After years touring Europe, native Tulsan Darell Christopher is bringing his veteran vocal styling back to the Jazz Depot January 20th at 5:00 p.m. An accomplished gospel, jazz, and R&B vocalist, and actor Christopher is a graduate of Holland Hall, The University of Tulsa, and Leadership Tulsa. Christopher earned his Masters degree in Theology from Phillips Theological Seminary.
As Darell Christopher notes, just about every song ever written has a story behind it. But when he and his band kick off their Sunday show with Marvin Gaye’s “People Get Ready” at the Jazz Depot, the tune will carry a special resonance for the accomplished Tulsan.
Years ago, when that building was still an actual depot, he and his aunt had to wait for her train in an area cordoned off from the rest of the crowd.
“You know, the song talks about being at the station with the train coming, and I remember going up there to put my aunt on a train back to Hugo, where she lived,” he says. “We had to go to the `for colored only’ section to wait. Those words are still up there on the wall, even though they’ve been painted over.
“I lived through that time of segregation. I watched lives change as things got better,” he adds. “It was a fascinating time, and the music played such an important part. It was able to say the things that needed to be said, and to say them in a way that brought people together.”
It’s in that spirit that Christopher presents Sunday’s Jazz Depot show. Given that the next day celebrates the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., it’s appropriate that the concert will, as Christopher puts it, “honor the songs of the civil-rights movement.”
“We’ll tie in a little of our own personal experience, growing up in Tulsa, experiencing desegregation, how the world changed around us,” he adds. “Those are the kinds of things I want to express at this concert – very, very positive things.”
Christopher’s personal experience includes a mother who was, briefly, an up-and-coming West Coast jazz performer. “She was out of Phoenix, and she won an amateur contest and went to L.A.,” he says. “She put together a group that had the great guitarist from Muskogee, Barney Kessel, in it, and everybody talked about her singing talent. But my dad said, no, he didn’t believe he wanted her to do that.”
Gospel music, however, was okay with Christopher’s dad, so when the family moved to Tulsa in the early 1960s, his mother founded a gospel group called the United Ladies of Tulsa.
“It was all a cappella, in the Church of Christ tradition we’d grown up with,” explains Christopher, “and having a musical home like that was really good training for me.”
Christopher grew up in Tulsa, graduating from Holland Hall and then from the University of Tulsa. He tried the corporate life for a while, but then, after a year in which both his father and grandfather died, he decided to change the course of his life.
“It was one of those awakening years,” he recalls. “I’d always wanted to travel, so I went to Europe.”
In Germany, he began teaching gospel music, singing at weddings, and then, gradually, adding blues, jazz, and R&B to his repertoire. He ended up staying overseas for seven years, fronting a band that ultimately became the Darell Christopher Blues Band.
“We had a blast in Europe,” he says. “We had national companies sponsoring our tours, and the Darell Christopher Blues Band even had a Top 10 hit in Germany, a song called `Jealous Man.’ But around 1999-2000, I moved back to Tulsa, because Mom needed me to take care of her.”
In Tulsa, he became known for his appearances in stage musicals in addition to his work as a solo vocalist. And he saw for himself how things had changed since the segregated days of his youth. So did his mother.
“Before she passed away, my mother voted for Barack Obama, and she did it tearfully,” he says. “I think it was amazing to her that we would have a black presidential candidate in her lifetime.”
That’s exactly the kind of progress Sunday’s concert will celebrate, with the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. hovering over every story and song.
“I hope we can preach, and continue preaching, Dr. King’s beautiful message of nonviolence,” he says. “That’s what we’re going to be about – expressing our joy and sense of celebration. We’re going to have some fun with these songs, and celebrate a little bit with Dr. King.”
For the show, Christopher will be joined by keyboardist Aaron Henderson, guitarist Mark Furnas, bassist Greg Davis Jr., and drummer Gabriel Donner.
The show is set to begin Sunday at 5:00 p.m. at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First Street. Tickets for the event can be purchased at the Depot or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-8609. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5. Refreshments will be available for purchase.
Christopher’s concert is part of the Jazz Hall’s 2012-13 Winter Concert Series.