Jeff Majors’ concept of ministry starts with the harp.
Jeff Majors is a humble man. Each of the album covers in his Sacred trilogy shows him superimposed over a psychedelic background of rainbows, clouds, and doves, his eyes turned down, his face partly obscured by his trademark dreadlocks. Although he uses his music to minister to people both across the United States and abroad, he seems uneasy in the spotlight. During live performances, he often shares the stage with dancers, a light show, a full orchestra, and a choirbut even the presence of so many extras can’t take the focus off the man running the show.
Rather than play alone, Majors usually performs as part of a gospel showcasesuch as Gospel Festival 2000 at the District’s Carter Barron Amphitheatre or this summer’s Pre-Father’s Day Concert at the New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore. Typically, two or three high-decibel gospel acts will perform first, working the audience into a frenzy. Then the stage is suddenly obscured by colored smoke. Majors emerges, usually clothed entirely in white, and begins to play an instrument with such a tranquil sound that the sweaty, excited audience is immediately lulled. Audience members quickly shift from vigorously jumping up and down and clapping to an almost trancelike swaying. Instead of screaming the praises of the Lord and forcing the audience to listen, Majors’ music whispersletting the listener decide whether to be silent and absorb the message.
Despite the dramatic entrance, Majors prefers to let his music-making partner, Hanifah, take center stage. She’s the backbone of his sound. Her name, taken from an ancient Egyptian queen whose wisdom and beauty reputedly had the ability to keep the peace and heal the sick, means “true believer.” She’s the element that sets him apart from the pack. Hanifah is the name Majors has given his harp.
The harp is not an instrument frequently heard in gospel musicor in any genre outside of classical, for that matter. Majors, however, is adamant about its particular importance to the black community. His deep, bass-heavy voice, so different from the sound of his instrument of choice, goes up an octave to punctuate his point, the words rumbling out:
“I am interested in presenting this instrument of praise and worshipthe first African string instrument that has been taken out of our church and out of our communityto facilitate correct, positive images and behaviors. I’m excited that there are so many different people listening to and studying North American black gospel music, from field hollers to more contemporary gospel. We’ve gone so far to the left with some of the music that is out there that it’s almost a novelty to go to the right. We’re in a state of warfare, and I’m using my music to ward off demons.”
Majors does not disclose his exact ageever. His appearance gives absolutely no hint about the number of years he has spent on earth. Not a speck of gray can be detected in either his jet-black locks or his thick mustache, and his face is smooth and unlined. His ageless appearance and the fact that he is guarded about his past, meting out only the most necessary details of his early years, give Majors a well-cultivated air of mysticism and timelessness.
But this man of mystery has carved out a nice little niche for himself, particularly in the Washington area. His CDs can now be found not only at local record stores but alsobecause of his appeal to buyers of both gospel and New Age musicat nearly every small black-owned boutique and natural-foods store in the city.
Majors has been recording since the early ’80s; he laughs at himself as he struggles to recall the names of all his albums: New Age Soul (1995), New and Improved (1996), and the three Sacred albumsSacred (1998), Sacred Holidays (2000), and Sacred 2000 (2001), as well as a handful of other discs with very limited distribution. And last year, Majors was nominated for a Stellar Awardthe gospel-music equivalent of a Grammyfor Sacred, in the Instrumental CD of the Year category.
A native of D.C., Majors was raised in St. Joseph’s Monastery on Rhode Island Avenue NE, as the result of what he refers to only as “the dissolution of my family.” It’s easy to see how spending his formative years at St. Joseph’s shaped Majors: the quiet, humble demeanor and deeply ingrained religious conviction.
His interest in a career in music came in the form of a vivid dream at the age of 15. “I had never seen a harp before in my life,” he says, “but I had a dream where I saw myself playing this instrument. I awoke from the dream sweating profusely and decided I had to share this vision.”
One day, Majors conveyed his ambitions to the owner of a record store on Connecticut Avenue NW, where the teenager spent his afternoons hanging out. In addition to owning the store, the man, known to Majors as “Mr. Joe,” was also a cabinetmaker, and, after hearing Majors talk about his dream, gave him a gift that would kick-start his career: a miniharp for Majors to begin practicing on.
The gesture was enough to inspire Majors to turn down basketball scholarships to both Rutgers and St. Bonaventure University and head for California. Majors settled in Berkeley, where he roomed with a bassist friend from Washington, and began studying harp with one of its mastersAlice Coltrane, widow of jazz great John Coltrane. Majors credits Coltrane with giving him both “a practical and a spiritual foundation” for his music.
“The first six months [under her instruction], I couldn’t even touch the instrument. She even threatened to put me on the next plane home if I broke that promise,” Majors recalls. “She was very insightful and helped show me the spiritual path, metaphysics, evolution, and history of the instrument. That, in turn, led me to the study of sound itself, not just music.”
Through Coltrane, Majors also met legendary jazz pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines. He spent time at Hines’ Los Angeles ranch, where he hooked up with other influential musicians such as drummer Art Blakey and bassist Ron Carter.
After completing his studies with Coltrane, Majors headed back to the East Coast to begin working on a recording career. “I played with several small jazz groups in both D.C. and New York and spent a lot of time recording in New York,” he says. He eventually settled in the District once again, largely because he found, he says, a “strong church base” here.
Majors’ transition from jazz to gospel came about, in part, with his gig hosting the Sunday Morning Joy show on D.C.’s WMMJ 102.3 FM in the late ’80s, a position he secured through his involvement in Washington’s music scene and religious community, as well as his studies with Coltrane. In the early ’90s, his “familiarity with gospel music and its ministry,” as Majors puts it, and his practical experience in the world of radio landed him a position as vice president of gospel programming for WMMJ’s parent company, Baltimore-based Radio One.
It was at Radio One that Majors metand eventually became romantically involved withRadio One founder Cathy Hughes. In the liner notes to the Sacred albums, Majors thanks Hughes for her support and refers to her as his “soul mate.” All three discs were released by New Age Soul Music, a subsidiary of Music One, also owned by Hughes.
Despite the name of his record label, Majors doesn’t think of himself as a New Age artist. He prefers the description “harpist/psalmist,” because he structures much of his repertoire around biblical texts. “Psalms 23,” for example, is a near-six-minute musical interpretation of this well-known biblical passage. In addition to original pieces such as “Psalms 23,” Majors also reworks gospel classics such as “Break Bread” and “Wade in the Water,” both of which are enjoying heavy Sunday-morning airplay on WHUR 96.3 FM. He has even recorded a version of the African-American anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Majors’ recent success has been assisted by a widening of the gospel market. Like contemporary Christian music, in recent years, gospel has been increasingly influenced by hiphop, R&B, and other forms of secular music, pitting traditionalists such as Shirley Caesar against newer artists such as Kirk Franklin. Probably the moment most telling about the rise of gospel’s popularity was BET’s recent Celebration of Gospel, a special presentation that moved the network’s gospel programming, traditionally relegated to Sunday mornings, into prime time.
Majors is philosophical about the new face of gospel. “As the world changes, music changes with it,” he says. “It’s taking the world by stormartists are getting it out there and making it known.” But he also expresses a wish that religious music will retain its integrity: “I hope it is as uncompromised as possible while remaining commercially viable.”
Majors also hopes that the growing popularity of religious music will allow the Sacred series to eventually swell to 12 albums. The fourth, Sacred for You, is slated for a January 2002 release, and Majors is already working on a still-untitled fifth album. Sacred for You includes a track with legendary R&B crooner Luther Vandross, as well as one featuring ’70s soul sensation Jean Carne. And, as on the three previous Sacred albums, Majors is backed by a full orchestra and his choir, Sacred Voices, many of whose members are Washingtonians. “We don’t have to go to New York or Los Angeles,” Majors says. “Talent is right here in the Washington-Baltimore area.”
Despite his ongoing work on the new album and his VP duties, Majors is eager to do more. He is currently working with actor Malik Yoba (of New York Undercover fame) to shop his music around Hollywood for use in film scores. He continues to collaborate with Vandross, as well as with singer-songwriter James Ingram. And with radio personality Gavin “the Baby Bishop” Montgomery, Majors is co-hosting Grace and Glory, a weekly gospel television show produced for Baltimore’s WMAR-TV.
Although his TV show and record label require him to spend a significant amount of time in Baltimore, Majors still has a residence in D.C. and will always consider Washington his home. “I don’t want people to think I’ve abandoned D.C. for another city,” he says, promising a performance for his hometown fans very soonprobably in the form of participation in another gospel showcase in the fall.
In the meantime, Majors says, he will continue to work on new projects and to share his spiritual message in a way that serves both his fans and a higher power. “It’s important for artists to live their lives,” he says. “We can get lost in the commercialization of our music, but we must be able to do that which has been commanded of us.” CP