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‘Yes Mahalia!’ brings a gospel great front and center

'Yes Mahalia!' brings a gospel great front and center
Tammy McCann, Photo Courtesy: Mary Raffty

Tammy McCann repeatedly demonstrates her uncanny ability to create intimacy with her audiences, no matter where she performs. For over 20 years, McCann’s experience as a performing artist has enabled her to establish a musical repertoire that has made her one of the top jazz vocalists in Chicago, the country, and abroad. Now McCann is hosting her critically acclaimed one-woman show, Yes Mahalia! This musical is a fresh and soulful re-imagining of one of gospel’s greatest voices, Mahalia Jackson her life and contributions to gospel music.

What compelled you to produce and perform a musical based on the life of Mahalia Jackson?

Mahalia has been my muse since I was a little girl. Her mesmerizing voice was a constant in my life. As a matter of fact, Mahalia’s long-time collaborator Thomas Dorsey’s niece, the Rev. Dr. Lena McLin, was my vocal instructor at Kenwood Academy.  Along with my classical training, the music of Negro spirituals and gospel music was further cemented into my presentation as a vocalist. The idea that I would later create a musical tribute for Mahalia; that I would tour all over the world seemed natural to me. But, as I sit here now looking back, it seems so unbelievable.

Given Mahalia Jackson’s discography, how difficult was it to decide on the songs and arrangements for the musical?

It really was not difficult. I think what Mahalia’s catalog does is provide an enormous number of ways to express one’s relationship with God. Then as a performer, you just must decide what story you want to tell.

Choosing a favorite song of Mahalia’s, however, is much more difficult.  All these songs are really a part of my life. From a young girl in Starkville, Mississippi hearing my grandmother hum along to Mahalia on the radio as I was growing up, each one has its own space in my heart. But I’d say of all of them, “How I Got Over,is my favorite. It’s not just a song to me, but it’s my testimony. When I see how God is working in my life and has been helping me overcome obstacles and achieve my goals, I see how things are being moved into place each day and I feel so grateful.

As a musical artist who is usually on the road, how has the pandemic affected your touring dates?

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the lives of musicians … all over the world.  But I must say I feel it’s given me so much more than it’s taken away. This time in sequester has brought me closer to my family and myself. It’s allowed me to go deeper creatively than I have in a long time, allowing me time to rediscover my love for storytelling. I have written a lot of music; lectures and I’m even working on my second musical about the deep and enduring friendship between Mahalia Jackson and Studs Terkel.

See Tammy McCann at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, Sept. 26, 2021.


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