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Herbert V. R. P. Jones

Dr. Jones was the last interview for this year’s Urban Heroes program. We caught up with him in New Orleans, and we were surprised that he was even available then and there. As you will see from the interview, Dr. Jones has found a niche in music and serving the Lord that is unique, and God has obviously used him to touch many lives. So please enjoy this interview with the one and only, Dr. Herbert V. R. P jones.

JS: Dr. Jones, welcome to Urban Heroes. You’re in New Orleans as we conduct this interview, are you not? That’s kind of close to your home territory, isn’t it? Aren’t you from Mississippi?

HJ: I am. I’m originally from Jackson, Mississippi.

JS: Can we ask what’s going on in New Orleans? Is this business or ministry or both?

HJ: Absolutely. This is the annual convention of the Gospel Workshop of America, of which I serve as the administrative assistant to the academic dean. This convention, if you are familiar with, has chapters worldwide and we meet annually at the end of July.

JS: I was going to say, if you’re the administrative assistant with your credentials, I’d love to see what the dean looks like. Because you’re positive rap sheet would take up the whole show to read your accomplishments and degrees and the things you have done. Tell us a little more about you. Just give us some more background that will help us understand how you got to where you are today.

HJ: I am an undergraduate of two institutions, Morehouse College in Atlanta and Jackson State University, with degrees in vocal performance and choral conducting. I also have a Master of Divinity, with concentration in drama, dance, and theology; master’s in choral conducting; and my doctorate is in choral conducting, performance pedagogy, and choral music education, with a concentration and specialization in African American sacred music, spirituals, and gospel music.

Academically, I have taught at all levels – elementary, junior high, the private school sector, and with 80% of my teaching experiences being at the university levels. My specialization, as I mentioned, with the African American spirituals, is of the music of the late composer Moses George Hogan, Negro spiritualist, arranger, and composer. I am considered to be the authority on his music. As a matter of fact, my dissertation is the basis for the PBS documentary on Moses Hogan being filmed now. And they are here in New Orleans filming what I am doing this week, which is the concert in tribute to Moses Hogan and the late Glenn Edwin Hurley. The PBS team came down and not only did they film that concert and do a number of interviews with family members in attendance and me, but they also are here with us here in the academic division of Gospel Music Workshop of America.

JS: We have music royalty here.

KB: Yes, we do. I’ve been to your concerts with the Pittsburgh Gospel Choir because we know Helen Jackson. We know her very well.

HJ: Oh yes. She is not only my sister, but she is so precious and makes such a contribution to the Kingdom and to all of us. @e continue to maintain our relationship.

KB: Tell us about how you started at the Pittsburgh Gospel Choir.

HJ: In 2007, the late Ralph Murray, whose grandchildren prior to then were at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, outside of Pittsburgh, was interested, and had been for a number of years, in forming a city-wide gospel choir. Ralph Murray is not African American. He became interested because he and his family every summer spent a month or two in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston’s symphony has a gospel choir that is part of the orchestra and they perform concerts every summer. Ralph became an advocate of gospel music. Therefore, he always wanted to have one in Pittsburgh and talked with a number of his friends and business partner, asking why there wasn’t a community choir in Pittsburgh to perform with the symphony and professional jazz bands – or to perform in collaboration with high school choirs, college choirs, other church choirs, and community choirs.

Ralph contacted the director of choral activities at Franklin Regional High School, who is Chris Russ, and asked him if he knew of anyone he could talk to make this vision happen. So Chris Russ said he didn’t really know anyone, but had a colleague at the School of Music at Penn State University, Dr. Anthony Leech. He contacted Dr. Leech who said he had the best person in Pittsburgh and not to let him get away, and that was Dr. Herb Jones. I didn’t know any of this until later on. Chris Russ the same day called and emailed to ask if he could give my name regarding this city wide gospel choir. That same day Ralph Murray called me and we scheduled to meet at my home. He came prepared with an advisory board in place. That’s how passionate this man was about starting this.

The advisory board is and was comprised of David Newell, who is the original Mr. McFeeley from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Thomas Douglas of the Bach Choir in Pittsburgh, Joe Negry, the international jazz guitarist – that was the founding advisory board. When we had the meeting, we talked about Ralph’s idea, concept and vision, and he said they would like to have me as the director. I suggested to advertise the position so the public can’t say they weren’t included in this because they wanted a community choir. They did that with the understanding that if no one applied, automatically I would become the director. But if someone else applied, I would still be considered. There were three applicants, and of the three, one of them withdrew because he received another offer in California. That left two applicants and the other person never followed through with the application process.

I said to Ralph over and over that it was divinely ordered because God has a way of doing what He does, and that’s be God because his desire and the board’s desire was for me to be the founder and director of the Pittsburgh Gospel Choir. That’s how it started and how I became the founder. I started with four people, and it was a quartet. I worked with those four and rehearsed. I worked with them on technique and concept of African American sacred music, sacred choral music, the gospels, spirituals, anthems, the history of African American influence of music of all styles and genres. We moved from four people to 25 people to 50 people. When we had the debut concert on November 15, 2008, there were 3,000 people in the audience. We performed with the River City Brass Band, and the rest is history.

JS: God’s hand was obviously in it all. Psalms 75 says promotion doesn’t come from the east or the west, it comes from the Lord. Now let’s go back a little bit. Where did all this musical interest come from? Was it in your family? And how did it manifest itself early on in life that led you to where you went to school and got your degrees? But go back even farther and talk about the genesis of your musical interests.

HJ: My dad used to always say, when people talked about his child being gifted and talented and very giving as it relates to the expertise God had given me, “He has everything because his dad can’t even play the radio without getting static, so it has to come from God.” My voice teachers used to say I was born with the voice already in the right place, and that all I needed was the vocal coach and technician to develop and strengthen that. My interest in music has been from birth. I have always been fascinated by three main things. The Bible, where I could read biblical stories and it was my number one book. I was fascinated by the word of God, and my mom said it was because I had a calling on my life. She and my dad, along with my siblings and family members and church, were going to protective and nurture that. In elementary school, Mrs. Green was my music supervisor from first to seventh grade. I learned to read music when I was in second grade. With Mrs. Green being my music supervisor, my love for choral music started developing, because we had an elementary school choir that was exceptional, and we were featured in a number of Mississippi teacher’s associations meetings and in different events on televisions, as well as some tours across the state.

When I was in high school, Mrs. Celia W. Carr, who is the reason I am in music to this day, had one of the outstanding choral programs in the state of Mississippi. Even though it was competitive between the different programs and schools, there was always a collaboration taking place among these choral directors and programs, where we not only learned from them in the classroom setting, but we learned more because we spent summer camp with them where we learned music theory and music history. They developed a camp every summer where the focus was on the music of African American composers, African American sacred choral music, and gospel music and its connection with classical music. That was referred to at that time as refined gospel music, where you bring all your Euro-centric technique to gospel music and apply it in that manner. My interest increased more and more.

There was always this feeling and spirit that came over me when I sang spirituals or studied the composers – their lives and their compositional styles. Then that love started growing and I started researching and became even more interested in that. At the same time I didn’t want to compromise my Euro-centric training or academic setting, so that it became more and more legitimate in academia. My desire became so strong, I prayed to God and said, “God, if you just let me graduate from school and I will go to college and I will serve you. Let me go to graduate school and I will serve you. Let this be my ministry. I will serve you until you call me home.” God has blessed me to do that. I love what I do, have always loved what I do, and will continue to love what I do. I was called, chosen, and I am humbled, grateful, and thankful. This is who I am as it relates to my ministry of music and academia. I always do bring to academia, where I am spiritually. I bring my spiritual aspects into where He has blessed me to be academically.

JS: Good summary. I was at Bethany Baptist a couple weeks ago where I believe your title is now Minister of Music. With all you do and how busy you are, why take the time to be the music minister in a local church? Why do that? What’s your reasoning and philosophy?

HJ: First, let me give you a quick historical synopsis of how that came about. I was the music director prior to the title of Minister of Music. I became Music Director at Bethany because the music ministry of the church wanted to rebuild its entire music ministry within the church setting. They wanted someone in the position to take them higher in the Kingdom as it relates to the entire corporate worship experience, and specifically with the music. So the music ministry committee and chairperson there put in place an interim minister of music who was already on staff. He contacted me to say I was recommended for consideration for Music Director at Bethany and to formulate and grow this new church choir for the worship experiences at Bethany. The church choir is called the Sounds of Worship. Everything was revamped as it relates to that. We met and at the first meeting I talked with Dr. Gloster and shared with him that I am humbled and honored by this recommendation, and I would like for us before we started talking business, what the vision is the church and pastor have, that we would just spend the first two weeks in prayer going before the Lord for His direction and His purpose in all of this in the whole interview process. He was in agreement with that and took it back to the trustees and deacons and we all rallied to that. After the first two weeks of praying for God’s direction, we started talking about how I was recommended by a colleague. We met, planned, talked in the months of October and November.

But when they told me they just couldn’t afford me, I stopped him in his tracks and said I was humbled and began to weep, because I was even being considered for this position. It wasn’t about the money, and I was just blessed. I know it was God’s divine will that I was there because it’s not about the money. This is soul-winning process. We have to become more and more imminent. I am the chief Levite in that. I am the current Jedaiah and we’re going to go to the next place in the Kingdom. They went and ran with that, and the opinion of the trustees was that they wanted me to be the Minister of Music but knew they couldn’t afford me. There was an understanding that it was about educating the people to the seriousness of the role of the minister of music at the church.

JS: You really did it right and did it spiritually. And in spite of all the credentials and experience, put forth a great example of how to trust in the Lord and how to wait on God.

HJ: I’m a firm believer in that and I say it to my singers and choral members all the time, along with anyone I am witnessing to, that waiting time in God is not wasted time.

KB: Amen to that. Is there anyone who you have looked at and are following in their footsteps that had mentored you?

HJ: My mentoring is a combination of both academia and being a music director. Mrs. Celia W. Carr, who is yet alive, has blessed me abundantly over the course of the past year or so. I called her and shared my gratitude to her for having mentored me during high school and told her she is the reason I am in music to this day. She said something and I just broke down and wept. She said that it was a pleasure, honor and blessing to have taught me growing up, and that I made her godly proud and followed me through my undergraduate years all the way to my doctorate. That was an even more humbling experience. The second is the late Dr. Wendell Waylan, who was the head of the music department at Morehouse College, up until the Lord called him home.

JS: You’re a busy man. What do you do to stay sharp, freshen yourself, chill out, and continue to challenge yourself to maintain and the high standards you have?

HJ: I am an active member with the American Choral Directors Association. I’m on the ministerial staff of my church, Pentecostal Temple Church of God and Christ, where I serve as a quasi-administrative assistant to our jurisdictional prelate, Bishop Lauren E. Mann. I am the jurisdictional convocational coordinator. I do a lot of reading. I walk seven miles a day. I do a lot of self-assessment to look where I am as it relates to the gifts and crafts God has entrusted to me, and how can I better strengthen them. I conduct workshops, attend conferences and seminars, to better myself as a leader.

KB: I would be interested in learning if there are any Bible verses you have patterned your life on, for your foundation, or a particular book of the Bible.

HJ: The book of Psalms, the book of Ecclesiastes, especially Psalm 91, which has been my mainstay. I always try to make everything I do have some kind of connection to the fact that it’s here because God has willed that for my growth in some area that needs strengthened. Until we see His face we will always have something that needs strengthening and needs to be improved, or needs to be expanded. People know worldwide, and I make no apologies for saying it to them, that I am not here to be liked. But in order to see God and peace, you have to love me. So you may not like my pushing you to come out of your comfort zone, but that’s part of my calling. I’m here to challenge you to see where it is you need to go.

I would like to see where it is that we need to be in the Kingdom. We can’t settle for mediocrity. It has no place in the Kingdom. Mediocrity is top of the bottom. That’s not God. I don’t do stress. Stress is not of God. Why stress yourself over a situation that you have no control or that you can’t change? Only God can change that. Go to Him and leave it to Him. Sometimes you have to go through the fire. He has taken me through the fire to get where I am. I have a strength that is not my own, and that takes me through. So that verse in Psalm 91, is the one that drives me. Even in the midst of all of that when the turmoil comes, I don’t look at the circumstances, I look in the center of the storm, which is the peace. And that is the source that carries me through to ride the storm.

JS: You have accomplished so much. What is still on the bucket list? What mountain remains to be climbed for you?

HJ: To do more of the same. I’m always asking God what more He would have me do and make it clear, and help me to understand the difference if it’s what I want to do or if it’s what You would have me to do.

JS: You put quite a premium on that when you describe how you came to know your role at Bethany. A basic question we get a lot, especially from our students, is, “How do you know the will of God?”. What pointers or advice can you give someone who is asking that same question?

HJ: My response is if you want to know your place, then ask. Take it to the natural. If you want to know what it is that makes the elements come together to form salt, then you need to ask, research, study, and then a lightbulb goes off because there is an understanding. Now let’s move that to the spiritual aspect and the biblical aspect. Sometimes we have knowledge, but we don’t understand. Sometimes we understand, but we don’t have the knowledge. Therefore, we need to ask God for how to bridge that. If there is a gap in our family, how can that bridge be fixed? And trust and believe him to make sure that is going to happen. It’s like praying for an A on an exam and you don’t crack the book to study. Well, duh! And understand that He will manifest that either directly or indirectly. Someone will be placed in your path or life to help you understand or to confirm this is where He would have you to be. But we have to go before Him and ask Him.

JS: If God wants us to do His will, and of course He does, He must reveal to us what that will is. Our posture just has to be to receive, but the rest is up to God. Not in a passive sense, but we listen, we watch, and the next phone call, the next chance meeting we have is an answer to the plea and the cry of “God, what is it you want me to do?” And obviously looking at your resume and credentials you understand that balance of waiting and actively seeking.

HJ: The Heritage Gospel Choral of Pittsburgh was birthed in my spirit last summer. Their very first meeting was initially by invitation only on August 13, 2014 to form this group. And how it came about was that it got to the point that the Pittsburgh Gospel Choir was seven years old, but there was a spirit of wanting to control from people not necessarily from within, but from some members of the advisory board, to the point they were saying they wanted me and the choir not to do prayer before rehearsal or after rehearsal - that it could jeopardize any funding.

So when that statement was made, when that was asked to be in place, I immediately tuned a deaf ear to everything else. I made a statement that they could not tell me that I could not pray as an individual, first of all or that I should not pray, second of all. Thirdly, you have jeopardized yourself by making that statement. Number four, that’s it, in prayer from April to May, I prayed to God for direction. There is not anyone who can say we should not pray. That’s going to be a problem. The choir was livid when that was mentioned.

So I resigned as founder and conductor of the Pittsburgh Gospel Choir on June 30th of that year, and the choir walked. I walked. I prayed for God’s direction that if this was what He would have me to do, then give me a name. And in my spirit he kept placing Heritage Gospel Choral. So I sent my former officers and asked them to join me in prayer about these names. I gave them five names and asked them to tell me which one they thought was best after they prayed over those names. And every last one of them got back to me that the Heritage Gospel Choral stuck out in their spirit. So when the last one said that, it was my confirmation.

Therefore, August 13th of last year we began our journey, and God has taken us to the next level. We are now getting ready for our first full year. We did our debut concert on April 26th and have been performing on several programs and have been featured at several events from our inception. This year the 2016 season is already booked, and we will end the 2016 season in Paris for seven days with a collaboration with two of the Paris gospel choirs. So God is faithful. I stand on my belief of the Word and who I am in the Kingdom and who God has called me to be and those He has blessed me to have under me. That’s where we all stand collectively.

JS: Do you have aspirations to write a book?

HJ: The Bible says out of the mouths of three witnesses, let every word be established. The first time I was told and asked the same question was by one of the members of Sweet Honey on the Rock. We were seated in the green room of the Gertrude Castillo Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Mississippi. They were featured artists and it was where I did my internship when I was working on my doctorate. And she said to me that I need to tell my story. Later on, I had another colleague who was one of the seven people on my doctoral dissertation committee, said to me that he needs to bring me there to spend a month to write my story. I was asked by other people if I have ever considered writing my story. I have to answer your question “yes,” and prayerfully that will begin.

JS: I think one of the great challenges will be what to include and what not to include. Any final words?

HJ: I challenge anyone who would hear my interview [or read it]. I am humbled and grateful for this opportunity to witness, but you must understand that it’s about our Father’s business. We have to be about our Father’s business, or else we have no business here.

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