Turnbull, Walter 1944–
Walter Turnbull 1944–
Choir director, singer
As the leader of the Boys Choir of Harlem, Walter Turnbull has specialized not only in cultivating the love of music in children, but in turning lives around. His work with the choir—which has toured the world, appeared on film soundtracks, and released recordings of his own—as well as the Choir Academy that choristers attend—has shown what inner-city kids can achieve under the right circumstances. “We try to provide an entire environment that encourages discipline, hard work, and self-respect,” he told the Los Ange les Times. “Everything in terms of their academic and artistic work is based on mutual respect and hard work.” Turnbull’s own life story shows the rewards of discipline and faith. After overcoming numerous obstacles in his youth, he achieved advanced degrees in music, sang in operas around the world, and transformed the Harlem choir from a church-basement dream to an international success.
Turnbull was born in 1944 in Greenville, Mississippi. His father, Jake Turnbull, Jr. “found inspiration in the bottom of a liquor bottle,” Walter wrote in his autobiography Lift Every Voice: Expecting the Most and Getting the Best from All of God’s Children.His parents thus split up early in Walter’s life, and he and his siblings were left with their mother, Lena. Her devout faith was a life-long inspiration to her son, and even when she abruptly switched her allegiance to the Seventh Day Adventist Church—one reason for her marriage’s collapse—he was guided by her strong spirituality.
Reflecting back on his youth, Turnbull noted in his autobiography that “Music had begun to grab my heart.” He took piano lessons and sang in the church choir, though the Seventh Day Adventists ironically took a hard line on music, considering most forms of popular music—even gospel—as “sinful.” Young Turnbull found the hymns and other sacred music of the church satisfying. “It was very beautiful and moving when the congregation and the choir raised their voices,” he recalled, and such memories no doubt played a part in his future vocation.
Equally influential, however, was the authority of Turn-bull’s choir director. “Miss Jones was tough,” he remembered in Lift Every Voice. “She would do anything for you, but she was not afraid to ridicule you or your family if you messed up.” While Miss Jones’s heavy-handed approach often relied on tactics that might be considered abusive, she shepherded her singers to glory; they became the finest school choir in the state. And her young charges were so desperate for her affirmation that they would sometimes gather hours before school began so as to greet her with demonstrations of their progress.
Turnbull’s successful years in the choir resulted in a number of scholarship offers. He elected to attend Mississippi’s Tougaloo College, and soon excelled in the
At a Glance…
Born July 19, 1944, Greenville, MS, son of Jake Tumbull, Jr. and Lena Green.Education: Tougaloo College, B.A., 1966; Manhattan School of Music, M.A., 1968, D.M., 1984. Attended Columbia University School of Business Institute for Non-Profit Management.
Professional singer appearing in numerous operas and musical performances, c. 1960s—. Boys Choir of Harlem, founder and executive director, 1968—; Broadway production The Boys Choir of Harlem and Friends, Live on Broadway, 1994. New York Public Schools, teacher, c. 1970s-80s. Taxi driver, New York City, c. 1970s-80s. Author (with Howard Manly), Lift Every Voice: Expecting the Most and Getting the Best from All of God’s Children, Hyperion, 1995.
Selected awards: Numerous honorary degrees. Volunteer Action Award, President Ronald Reagan, 1986; William M. Sullivan Award; recognition from State of New York and National Association of Negro Musicians.
Addresses: Publisher— Hyperion, 114 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10011.Office— Boys Choir of Harlem, 2005 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10035.
choir there. Chosen as a soloist during his freshman year—a rarity—he became increasingly interested in opera. During his junior year he made the decision to become an opera singer. He graduated cum laude from Tougaloo, and, subsequently, attended summer sessions at Chatauqua, New York, which he describes in his book as a “totally musical world.”
Turnbull worked hard, cleaning toilets for a living, and was ultimately accepted for graduate study at the Manhattan School of Music. He has since characterized the institution as “small and a joy to attend. I knew on the first day that I had made the right choice.” His choir experience stood him in good stead, since his knowledge in this area exceeded that of his classmates. He became an operatic apprentice at Lake George during the summers, and thanks to the occasional illnesses that befell members of the casts, sang in productions of such operas as La Traviata and Die Zauberflöte.He ultimately earned both Master of Music and Doctor of musical Arts degrees from the Manhattan School.
Turnbull sought a place of worship in New York City and found it in Harlem’s Ephesus Church. But it was while working as a singer at the Trinity Episcopalian Church in Connecticut that he became newly interested in boys choirs; the Trinity choir was noteworthy and suggested new possibilities to him. Soon he found himself proposing a boys choir at Ephesus; in 1968, 20 boys gathered in the Ephesus Church basement for the very first rehearsals. “The rehearsal wasn’t memorable musically,” he recalled in his memoir, “but I was satisfied that they could sing, and more important, that they wanted to do something other than hang out on the streets.”
Tumbull’s enthusiasm was infectious, and his dedication and relentless enforcement of discipline had dividends. The choir—with its repertoire of Bach chorales, Mozart pieces, hymns and some original songs by friends of Tumbull’s—was soon the pride of the area, and other churches began requesting performances. Though Turn-bull was able to raise funds to maintain the choir, he would have to struggle to keep it operating even after it achieved international fame years later.
Turnbull worked as a teacher in a public school, where he witnessed first-hand the lack of compassion and discipline that he worked so strenuously to correct as leader of the boys choir. He also observed a bitter teachers’ strike, which affected not only life in the classrooms but life in the community. Increased racial strife and social tension took its toll on choir enrollment. Ultimately, Tumbull and his allies decided that the choir should incorporate as a nonprofit organization. His decision to call it the Boys Choir of Harlem, however, had a surprisingly negative impact on many members of the congregation; they wanted nothing to do with the name Harlem, since for them it suggested to them all the negative attributes of the inner city.
The choir found a new home at the Marcus Garvey Community Center, and Tumbull continued to pursue his dream of a world-class chorale that at once interpreted great classical works and maintained the “unique and warm” qualities of the African American singing style that pervaded pop, jazz, and gospel. In Lift Every Voice he explained that “no one had developed a standard for black voices. Though a certain amount of flexibility is afforded the voices of soloists, choral music styles are largely measured by a Western European yardstick. I needed to expand those limits and define our sound within the context of the black experience, where hallelujah has a different ring, a soul of its own.” In the midst of this high-minded pursuit, however, he was still subject to harsh economic realities and had to drive a cab to supplement his income.
The year 1975 saw the choir move to yet another headquarters, the Church of the Intercession. Four years later, a girls choir was founded. And though his labor of love continued amassing fans, Turnbull also confronted—as he relates in Lift Every Voice —the difficulty of trying “to reverse generations of urban pathologies.” Many students were unable to handle the rigors of choir membership, sidetracked by the lure of the streets and unstable home lives. “I thought that I could save every child that I taught,” he reflected ruefully. “I was naïve.”
Even so, the creation of a summer program and the choir’s first European tour—which took them to Harlem’s sister city, Haarlem, Holland—helped inspire Turnbull’s students. A made-for-television movie was made from one child’s experience on the tour, which encompassed performances in London and at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. The choir’s first national tour took place in 1983. Yet even audiences who cheered the chorale’s mastery of difficult compositions had little inkling of the hard work required to keep students motivated. “Our effort is to help a child have a better lifestyle, to help navigate a very difficult period of growing up in a major urban environment,” Turnbull told the Los Angeles Times. “Many of these children—90 percent of them—are from single-parent homes. It is extremely important for them to be part of something positive and exciting.”
Keeping it exciting requires great patience from both students and teachers; Tumbull has repeatedly emphasized that teachers who give up on students have themselves failed. Still, it became increasingly obvious that the choir needed its own school. “The defining moment was when we realized we needed to do more for the children’s lives,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Were we really going to be able to have a school, or just a choir and only be concerned about singing and making music? We had to do more. We work with their families. That’s what we do. It’s more than a choir. Lives have been saved.”
Thus, in 1986, the Choir Academy of Harlem was established. (The year 1986 also saw Tumbull receive the Volunteer Action Award from President Ronald Reagan.) Starting with elementary school students, the institution added grades as the students got older, graduating its first twelfth grade class in 1996. The same exacting standards apply as in the choir itself, and students must achieve at least a B average in order to stay in the choir. But Turnbull has had impressive results to show for his demanding regimen: 98 percent of his students go on to college, and many go on to graduate study and careers in music. He wrote movingly in his book of watching a performance by a choir alumnus: “His artistry was excellent, and my chest almost exploded with pride.”
Yet the challenges faced by the choir staff have been immense. Paramount among them has been helping kids overcome the taunts of their peers who might consider choir singing unmanly and helping them to learn to avoid solving problems with violence. “I’m sure they’re teased by their friends,” Turnbull told the Los Angeles Times. “But how many kids can look at their friends and say, ‘Have you ever been to Japan, to the Caribbean, or California?’ Most kids in our city don’t even have the chance to get out of the borough, even in a lifetime.” Meanwhile, the choristers’ families had to be educated, too, about the necessity for patience and steadfast involvement; some simply expected to deposit an unruly child and collect a disciplined one.
A 1989 story on the television news magazine 60 Minutes told the choir’s uplifting story so effectively that it drew in scores of new fans. When asked by the program’s reporter Morley Safer how his kids were different from the victims of urban decay who dominated the news, Turnbull pointedly replied, “My kids are no different. They come from the same projects. They come from the same kids of families. The difference is that there is somebody here willing to do something for them, and they are willing to do something. There is an opportunity here.”
Turnbull’s ensemble has contributed to a number of film soundtracks, notably Glory (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), and Malcolm X (1992). The choir recorded its first fulllength album in 1994, but had already made guest appearances on recordings by Quincy Jones, Mandy Patinkin, Kathleen Battle, and Alvin and the Chipmunks. The year 1994 also saw them perform a smash two-week run on Broadway headlining The Boys Choir
of Harlem and Friends, Live on Broadway.Turnbull was even named one of the “15 Greatest Men on Earth” by McCalVs magazine.
But for Turnbull, none of these laurels could compare to the testimony of his students, whose letters are collected at the end of Lift Every Voice. “In my eight years at the choir,” reported student Jimmie K. Kimbrough, “Turn-bull has been my mentor, a father and someone that you can talk to about anything. Like myself, a lot of members have single parents, and Dr. Tumbull fills that gap. He’s on you 24-7 [24 hours and seven days a week] and always brings the best out of someone.” Tyree Marcus referred to Tumbull as “a father figure, a role model, and someone to look up to. If it wasn’t for him and some of the other teachers,” he added, “I don’t know what I’d be doing.” Keron Nixon reported that Tumbull numbers among the many “caring people that are willing to improve the lives of people,” but is “greater than all of them because he is like the hardest worker of them all, and I give my respects.”
In 1995 Tumbull published Lift Every Voice, which he co-wrote with Howard Manly.Emerge magazine noted that while it takes a while “before Tumbull finds his path and follows it,” the volume “leads the reader to an enchanting place. “Marian Wright Edelman wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the book would help readers in an embattled era to “remember the strength of innocence.” As Tumbull himself noted in the Chicago Tribune, “It’s not just about the choir, it’s about discipline. It’s about feeling good about yourself—that’s hope.”
Tumbull, Walter, with Howard Manly, Lift Every Voice: Expecting the Most and Getting the Best from All of God’s Children, Hyperion, 1995.
Chicago Tribune, March 19,1989; January 27,1995.
Essence, December 1995, p. 78.
Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1990, p. F1; December 3, 1995, p. 2; February 10, 1996, p. Fl.
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