There is little danger of hyperbole when speaking of New Orleans' own Zion Harmonizers who have repeatedly won every award there is to win for aditional gospel in their city and have performed all over the world to enthusiastic audiences. The Zion Harmonizers are living legends, as one would expect from a group that has sung together for more than 60 years.
Benjamin Maxon organized the Zion Harmonizers in 1939 out of an old neighborhood in New Orleans known as "New Zion." Maxon's aunt was Alberta French Johnson, who led the renowned all-women's gospel group the Southern Harps. She trained her young nephew and his friends, Sherman Washington and Nolan Washington (who sang with the group until his passing in 1997), in the style of the traditional gospel quartet, an art form that they still practice. Over the years, the personnel has changed a little and the Zion Harmonizers have added some hot instrumentalists, but they still rely heavily on the old-time a cappella style, using four-part harmonies to get their message through.
The purpose of gospel music is to praise God and spread the good news. Few have been so successful at it as the Zion Harmonizers. For this, they can thank two fortuitous circumstances. One is their radio show, which has been running since 1956, on what is now totally gospel WYLD in New Orleans. The second was the group's appearance at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, held in the old Congo Square in 1969. Festival organizer Quint Davis then asked Washington if he would put together a gospel tent. With some misgivings, he agreed; although it required the church folk to mingle with party-goers, it presented a great opportunity to sing about the good news.
The gospel tent is a big success story of Jazz Fest. Washington, who still runs the tent and chooses the gospel acts, has been able to spread the Good News to unsuspecting festival-goers who drop by the gospel tent and do not emerge until the end of the day. There is good music all over the fairgrounds at Jazz Fest, but everybody knows the spirit is just higher in the gospel tent. The Zion Harmonizers are a mainstay of the tent, sometimes joined by Aaron Neville, who comes by to croon "Ave Maria" and "Amazing Grace." The Zion Harmonizers' own set is filled with tunes off their award-winning CDs, which include God Promised Me (1997) and Gospel Glory (1999), made with blues and gospel diva Marva Wright. They shake the tent with their call and response rhythms on songs such as "Jesus Walked the Mighty Water," "Never Alone," and "How Great Thou Art." But despite their many achievements, the Zion Harmonizers remain humble, approachable men.