandler said. “Wherever we went — and everybody was impressed by this — we were ready. If there wasn’t a piano, we would sing a cappella.”
The first formal auditions for the Northwestern Community Ensemble were held in the fall of 1971, and Saturday rehearsals began soon after at the Ebenezer A.M.E Church on Emerson Street.
Besides performing on campus, NCE also travelled throughout Evanston and Chicago to perform at different venues. “And we didn’t have a bus, by the way,” Cherry-Chandler said, laughing. “We would get on the El and we maybe had one car. And we would go all over the city.”
On December 10, 1971, fifteen members performed in NCE’s first official performance, called an “Evening of Music” at Alice Millar Chapel. The music-filled night introduced NCE to the Northwestern community, setting the stage for many more concerts in the future. This past fall, on November 22, 2014, the choir convened at Sherman United Methodist Church to prepare for its 43rd annual fall concert the next day.
“I really think my favorite part so far, in general, is the concerts,” NCE member and Medill senior Ashley Gilmore said. “I get to share what I love with the Northwestern community.”
Weeks of intense rehearsals go into the preparation for the group’s two annual concerts, one in November and one in March. All of those weeks of hard work came to fruition in the group’s last rehearsal before their fall performance.
The Sherman United Methodist Church filled with the reverberation of voices on the unseasonably warm November afternoon. Backpacks, books, jackets and scarves were strewn over the wooden pews lined with bibles, hymnals and freshly sharpened pencils. A student sat at a piano, intently playing his own song, unaware of the chaos around him.
Suddenly, the room fell silent as the group gathered in a circle, holding hands and joining in prayer. Just as quickly, the chatter picked up again, the pianist once again played the keyboard, now playing one of the choir’s songs. The room filled with harmony as the singers began to bounce, sway, smile and point to the sky. A soloist came to the front of the stage, completely blind to everything else around her but the music flowing from her vocal cords.
“I’m just trying to glorify God,” NCE member and theater major Allie Woodson said. “I’m not really thinking about myself.” As she sang, she barely moved, just looked straight ahead and swayed a bit as the music gushed out of her.
NCE has served as a second home for hundreds of students over the past 40 years. “It’s a wonderful community, and I am just so impressed with the caliber of people who have come through,” Cherry-Chandler said. “It was a real touchstone for them, and it really moves me when people tell me how much of a part it was in their education and their struggle.”
Each member of the choir feels a unique connection to the group. For some, NCE provides religious uplift, for others a sense of community.
“I love it here,” Gilmore said. “It feels like a family. It feels so comfortable.”
Cherry-Chandler never imagined the choir would live on for this long, let alone touch so many lives so deeply. “This was something that we did for ourselves, for our families and for our communities,” she said. “I wasn’t invested in any long existence.”
But 43 years later, the choir is still singing.